Traipsin’, tradin’ and explorin’


Returning home to New Mexico from their 1776 exploration of what is now known as the American Southwest, the Fathers Dominguez and Escalante suffered with the rest of their party as they crossed Arizona. Illness and lack of water, pastureland and lack of supplies plagued the tiring explorers. Stops were made along the Paria River cañons and plateau, Wahweap, and Glenn Cañon.

Local Native Americans guided them to present-day Lee’s Ferry intending to cross the Colorado River, but crossing those wiggle-waggle Colorado River waters was too difficult for the weary wanderers. Consequently, they were led to a second ford crossing the Colorado, where they carved steps into the canyon walls. This ford, named the Crossing of the Fathers, is now submerged beneath the placid waters of Lake Powell. The crossing was accomplished between Oct. 26 and Nov. 7.

While traipsing across northern Arizona and enduring the frigid Nov. 8-12 wintry weather the party had little food or water, and had a hard time finding a good trail. Their journal records these difficulties, but the record of this route is sketchy because they were too busy trying to survive. In 1884, Harry L. Baldwin, a member of a U.S. Geological Survey party, discovered a large sandstone monolith bearing an inscription with a Spanish name and the date 1776. In 1995, the Palace of the Governors of the Museum New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe undertook a search expedition and located a large sandstone monolith as described in the survey records of 1884 and still bearing the 1776 date. A return visit in 1996 confirmed the discovery and resulted in the opinion that this was a site visited by the Dominguez-Escalante expedition, probably on Nov. 12, 1776.

When the travelers arrived at a oraybi, a Hopi (Moqui) pueblo on the Third Mesa, they were graciously sheltered, fed, and provisioned. From there, they resumed their journey starting Nov. 17, 1776, until finally arriving in Santa Fe on Jan. 2, 1777.

With this report of their return to Santa Fe, we complete our narrative describing the 1776 Dominguez-Escalante expedition. The maps and information resulting from this expedition provided useful information for future travel, and their route from Santa Fe to Salt Lake Valley became the first segment of a route later known as the Old Spanish Trail.

I’ll start the Tale of the Old Spanish Trail next week.