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Story of Catholic Fathers Escalante and Dominguez trekking through Utah before Mormon pioneers

Posted at 10:20 PM, Jul 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-25 00:22:26-04

SALT LAKE CITY — While we are celebrating 175 years of the "Utah Pioneer Spirit," it is worth pointing out that Brigham Young and his wagon train were not the first group to try to settle in what would ultimately become the Beehive State.

It was in July 1776, the same month and year our founding fathers declared independence for our country, when a group led by two Franciscan friars, Fathers Silvestre Escalante and Fransisco Dominguez, set out on a mission of their own to reinvigorate the weakened Spanish empire and convert more people to Catholicism.

“Dominguez and Escalante were almost entirely breaking virgin ground,” said Gary Topping, an archivist for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.

The journey, however, was going to be treacherous.

“It was like being sent to Siberia,” Topping said. “They weren't making any money, they were constantly plagued with Indian conflicts.”

The Dominguez-Escalante Expedition left New Mexico on July 29, 1776, in an effort to establish an overland route between Santa Fe and Monterey, California. It took more than a month for this group to pass through Colorado to get to Utah. They encountered what they called in their diary of the expedition so-called “bearded Indians” in central Utah. Those people were among the Ute tribe.

On September 23, 1776, the small group led by Fathers Escalante and Dominguez met with a group of Native Americans at Utah Lake and preached to them for three days.

They promised after they made it to California, they would come back and establish a mission at the lake.

But that never happened.

“It would have been right around in [the Beaver River Valley] where they decided, okay, what are we going to do?” said Topping. “Are we going to go on, or are we going to go back? And they decided, I think, fortunately, to go back.”

“They got started too late in the year to want to risk a trip across the Sierras. They might have wound up like the Donner party in then next century.”

While the friars failed in both of their goals of establishing a road between Santa Fe and Monterey and converting Native Americans, their own pioneer spirit during this journey is still something to admire all these years later.

“They suffered a lot on that trip and persevered,” Topping said. “There was internal conflict in the party and they were ill and half starved to death and took some real risks with the terrain that they were recovering, but they came through.”

A translated version of the original diary kept during the Dominguez-Escalante expedition is available for purchase here.