Skip Navigation

1776: The Dominguez-Escalante Expedition

In short: 

photo of a painting

A view of the Dominguez-Escalante expedition entering Utah Valley, painted by Paul Salisbury.

In July 1776 a 10-man exploration team left Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia, the Continental Congress had approved the Declaration of Independence...)

Two Franciscan priests led the expedition: Fathers Francisco Atanasio Dominguez and Silvestre Velez de Escalante. Their six-month journey is known as the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition. They were trying to establish an overland route between Santa Fe (in present-day New Mexico) and Monterey, California.

More of the story:

Escalante’s diary.

During the journey, Father Escalante wrote about their experiences and the lands they traveled through. From his valuable journal, we know that the party traveled north through what is now Colorado. They entered Utah from the east near the present town of Jensen, Utah (in the Uinta Basin), around September 11, 1776.

Traveling westward, the group crossed the Wasatch Mountains by way of Diamond Fork and Spanish Fork canyons. Utah Valley, with its many mountain-fed streams and rich soils, impressed them.

A hospitable welcome.

When the Spaniards reached Utah Lake, they visited the Timpanogots Utes at their village near the lake. The Utes were friendly and willingly learned about Christianity as the priests taught them. The priests promised to return (but never did).

Read what Escalante wrote about their experiences with the Utes .


Another artistic view of the expedition (artist unknown).

The trip aborted.

The group headed south along where I-15 is today. In October, as they camped in Iron County (in what is now called Escalante Valley!) they decided they could not reach Monterey with winter coming on. So they turned south again, back toward Santa Fe.

When they reached the Colorado River and the steep rock walls of Glen Canyon, they searched for twelve days for a way to cross the river. They finally crossed on November 7, 1776, but they called the canyon Sal Si Puede -- Get Out If You Can.

They reached Santa Fe on January 2, 1777.

Two interesting members.

The expedition had several important members but two stand out: Don Bernardo Miera y Pacheco and a 12-year-old Ute boy that the Fathers called Joaquin.

Don Bernardo Miera y Pacheco drew an important map of the area. Even though it was not accurate, it was the first of its kind.

The Fathers met the Ute boy at a Ute village in Colorado, but he was originally from Utah Valley. This Utah native offered to help guide the expedition. The Fathers gave him the Spanish name of Joaquin, and the boy traveled the entire 1,700 miles with them.

Read about Joaquin's dangerous prank.

Utah’s first documents.

Father Escalante’s detailed diary described plant and animal life; geography; and the appearance, dress, and foods of the Ute and Paiute Indians. The Juan Maria Antonia Rivera journals, the Escalante diary, and Miera's map are the first documents in Utah history.

From the journal: Joaquin and the horse.

In September, as the group camped on the Green River, their 12-year-old Ute guide Joaquin got into some trouble:

This morning the Laguna, Joaquín, for a prank, mounted a too spirited horse. While galloping through the valley the horse plunged its forelegs into a hole, and fell, sending the rider a long distance through the air. We were frightened, thinking that the Laguna was very much hurt by the fall. When he had recovered from his fright he cried a great deal, but the Lord willed that the poor horse received all the injury because it broke its neck.

From the journal: The Yutas (Utes) at Utah Lake.

September 23. Knowing now that we were approaching the lake, in order that Silvestre and Joaquín [Ute guides from Utah Valley] might enter their home country happy and attached to us, we gave each again a measure of woolen material and another of red cloth, with which they proceeded to adorn themselves. The guide Silvestre put on the blanket received earlier, like a cloak or cape, and the woolen material we just gave him like a wide sash around his head, leaving the two broad ends hanging loose over his shoulders....

We found the pasture in the valleys we were crossing recently burnt, and still burning in other nearby valleys. From this we suspected that these Indians had mistaken us for Comanches, or another unfriendly tribe, and as they had perhaps seen that we had horses with us they had decided to set fire to the pasture lands along our route so that the lack of fodder would compel us to leave the plain more quickly.

But since the plain is very large and wide, they were unable to burn it all in such a short time, although they had set the fires at many points. Our small party therefore remained at the same place and as soon as we encamped Father Fray Francisco Atanasio set out for the first huts, together with the guide Silvestre, his companion Joaquín and the interpreter Andrés Muñiz. They galloped as fast as the horses could be driven to reach the place in the afternoon.

Six leagues and a half north-northwest they reached the village. [A league was a little less than 3 miles.]Some of the Indians came out to receive them with weapons in hand to defend their homes and families, but as soon as Silvestre spoke to them, all these warlike preparations were changed to sincere expressions of peace and affection.

We led them back very joyfully to their poor huts, and after embracing them and assuring them that we came in peace and that we loved them as we loved our best friends the Father gave them time to talk leisurely with our guide Silvestre who told them the story of what he had seen and observed.

From the time he began he spoke so very much in our favor, and of our purpose in coming there, that we could not desire anything better. He told them at length how well we had treated him, and of our love for him..... He finished his speech by telling them that only the Fathers tell the truth, that in their company one might travel all over the earth without risk, and that only the Spaniards were good people.

They were still further strengthened in this belief at seeing the boy Joaquín so proud in our company that he had no yearning for his own people and would not leave the Father [Dominguez], except to take care of the animals we had brought with us. He scarcely wanted to speak to them and by no means to remain near them, but always near the Father, sleeping the little time he had by his side. It was a thing worthy of admiration not only by his people but also by us, he being an Indian boy from the most remote region who had never before this time seen either Fathers or Spaniards.

After they had talked for a long while on this subject, many people from neighboring camps arrived, and after giving all of them tobacco, the Father, through the interpreter and Silvestre, who already had some instruction, told them the reasons for our visit and that the main one was to seek the salvation of their souls and to show them the only ways in which they might attain this salvation, the principal, first, and most necessary one being to believe in only one true God, to love Him and obey Him in all ways, and to do everything contained in His Holy and Immaculate Law.

He said that he would teach them all this more clearly and extensively, and that he would baptize them if they wished to become Christians, and that some Fathers would come to teach them, and some Spaniards to live among them; that in this case they would also be taught how to plant, and to raise cattle. By these means they would have food and clothes like the Spaniards....

Then he told them that we had to continue our journey...and would need one of them to guide us to the next known tribe, which in turn would lend us another guide. Silvestre helped us a great deal during the parley. They listened with pleasure and answered that they were ready for anything, showing their great gentleness. Although two leaders had come, he who commanded the tribe was not near. The Father therefore requested that he be called. They answered that his house was far away and that he would come next morning. After that they went to their huts, and some of them remained all night in conversation with our Silvestre.

September 24. ...The chief leader came early with the other two captains, several elders and many others. We repeated to them, with more details, what we had said before, and all unanimously answered that should the Fathers come, they would live with the Tatos (that is the name the Yutas give the Fathers), that the Fathers would command and teach them, that they offered the Spaniards all their land to build their houses where they pleased...

Seeing such admirable gentleness and having accomplished our purpose, we told them that when our journey was finished, we would come back with other Fathers and Spaniards to baptize them and to live with them; but from now on they should think carefully about what they had just promised, so that they would not repent afterward....

September 25. ....We told them that if they had troubles with illness or with their enemies before we came back, they should call upon God saying: "God of Truth, help us, assist us." Seeing that they could not pronounce these words well, we told them to say only: ''Jesús, María, Jesús, María." This they began to repeat easily, led very fervently by our Silvestre, and while we were getting ready for our departure, they never stopped repeating the holy names. The time for departure arrived, and all took farewell of us with signs of love; Silvestre especially embraced us, almost crying. They begged us again not to delay our return, saying that they would look for us within a year.

Read Escalante's whole journal here.