On July 29, 1776, two Franciscan priests, Fray Francisco Atanasio Dominguez
and Fray Silvestre Velez de Escalante, led their eight companions out through
the gates of Santa Fe and into the heart of the American southwest. Their
five-month 2,000-mile journey of exploration ranks with the travels of Coronado
and Lewis and Clark as a cornerstone in the exploration of the West.
Dominguez and Escalante sought a land route to Spanish missions in
California. Spain established the California missions during the early 1770's in
an effort to halt the advance of Russian fur traders south along the Pacific
coast. Since hostile Apache and Hopi Indians and the geographic barrier of the
Grand Canyon hampered travel directly west from Santa Fe, the explorers
sought a route to California which would lie north of these obstacles.
Leaving Sarita Fe, the priests followed a trail of prior Spanish exploration north
into Colorado past the present-day towns of Ignacio, Durango, Mancos,
Dolores, and Dove Creek When the canyon oi the Dolores River proved to be
impassable north of Dove Creek, the expedition rode east to the San Miguel
River near the future sites of Nucla and Naturita, Enlisting the help of a Ute
guide, the padres continued eastward over the Uncornpahgre Plateau and
camped near this site on August 20, 1776.
The expedition rode up the North Fork of the Gunnison River past the
present-day towns of Paonia and Hotchkiss to an Ute encampment atop Grand
Mesa. There, they found a Laguna Ute who agreed to guide them west to his
tribe's home in Utah Valley. The guide led the explorers across the Colorado
River near present-day DeBeque and over the Roan Plateau, reaching the
White River at Rangely on September 9.
After crossing the Green River and continuing through northern Utah, the party
reached the Laguna's home at Utah Lake on September 24. After nearly1,000
miles of travelling through rugged terrain of mountains, canyons, and hostile
Indians, Utah Lake was a veritable oasis of greenery. and safety There the
Fathers told the Lagunas about Christianity while Captain Don Bernardo Miera
y Pacheco examined the Possibilities of establishing a Spanish fort in the
From Utah Lake the travelers moved south through central Utah until the
rapidly approaching winter and the uncertainty of the trail toward California
dictated a return to Santa Fe. After a frightening week attempting to ford the
Colorado River the expedition found a crossing at a point since known as the
Crossing of the Fathers and arrive in Santa Fe on January 2, 1777.