Utah: The Colonial and Mexican Eras (1765-1847)
The territory of modern Utah did not generate much interest among the bureaucrats who governed Spain’s colonial enterprise. Researchers who have analyzed this period note that, although Juan Coronado’s expedition came close to crossing the current southern boundary in 1540, another two hundred years passed before agents of the Catholic Church and imperial Spain set foot within Utah’s modern borders. Recent evidence suggests that Juan Maria Antonio Rivera did make it to the Colorado River, near the present-day tourist town of Moab, in 1765. However, for all intents and purposes, it was not until 1776, with the arrival of a party led by Fray Francisco Atanasio Dominguez and Fray Silvestre Velez de Escalante, that a well-documented foray into Utah by Europeans finally took place.
The undertaking, often incorrectly referred to as the Escalante Expedition by many Utahans, had its genesis in an assignment given to Fray Dominguez by his superiors in 1775. Dominguez’s responsibilities included reporting on the current status of all New Mexico missions, surveying the condition of the archives in Santa Fe, and most importantly, searching for an overland route between Santa Fe and newly established missions in Monterey, California. Fray Dominguez completed his first two tasks by the early spring of 1776, then ordered his subordinate, Father Velez (who was serving at a nearby Zuni mission), to join him in undertaking the final responsibility. The initial departure date, set for July 4, was forestalled until July 29. Eight men were asked to accompany the priests; the most important of these was Bernardo Miera y Pacheco, a retired military engineer who produced several important maps (although with some glaring inaccuracies) after the expedition.
The men traveled through northern New Mexico and into southern Colorado for the first few weeks of their journey; they finally camped near present-day Jensen, Utah, on September 11, 1776 (in the northeast corner of the state, near Dinosaur National Monument). Two weeks later, the explorers arrived on the eastern shore of what is now known as Utah Lake (near Provo) and met local Ute Indians. The natives asked the Spaniards to remain and instruct them in
Christianity and informed the explorers of nearby physical features (including the existence of an unusually salty lake that lay to the north). In addition to providing positive commentaries regarding the area’s inhabitants and the natives’ desire for conversion, the fathers’ journal also noted that the locale, which they christened La Valle de Nuestra Senora de la Merced (now known as Utah Valley), teemed with wildlife and good lands suitable for growing grain and grazing cattle.
After a three-day respite, the party continued in a southwesterly direction. Unfortunately, on October 8, the men became snowbound near present-day Milford, and it was there that Fray Dominguez suggested the expedition give up its quest to reach Monterey. The laymen, who hoped to profit from opening a new trade route, argued in favor of continuing. The priests then suggested that the party consult God in order to determine a final decision. On October 11, the party cast lots, and the decision was made to return to Santa Fe.5
The expedition, although it failed to reach Alta California, had important repercussions for Utah history. As a result of the information gathered by the Dominguez-Velez de Escalante enterprise, beginning in the early 1800s, Spanish and later Mexican and American traders (including slave dealers) and trappers came with increasing regularity to the Great Basin area. The trend generated extensive contacts with native inhabitants, but also fostered intense rivalries between Mexicans and Americans who sought to profit and affirm their respective nation’s dominance in the region. The maps and information generated by some of the mountain men proved invaluable to Mormon pioneers who arrived in the area by the late 1840s.