Silvestre de Escalante and Francisco Dominguez, two Spanish Franciscan priests, leave Santa Fe for an epic journey through the Southwest.
Escalante and Dominguez hoped to blaze a trail from New Mexico to Monterey, California, but their main goal was to visit with the native inhabitants and convert as many as possible to the Catholic faith. On this day in 1776, the two priests and seven men left the Spanish frontier town of Santa Fe and headed northwest into what is today the state of Colorado. They continued north, exploring the rugged Great Basin and canyon land country of Utah.
Initially, the priests made good time, and by mid-September, they had reached Utah Lake, just to the south of the Great Salt Lake in northern Utah. There, they found Indians who Dominguez described as “the most docile and affable nation of all that have been known in these regions.” They quickly set about preaching the Gospel, reportedly with “such happy results that they are awaiting Spaniards so that they might become Christians.”
By early October, winter was approaching. Traveling through high mountain passes, Escalante and Dominguez began to encounter fierce snowstorms. Accustomed to desert living, the priests were unequipped to deal with snow and bitter cold, and they soon ran short of provisions. They abandoned the goal of reaching California and headed back for Santa Fe. During the long journey home, they very nearly starved to death. The men ate their horses first. When the horseflesh was gone, they ate only prickly pear cactus.
On January 2, 1777, the exhausted men staggered into Santa Fe. They had traveled nearly 1,700 miles in just 159 days through some of the roughest country in the southwest, yet all nine members of the party made it home safely. Escalante and Dominguez had failed in their goal of finding a route to Monterey, and to their keen disappointment, the New Mexican missionaries showed little interest in following up their initial proselytizing with the Utah Indians.
Nonetheless, the two intrepid priests were the first to explore extensively the Great Basin country of the Southwest. Escalante’s written account of the expedition became an essential guide to future explorers.