Franciscan priests ford the Red River
Frontier Historical Society
“Be an opener of doors for such as come after thee.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
The sounds of Spanish and Ute voices, the snorting of horses, and the bellowing of cattle cut through the late summer air the evening of Sept. 5, 1776. Near a place that would be named Una, on the north bank of a river which would be known as the Colorado, in a land that would become Garfield County, in a state that would become Colorado, in a nation to be known as the United States of America, Fray Francisco Atanasio Dominguez and Fray Silvestre Velez de Escalante halted their expedition for the night. The Franciscan priests and their exploration members had traveled 38 days and roughly 560 miles from their starting point in Santa Fe searching for a northern route to the Spanish colony on Monterey Bay in California. Their mission took them into a vast expanse of wilderness in Spain’s northernmost portion of her North American colonial lands — a land that was uncharted and a place where few Spaniards had ventured.
Dominguez and Escalante’s route in those first days progressed from the Spanish settlements of New Mexico northwestward across the future Colorado/New Mexico border. They crossed the Delores River, came through the future site of Montrose, and then proceeded over what would become known as the Grand Mesa, through today’s Vega Reservoir, and past the present town of Collbran. They ascended Battlement Mesa, where their trail was steep and rocky and with loose soil making footing unsteady. Along this route, Dominguez and Escalante recorded in their journal groves of scrub oak and choke cherry, ponderosa pine and white poplar trees. As they made their way down Battlement Mesa northwest to Jerry Gulch to Alkali Creek, the vegetation gradually changed to juniper and sagebrush. Their descent ended when they, according to their journal, “arrived at a river which our own call the San Rafael and the Yutas Red River.” Today the river is known as the Colorado.
Fording the river was challenging, noting that “the water reached the mounts above the shoulder blades. Some which crossed farther up from the ford swam in places. Everywhere we could see the river has many rocks and big ones; hence it would be better to ford it before this on good horses.” They camped in a meadow providing pasture and shaded by poplars about one and one-quarter miles west of today’s Una Bridge. The high mesas striated in yellow, white and light ochre provided a colorful evening backdrop, but the priests noted at the river “there are no prospects for settlement.” The next day, Dominguez and Escalante’s expedition traveled westward, ascended today’s Roan Creek, continued northwestward to the current town of Rangely, and then crossed our present day’s Colorado/Utah border.
Seventy-two years after Dominguez and Escalante’s expedition, the northern territory held by Spain and now Mexico was ceded to the United States by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The United States continued with westward expansion, with explorers and scientific expeditions sent to geologically map and record the resources of the West. In 1873, geologist Ferdinand Vanderveer Hayden began his survey of Colorado. That summer, Hayden’s party performed a geographical survey of the western Colorado Territory and documented the natural resources therein. Hayden’s survey drew a dramatically different conclusion than that of Dominguez and Escalante nearly 100 years before. Hayden’s survey concluded that settlement in the Grand Valley area when the priests had camped would support agriculture with proper irrigation. The surveyors also made note of the abundant oil shale in the Roan Cliffs.
Four years after Hayden’s Geological and Geographical Atlas of Colorado was published in 1877, the Utes were removed to reservations, and western Colorado was opened to white settlement. By 1885, sheep and cattle ranching filled the open grazing lands, while fruit trees and crops flourished in the Grand Valley. As the years progressed into the 20th century, oil shale and natural gas production were developed into a primary industry.
Unable to locate a route to Monterey, Dominguez and Escalante returned to Santa Fe, ending their journey on Jan. 3, 1777. They had traveled more than 1,700 miles without loss of life or encountering harm. However, their expedition was deemed a failure, and their journal was filed away. Their recorded journey, though, provided a starting point for further discovery for those who would follow.
— Willa Kane is former archivist of and a current volunteer with the Frontier Historical Society and Museum. “Frontier Diary,” which appears the first Tuesday of every month, is provided to the Post Independent by the museum, 1001 Colorado Ave., Glenwood Springs. Summer hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For more information, call 945-4448.
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