One of the goals of the Dominguez-Escalante expedition was to find a northern route to the Spanish missions in Monterey, California from the Spanish colonial stronghold of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Led by two Franciscan friars named Silvestre Velez de Escalante and Francisco Dominguez, the expedition never reached California, but instead, turned back to Santa Fe, forded the mighty Colorado River, and thus created one of Utah’s most popular historic sites, The Crossing of the Fathers.
The Dominguez-Escalante expedition faced a choice in October of 1776 due to snowstorms and the untimely abandonment of their Ute guide. Would they continue to California or head back toward familiar territory? To decide, they drew lots on October 8th, 1776 near present-day Cedar City, and familiar territory won the draw. Without significant direction, the party bumbled across northern Arizona throughout the month of October, with scarce food and little water. They obtained food by trading with local Indians or killing their horses for meat.
By October 25th, the group reached the Colorado River, just downstream from present-day Lee’s Ferry. The party continued upstream, back into Utah, hoping to find a way across the Colorado River and out of the red-rock canyons. The group found a possible ford on November 6th and the following day, Fathers Dominguez and Escalante chiseled steps in the canyon wall for a distance of about 10 feet to enable their livestock to negotiate the steep terrain down to the river. By 5:00 that evening, the entire party safely crossed the Colorado River, and fired their guns into the air in celebration. The date was November 7th, 1776.
The perilous ford became known as the “Crossing of the Fathers” and the steps carved into the canyon wall were a popular historic site, until the construction of the Glen Canyon dam flooded the spot with 550 feet of water in what is now Lake Powell’s Padre Bay.
Nicholas Demas for Utah Humanities © 2012
Image: The Colorado River, Crossing of the Fathers. c. 1870s. "Crossing of the Fathers" from Wheeler's Survey. Drawing by Mulhausen. Escalante Expedition. Tall rock formations tower over the Colorado River in this drawing. Courtesy of Utah State Historical Society.
See Ted J. Warner, The Dominguez-Escalante Journal: Their Expedition Through Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico in 1776 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1995), pp. 79-123; Ted J. Warner, “The Spanish Epoch” in Richard D. Poll, Thomas G. Alexander, Eugene E. Campbell, David E. Miller, ed., Utah’s History (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1978), pp. 35-51; David E. Miller, “Discovery of Glen Canyon, 1776,” Utah Historical Quarterly 26 (Summer 1958), pp. 231-238.
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