Dominguez-Escalante Expedition of 1776, Part 1

submitted by: Jay Jones

DE Part1 Overview

On 11 October 1776, an expedition of fourteen men paused on a small, remote knoll overlooking what is now called the Escalante Valley in Southern Utah to settle a controversy that had the potential to destroy them. Their leaders decided to abandon the original purpose of their journey: finding an overland route to the Spanish Mission at Monterey, California. Most of the men favored continuing westward instead of returning to Santa Fe, New Mexico. This three-part series remembers this historic saga as we approach its 250th anniversary.

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In July of 1776, as Americans issued the Declaration of Independence and fought the British in the American Revolution, preparations were being made on the other side of the continent for a remarkable expedition.

On 29 July 1776, Father Francisco Atanasio Dominguez led an exploring party out of Santa Fe, New Mexico in search of a viable overland route to the recently established mission at Monterey, California.

Acting as second in command and scribe was Silvestre Velez de Escalante. Because his written record of the journey became well known, his name is remembered: a town, a river, a valley, and a national monument bear his name.

“The Dominguez-Escalante Journal,” translated by Fray Angelico Chavez and edited by Ted J. Warner provides a detailed account of the epic trek. “Without Noise of Arms,” by Walter Briggs provides additional perspective.

The website has a section on the Dominguez-Escalante journey. It notes that Utah did not honor Dominguez, the expedition’s leader, with site names until the bicentennial of their trek in 1976. One of those sites is Dominguez Knoll in Iron County.

An important member of the expedition, Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco, was a retired military engineer living in Santa Fe. He took frequent readings of latitude and made estimates of distance and direction traveled each day. He later drew an influential map of the regions they passed through.

Another vital member of the party, Andrés Muñiz, had traveled among the Utes in Colorado and was familiar with their language.

Leaving New Mexico, the expedition pursued a northwesterly route through Colorado, familiar territory to Muñiz, where they recruited two Ute Indians, Silvestre and Joaquín, to accompany them as guides.

They crossed into what is now Utah in the vicinity of Dinosaur National Monument on September 12. Now they were in uncharted territory and very much reliant on their guides.

Silvestre and Joaquín led them up the Duchesne and Strawberry Rivers, crossed over a divide into the Spanish Fork River drainage and descended into Utah Valley. Here they met friendly Timpanogots Indians, a Ute tribe, in a beautiful valley with abundant water, pasturage, croplands, game and fish.

Dominguez and Escalante stayed three days in Utah Valley. Before resuming their journey, they indicated that they would like to return and establish a mission among the Timpanogots, who accepted the idea. However, authorities in New Mexico did not agree to pursue the opportunity.

As Dominguez and Escalante traveled southwest from Utah Lake their provisions dwindled. Nearing what is now Beaver County, they realized that their chances of arriving safely in California that season were slim and diminishing.

A snowstorm encountered near Milford in early October made travel extremely difficult and miserable. They had expected to arrive in California before winter set in, and had not brought along sufficient winter clothing.

As difficulties continued and contention surfaced, José María, a Ute guide that replaced Silvestre, abandoned the group and returned to his home in Utah Valley. Realizing that problems would escalate as time went on, Dominguez and Escalante made the decision to return to Santa Fe.

The expedition cartographer Bernardo de Miera did not agree with the decision to abandon the original goal of reaching California. Several others agreed with Miera, and believed that opportunities in California would be worth the sacrifice needed to get there.

With dissension approaching a critical level, the group stopped at what is now called Dominguez Knoll, a small hill in northern Iron County between Horse Hollow and Blue Knoll.

The story of the Dominguez-Escalante expedition will be continued from this point in Part 2.