Two priests and a map maker failed to find California

Time Before Now, July 1776The Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia, a particularly worrisome development for the King of Spain.  British historian and member of Parliament, Edward Gibbons, had  published the first volume of his massive “Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire” six months earlier and Thomas Jefferson took some time off from penning patriotic documents to invent the swivel chair. (Left) 

July 29, 1776

On this day on 1776, two Franciscan friars began a six month trek through the American southwest in search of souls to save and a route to California.

Fr. Francisco Atanasio Domínguez and Fr. Silvestre Vélez de Escalante were joined by map maker, Don Bernardo Miera y Pacheco,  setting out from the colonial stronghold at Santa Fe.  Spanish for “holy  faith,” Santa Fe’s San Miguel Mission was an important center of Catholic influence.  Founded in about 1607, the San Miguel Chapel is considered the oldest church in the nation.  Rebuilt after life threatening damage during  Popé’s Rebellion in 1680, it has survived another three and a half centuries. (Left, Popé)

Fr. Domínguez was born in the New World, probably about 1740 in Mexico City.  Arriving in Santa Fe in March, the 36-year-old friar had been sent west to inspect New Mexico’s Franciscan missions and to find an overland route to Monterrey, California. Fr. Escalante, was a decade younger than Dominguez.  Born in Cantabria, Spain, he had been summoned by the older priest to accompany him on the expedition. 

The third member of trio, the multi-faceted Bernardo Miera y Pacheco was an artist, engineer, map maker, merchant, and rancher.  It was largely Miera’s maps and his detailed report that made the friars and their eight companion’s 191-day journey historically significant.  Otherwise a study in miscalculation and misadventure, it did actually yield some genuine discovery.   

While camped near what is now Dolores, Colorado, the expedition came upon the 12th century Anasazi ruins, now part of an archeological site at the Anasazi Heritage Center.   Domínguez and Escalante were the first Europeans to document the site and the ruins still bear their names today. 

Anasazi ruin, Escalante Pueblo

Some time after crossing the Dolores River, they were joined by two Native American slaves they called Genizaro and  Coyote.  Having slipped out of their pueblo without notice, they apparently made good their escape with the expedition.  

But things went steadily downhill as they headed northwest.  The friars soon realized they were ill-equiped for the climate and terrain.  Arid conditions with scant pasture and little water for the horses forced them to seek out a Ute village in hopes of engaging a guide.  With a long history of trade with the Spanish, the Ute chief urged them to turn back, citing the dangers of entering Comanche territory.

Ignoring the chief’s advice, they traded for fresh horses and proceeded westward.  Luckily, a young Native Timpanog Ute guide they named Silvestre and a 12-year-old companion, Joaquin, accompanied the group, providing safe passage through the tribe’s territory. 

A third boy, José María, joined, as well, but left after reportedly witnessing severe treatment of one of the party’s servants.   Silvestro also departed, staying behind in late September after reaching his home village near Utah Lake.  Juaquin remained for the duration of the journey, finally being baptized by the friars in Santa Fe.

As conditions worsened and cold weather set in, Domínguez and Escalante wisely abandoned their plan to reach California and instead return to Sante Fe.  Saved again by the locals, this time in a chance meeting with a group of Native Americans in the Mohave Desert.   They weren’t far from the Colorado River, they were told, but the way was blocked by a “great canyon.”   After trading for food, the expedition moved south through present-day Arizona, missing out on the ultimate discovery, the Grand Canyon.

Weary and starving, the friars arrived back in Sante Fe February 4, 1777, having failed to produce many converts or find an easy access to California.  Their struggles were not entirely for naught.  Their maps served as the genesis for the Old Spanish Trail, an increasingly important frontier trade route in the early 19th Century.

Old Spanish Trail, an important 19th Century trade route

Once back in Santa Fe, Fr. Domínguez submitted a report to his Franciscan superiors that cast an unfavorable light of the administration of New Mexico’s missions which caused him to fall from grace with the church.   As a result he was banished to the remote Sonora y Sinaloa province in Northern Mexico for two years.  After completing his penance for delivering bad news, he was returned to Nueva Vizcaya,  Mexico.  Sometime between 1803 and 1805, he died at Janos, Sonora, Mexico, at about 63 years old.  

Escalante lived only another four years following the expedition.  He died in April, 1780,  at the age of 30, in Parral, Mexico of unknown causes on his way to Mexico City for medical treatment.  Luckily, cartographer, Bernardo Miera y Pacheco, lived until 1785, long enough to pass on his maps to Prussian geographer, naturalist and explorer, Alexander von Humboldt, (above rightwho passed them on to President Thomas Jefferson.   Miera’s artwork (above left) continues to grace the walls of churches and museums across the Southwest.

Anasazi Heritage Center, 27501 Highway 184. Dolores, Colorado, is one of the state’s leading archeological museums.  Headquarters for the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, both are own and administered by the Bureau of Land Management. 

The museum features permanent exhibits on archeology, area history and Native American culture, including monumental collection of artifacts, informative videos and interactive displays.  The museum shop, operated by the non-profit Canyonlands Natural History Association offers a selection of gifts, books on archaeology, Southwest history, cookbooks and nature guides.  Curation tours hosted by BLM Canyons of the Ancients National Monument and the center occur in summers, May through October. 

Regularly open year round Sunday through Saturday and closed Monday,  museum hours vary with the season as well as in conjunction with CDC guidelines. Admission is $6 for adults, 17 and under are free.  Adult admission is also free from November through February.                              For more information and updated hours go to or, call (970) 882-5600 or write, Anasazi Heritage Center, 27501 Hwy 184, Dolores, CO 81323

© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.