The Dominguez-Escalante Expedition Reaches Utah Valley

In 1776, a pair of Spanish Franciscan friars set out to find an overland route from New Mexico to California. Their hope was to find a safe path between the difference Catholic missions in the southwestern United States. While they were never able to reach California, their expedition provided valuable map information for future travelers and part of their documented route became part of the Old Spanish Trail, a trade route that was frequently used for years afterwards. They were also the first of European ancestry to set eyes on the Utah Valley.

In the summer of 1776, Atanasio Domínguez and Silvestre Vélez de Escalante (along with a team of other men and Native American guides that would join them later) set out from Santa Fe, New Mexico to find an alternative route to the other Spanish missions in California along the Monterey coast. The local settlers already knew a path through modern-day Arizona, but the Grand Canyon and hostile native tribes forced the Spanish to look for an alternative route. Their trip through the southwest was carefully documented, and they often refer to the rugged landscape, local plant and animal life, and the potential for settlement by anybody who chose to follow them.

By September of 1776 the party reached Utah Valley where the mouth of Spanish Fork Canyon opens up to the wider valley. One of their native guides, Silvestre, was a member of a local tribe and this connection provided the party with safe passage and a small opportunity for trade. While this moment was important (as they were the first Europeans to see the valley), it wasn’t the end goal of their expedition. A few days later, the party continued their journey to the southwest, but not before they made the observation that, “[the area consists] of flat meadows with good land for farming; it carries more water than the foregoing two, has a larger poplar grove and meadows of good soil which can be irrigated—all good for two or even three good settlements.” Dominguez and Escalante would later encounter trouble on their journey and have to return early to New Mexico, never reaching California.

In the 1920s, residents of Spanish Fork wanted to commemorate the arrival of the expedition to Utah Valley. A monument was erected and later dedicated in January of 1923. The Bronze tablet that accompanies it is inscribed with further information from the expedition’s visit to the valley. In 1981 a large white cross was constructed overlooking the valley, a symbolic representation of the arrival of the Spanish friars to the area. The site is accessible by hiking trail above the Spanish Fork reservoir.

Images

Map