The Dominguez & Escalante Expedition

My wife Jeri has spent countless hours in research to fulfill her class assignments and to assist me
with my research. I believe the Spanish were here long before the Dominguez & Escalante
expedition but it's an excellent place to start because it's well documented. She is very good at
footnotes and documentation. Her goal with this assignment was to determine whither
Dominguez should have been given more recognition than he was. Our next assignment is
to track down earlier expeditions.

The following is an account of this well known expedition through Utah and the surrounding area:

The Escalante expedition into Utah and surrounding states is the first documented exploration into this area.
Father Silvestre Velez de Escalante kept an excellent account of this journey. Father Escalante has also been
given the credit for the leadership of this expedition. It bears his name, and there are several places that are
named for Father Escalante throughout the area that was traveled through. Because of the lack of any other
evidence in earlier studies about this expedition, historians did not understand the role of Father Francisco
Atanasio Dominguez. Leland H. Creer states:

"Because Father Escalante had an ongoing interest in finding a route to California Father Dominguez
merely supplied the equipment needed for the expedition and was Father Escalante's faithful follower".1

However, other evidence and a careful review of the expedition journal indicate that Father Escalante was
not the leader of this expedition. That leader was Father Francisco Atanasio Dominguez. In 1775 Father
Dominguez was assigned to go to the northern borderlands of New Spain to inspect the missions in New
Mexico, to assess the archival holdings in Santa Fe, and to look into the possibility of an overland route
from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Monterey, California.2

Father Dominquez was born about 1740 in Mexico City.3 When he was seventeen years old he joined the
Franciscans at the Convento Grande in Mexico City.4 He was a good student and progressed rapidly. He was
a Commissary of the Third Order at Convent Veracruz in 1772 when he was thirty-two years old.5 Because
of his distinguished service he was appointed to visit the Custody of the Conversion of St. Paul in the northern
borderlands of New Spain.6 He left Mexico City for the northern missions in 1775 to begin his assignment.7

Father Dominguez reached Santa Fe, New Mexico in March 1776 after touring the twenty-five missions between
Santa Fe and El Paso.8 He found the conditions deplorable in many of the missions. Some of the friars were so poor
that they were barely subsisting and had not been able to effectively do their duties. Other missions were headed
by fathers who had not been keeping their vows of celibacy or poverty. He found that mission records were not
kept, poorly kept, or had been destroyed by incompetence. Dominguez also inspected the archives in Santa Fe for
because they had nearly been destroyed after the Indian uprising in 1680.9

Father Dominguez kept meticulous record of his assignments, but his records were lost to history for 150 years.
They were found in 1927 by France V. Scholes in the National Library of Mexico City.10 Eleanor B. Adams and
Fray Angelico Chavez translated the letters and reports in 1956.11 These papers give detailed descriptions of each
of the missions visited, their conditions economically and spiritually, and copies of the letters he sent to his superiors
about the missions. Father Dominguez also reported on the state of the library and archives in Santa Fe. These reports
are so descriptive that later historians could determine what each mission looked like, what each mission's resources
were, and what had been included in the library and archive at Santa Fe.12 These papers have become valuable because
many of the original holdings have been lost.13 With the loss of his manuscripts, Father Dominguez was also lost to
history for many years except for his misrepresented minor role with Escalante expedition in 1776.

A review of the papers that Father Dominguez had kept on his official visit to the missions of New Mexico show
that he was the official ecclesiastical leader. His movements and actions clearly demonstrate this. He routinely made
suggestions to the various priests and clerics that he visited with on his inspections. When necessary he disciplined
a priest who was not keeping his vows, or he helped the priest who was sorely in need of resources.14 He was the
"visitador comisario of New Mexico", while Silvestre Velez de Escalante was the "ministro doctrinero of Zuni".15

Father Silvestre Velez de Escalante had been a missionary in New Mexico since 1772.16 He had not been a padre
very long when he was sent to the missions in New Mexico. From the beginning of his ministry he was anxious
to explore this new area to find a land route to the missions in the west. He had sent many letters to his superiors
expressing his views on these matters.17 When Father Escalante received Father Dominguez's summons to meet him
in Santa Fe, he went with enthusiasm and knowledge about what he thought would be a good route to take on the
expedition.18 He also knew that he was to be of assistance to the canonical visitor from headquarters in Mexico City.19

Father Dominguez had heard about Father Escalante's reports, so he wrote to him at the Zuni mission ordering Father
Escalante to come to Santa Fe and begin discussing plans for seeking a new route to California.20 He recognized
Father Escalante's knowledge of the area because he had been in the borderlands longer and had the opportunity for
research and preliminary exploration. They agreed on the proposed route and Father Dominguez organized the needs
of the exploration party with the local government officials.21

While they were in Santa Fe planning and getting support for their expedition, an Indian uprising delayed their
departure. Father Dominguez sent Father Escalante with the soldiers as their religious representative. After Father
Escalante returned to Santa Fe, urgent business came up in Taos that Father Dominguez could not attend to, so he
sent Father Escalante to Taos to take care of it. While Father Escalante was at Taos he became very ill. Father
Dominguez insisted that he remain there until he recovered.22 These actions give further evidence that he was acting
as the ecclesiastical leader of the missions in New Mexico.

Father Dominguez, Father Escalante, their men and guides set off on their adventure into unknown lands from Santa Fe,
New Mexico on 29 July 1776.23 They traveled approximately 2000 miles and one hundred and fifty-seven days through
rough terrain and winter weather before they arrived back in Santa Fe safely on 2 January 1777.24

Because of his junior status, Father Escalante was the amanuensis or chronicler of this journey.25 This may be one of
the reasons that Father Dominguez's role in this expedition was lost to history. Although the journal is a collaboration
of their experiences wandering through the wilderness of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona; Father
Escalante has been considered the sole writer and, therefore, the leader of the expedition.26 It is possible, however,
that both men wrote in the expedition journal, but because the original journal has never been found we cannot see
if there are changes in handwriting styles.27

The journal gives the reader the impression that although these men worked closely together, Father Dominguez
was the leader of the expedition. An example of this was when the party came to the valley of Laguna de las
Timpanogas (Utah Lake). Seeing that the Indians were frightened by the appearance of their group in the valley
they leave part of the group behind and ride out to greet the Indians. The journal entry states:

"This is why, while our small party stayed here (at the mouth of Spanish Fork Canyon), Padre Fray Francisco
Atanasio set out for the first camps as soon as we halted, together with Silvestre the guide, his partner Joaquin,
and Andres Muniz the interpreter. Then, after racing the horses as much as they could, even to the point of
exhaustion, so as to get there this afternoon, and for six and a half leagues north-northwest, they got to them."28

This entry continues on describing that, while there, their formal interactions with the Indians were clearly made
with Father Dominguez as the man who negotiated with and taught these Indians about Christianity.29 Also, when it
came time to make a decision whether to continue on to California or turn back to Santa Fe, it is Father Dominguez who
talked to the men after he and Father Escalante have discussed the options before them.30 These examples are just two
of many that indicates Father Dominguez's role as leader of this expedition.

It is also clear from the journal, and Father Dominguez's own writings, that he and Father Escalante got along very well
and worked as a team.31 They both brought strengths to this expedition that would benefit the whole. There is never any
indication of jealousy or pettiness between them. They seemed to work well with one another as they traveled.32 It is
because of this cooperation that the men were all able to survive the dangers of this journey and return Santa Fe without
any loss of life.33

Further indication that it was Dominguez's responsibility to report the findings of the expedition to their superiors in
the government and the Church is the signatures in the journal that was kept.34 After the men arrived back in Santa Fe the
padres both signed the journal with Father Dominguez's signature first, and then the journal was given to the governor
of New Mexico to review.35 A few days later the journal was borrowed back and recopied by Father Dominguez's
secretary.36 This also indicates his role as the man in charge of the expedition.

Father Dominguez discovered that while he was gone on his expedition some of the fathers had written to the Franciscan
leadership in Mexico complaining and accusing him of bribing the padres in order to give good reports about their
missions.37 They did this because they were disgruntled with his unfavorable reports of how they were conducting the
business of their missions. Reacting as quickly as he could, Father Dominguez wrote his own letters of defense about his
actions and his reports. He denied any improprieties in his conduct and handling of the reports of these missions. He
stated that he had given out of his own supplies to the various fathers that were in need. He also said that he never accepted
anything more than room and board while at the missions.38 He sent these letters to his superiors in Mexico, but he never
received any correspondence back about the matter.

Because of this he decided that he must return to Mexico City to clarify his position.39 He left Father Escalante as the
vice custos of the interior missions because he felt he could trust him, and left to return home.40 When he arrived in El Paso
he received word that a new custos was on his way to relieve him of his duties in New Mexico. His superiors had
believed the misrepresentations of the unhappy padres.41 He was reassigned to work in various missions in the northern
borderlands for the next eighteen years.42

He was never allowed to return to Mexico City to defend himself in person and his letters seem to have fallen on deaf ears.
However, he did not stop trying and in one of his last letters dated 1 May 1795 he was still asking for permission to return
home to clear his name.43 He was last in the mission at Sonora and died there in 1805, never receiving recognition for the
accomplishments he had made.44

When his records were found in 1927 in the archives in Mexico City, they had been filed away with the following notation
in the margin:

"This report is intended in part to be a description of New Mexico, but its phraseology is obscure, it lacks proportion, and
offers little to the discriminating taste. Still it may serve for the information of the Superior Prelate, or Prelates, for the
narrator did his best to perform the ministry entrusted to him. It deals with degrees of latitude and longitude, lands, rivers,
settlements, churches and their belongings, censuses, religious and secular administration, juridical visitations, etc, etc, etc."45

His report has served, and served very well. Because of Father Dominguez's attention to detail we have a wonderful record
of the lives of the padres and the people in the northern borderlands of New Spain. His writings establish him as a gifted
historian and leader.46

The Franciscan superiors in Mexico City gave Father Francisco Atanasio Dominguez the assignment to seek a route from Santa
Fe to Monterey, as well as to inspect the missions in New Mexico and to assess the state of the archives in Santa Fe. He was
considered trustworthy and competent for this mission in all its aspects. Although history has given the credit to Father Escalante
for the Escalante expedition, it should rightly be called the Dominguez-Escalante expedition at the least.47 Father Dominguez was
the man given the assignment to pursue the possibility of a new route west to the ocean from Santa Fe, and he fulfilled this task
and his other assignments with precision, diligence, and grace befitting a servant of God.


1 Leland Hargrave Creer, The Founding Of An Empire: The Founding and Clonization of Utah, 1776-1856, (Salt Lake City, Utah, Bookcraft, 1947), 3.
2 Francisco Atanasio Dominguez, The Missions of New Mexico, 1776: A description by Fray Francisco Atanasio Dominguez With Other Contempoary Documents. Translated and annotated by Eleanor B. Adams and Fray Angelico Chavez. (University of New Mexico Press, 1956), xx-xxi, 220-237
3 Richard D. Poll, ed., Utah's History. (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1978), 37.
4 Francisco Atanasio Dominguez, The Mission of New Mexico, 1776x, xiv.
5 see #4
6 Joseph P. Sanchez, Explorers, Traders, and Slavers, Forging the Old Spanish Trail, 1678-1850. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1997.
7 see #4 pages 220-237
9 see #4 pages 220-237
10 Warner, Significance of the Dominguez-Velez de Escalante Expedition, 68.
11 see #4
12 see #10
13 Ibid, 77.
14 see #4
15 A visitador comisario is defined as the high authority of the franciscan order and is one appointed to inspect and conduct a visitation. A ministro comisario is a missionary charged with teaching the Indians. Hubert Howe Bancroft, The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft, Vol XXVI, History of Utah, 1540-1886. (San Francisco: This History Company Publishers, 1889), 8.
16 see #3
17 see #10
18 Ibid, 68.
19 see #4
20 Ibid, 281.
21 see #10
22 see #10
23 Hubert Howe Bancroft, The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft, 8.
24 see #10
25 see #6
26 see #1
27 Ted J. Warner, "B.H. Roberts on a Non-Mormon Topic: An Exercise In Historiography." The Historian's Corner. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 1976. Reprinted from Brigham Young Universities Studies, vol. 16, no. 3, (autumn, 1976): 411.
28 Ted J. Warner, ed., The Dominguez-Escalante Journal: Their Expedition Through Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico in 1776. Translated by Fray Angelico Chavez. (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1976. Reprint, Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1995), 65.
29 Ibid, 66.
30 Ted J. Warner, ed., The Dominguez-Escalante Journal, 89.
31 see #10
32 see #30
33 Ken Reyher, Wilderness Wanderer: the 1776 Expedition of DOminguez and Escalante. (Montrose, Colorado: Western Reflections Publishing Company, 2003), 166-167.
34 Thomas G. Alexander, ed. Charles Redd Mongraphs in Western History, No. 5, 65.
35 see #3
36 see #27
37 see #4
38 Ibid, 289-302.
39 see #10, 76.
40 A vice custos is defined as the deputy guardian of the custody or province. Ibid, 77.
41 Ibid, 76.
42 see #4
43 see #4. 76-77.
44 see #10. 76-77.
45 Roland F. Dickey, "Paging Procrustes," New Mexico Quarterly, 24 (Spring 1956): 59; reprinted in Warner, Significance of the Dominguez-Velez de Escalante Expedition, 68.
46 see #4
47 see #10. 63.



To Top

To Home

(page created 4-3-08)