Weary, sick, hungry and fervent after a thousand-mile struggle through the unmapped wilderness, Fathers Francisco Atanasio Dominguez and Francisco Silvestre Velez de Escalante in 1876 entered what would become Arizona – for yet another test of their faith and management skills.
They had set out in July from Santa Fe, seeking a route through the trackless canyon lands to California. They journeyed in prayer and faith resolved to save a continent of lost souls. With them traveled the tragic ironies of empire – both Spanish adventurers and Indian allies on whom their survival depended. By October they had abandoned their great goal and struggled south past the vivid Vermilion Cliffs, struggling just to survive and reduced to eating their horses. But just to the south lay the impassable gulf of the Grand Canyon, cutting off their return to the Spanish settlements.
Their Indian translators and guides – especially a 12-year-old Ute boy they dubbed Joaquin – had repeatedly saved them by winning the wary support of the bands through whose territory they traveled. But the schisms in the group of 14 had gaped open several times, especially when the two priests decided to give up and turn south. The rest of the party resisted, hoping for the fame and fortune that would flow from success. After long and fruitless arguments, they agreed to put the decision in God’s hands by drawing lots. Sure enough, the lot favored the priests. This probably saved their lives, since they would surely have perished before reaching even the foothills of the still distant Sierra Nevada. But the divisions still simmered as they labored across the high, frigid, windswept Kaibab Plateau, moving south along the impassable ramparts of the Vermilion cliffs.
Exhausted and laboring, they sent Joaquin and two other Indian guides on ahead to find a camp and make a fire. When the explorers caught up, they found Joaquin chatting with a band of Paiutes, most of whom fled as soon as they saw the priests, saying to Joaquin, “Little brother, you belong to our very own kind; do not let these people with whom you come kill us.” The priests, who sought to win the hearts and souls of the local Indians, treated the five Indians who stayed “fondly and tried by every possible means we could think of to rid them of the suspicion and fear they bore us.” The Indians “calmed down,” according to Escalante’s remarkable journal, and then provided the hungry Spaniards with a dinner of roasted jackrabbits and pinon nuts before showing them where to water and feed their horses.
Later that night, Don Bernardo Miera y Pacheco, a former captain who had produced the expedition’s maps, and several others visited the camp of one of the Paiute elders – a respected medicine man. Hearing that Don Bernardo had been sick for weeks, the medicine man offered to conduct a healing ceremony, and Don Bernardo readily agreed. When the priests learned of the ceremony the next morning, they angrily denounced their companions for giving credence to the native religions and ceremonies the priests wanted so badly to extinguish. “We reprimanded them, instructing them in doctrine so that they would never again lend their approval to such errors through their willing attendance or in any other manner.” Escalante complained in his journal that even the translators twisted the gospel to soothe and manipulate the Indians they encountered. “While we were preaching the necessity of holy baptism, the interpreter, so as not to displease them, translated for them these very words: 'The padre says that the Apaches, Navajos and Comanches who are not baptized cannot enter heaven, and that they go to hell where God punishes them, and they will burn forever like wood in the fire' – and with this the [Indians] became overjoyed on hearing themselves excluded, and their foes included, in the unavoidable destiny of either being baptized or of being lost forever. The interpreter was reprimanded, and he changed his conduct on seeing his stupid puny faith exposed.”
Escalante concluded that the Spanish explorers and adventurers had done more harm than good in winning conversions. “Some go and remain among them in their greed for pelts, others go after the flesh which they find here for their bestial satisfaction. And so, therefore, they blaspheme against Christ’s name and impede or, to put it better, opposed the spreading of the faith. Oh, with how much severity should similar evils be attended to!” The incident, which took place just off the scenic byway that now runs along the face of the multi-hued Vermilion Cliffs, illustrates both the remarkable piety of the priests and the tragic complexity of this collision of cultures. Highway wayside markers note the location of the expedition’s San Bartolome Camp in House Rock Valley on State Route 89 about 20 miles west of Navajo Bridge over the Colorado River.
Escalante’s journal contains fascinating descriptions of that encounter. Inspired by an idealistic zeal to save these “lost souls,” the priests sought to win the trust of the Indians they encountered. However, their coming presaged death, disease and destruction -- both physical and cultural. The Indians responded with fear and wonder. Sometimes they listened eagerly, perhaps seeking allies against their own enemies. More often, they fled. Some fearful Indians pressed into service as guides led the Europeans into a rough wilderness, where they could slip away without danger to their own families. One of their most important guides fled after witnessing a fight between Don Juan Cisneros and his servant. As a result, the party lost its way and any hope of making it to California before winter closed in.
Sometimes, the journal offers odd descriptions of the Indians' reactions filtered through Escalante’s devotion, which ensured he would see the Indians as lost children sunk in superstition and idolatry. He remained intellectually and emotionally incapable of appreciating the ancient culture that enabled the Indians to thrive in so harsh a land. He wrote of the strange and touching departure from one band of Paiutes in Utah: “We took our leave of them and all, the chief especially, kept holding us by the hand with great tenderness and affection. . . . Scarcely did they see us depart when all burst out crying copious tears, so that even when we were quite a distance away we kept hearing the tender laments of these unfortunate little sheep of Christ, lost along the way simply for not having the light. They touched our hearts so much that some of our companions could not hold back the tears.”
The first great crisis for the expedition revolved around the decision to give up and turn south, which occurred in early October in Utah. The fathers concluded they would all die if they continued west -- to the dismay of their companions. “From this place onward, they came along very peevishly; everything was extremely onerous and all unbearably irksome. Their conversations had no other topic than the negative results they would derive from such a lengthy trip, because for them it did not consist in having discovered such a great deal of country and people so well disposed to be easily gathered into the Lord’s vineyard and to the realms of his majesty. . . . But they listened to none of this, for [they] had conceived grandiose dreams of honors and profit from solely reaching Monterey.” Finally, the fathers proposed to settle the matter by drawing lots. “They all submitted in a Christian spirit and with fervent piety prayed the third part of the rosary and other petitions while we ourselves were reciting the Penitenial Psalms with the Litany and other orations which follow it. This concluded, we cast lots, and the one of Cosnina [going south to the Hopi villages] came out. This we all heartily accepted now, thanks be to God, mollified and pleased.” Historians speculate that the party drew from a hat one of two slips of paper – one for “Cosnina,” the other “Monterey.” However, some historians think the priests might have written “Cosnina” on both slips of paper.
The effort to cross the Colorado River represented the second great crisis of the expedition. They labored through the chasmed country, making 20 miles on a good day but only one or two on a bad one. Indians told them about one crossing at present-day Lee’s Ferry in Marble Canyon. But Escalante wrote that “it turns out to be a corner all hemmed in by very lofty bluffs and big hogbacks of red earth which, for having various formations and the bed below being of the same color, present a pleasingly jumbled scene” -- a surprisingly affectionate description considering their dashed hopes. Reaching the Colorado River near the mouth of the Paria River, they found the river flowing swiftly. Two members of the party stripped and balanced their clothes on their heads as they swam towards the other side. But the current nearly dragged them under and snatched away their clothing before reluctantly delivering them to the other side. Naked and barefoot, they could not seek a way out, and so swam back, exhausted and fearful. The party then fashioned a raft and tried to pole across, but the river proved too deep for the poles and the current swept them back to shore. Abandoning the crossing in despair, they toiled out of the canyon and northward.
They struggled through side canyons, starving, fearful, freezing and thirsty -- although the river lay only a few miles distant in the bottom of its gorge. The party split up, searching for a gap in the cliffs that led down to a shallow ford local Indians said lay upstream from Lee’s Ferry. After 11 days of tortuous searching, they hit upon present-day Padre Creek leading toward Gunsight Butte on the north shore of present-day Lake Powell. They used their axes to hack steps out of the sandstone in one steep stretch, to keep the horses from tumbling to their deaths. Reaching the shores of the Colorado River in the sandstone extravagance of Glen Canyon at present-day Padre Bay, they found a broad, slow stretch of the river no more than waist deep.
Today, the Crossing of the Fathers lies 500 feet beneath the surface of Lake Powell, but then it offered a miracle of survival for exhausted explorers subsisting on hope and horse flesh. Escalante greeted their hardships – and their salvation – with the same unshakeable faith. “God doubtless disposed that we obtained no guide, either as merciful chastisement for our faults or so that we could acquire some knowledge of the peoples living hereabouts. May His most holy will be done in all things, and may his holy name be glorified.” Heartened, they journeyed south into familiar territory. They stopped among the “obstinate” Hopi, who had doggedly resisted missionaries for decades. Escalante and Dominguez cajoled, soothed, entreated and threatened damnation, but could not win any converts among the Hopi people. So they returned finally to Santa Fe on January 2, 1877, after a six-month, 1,700-mile journey, to report their epic failure. They fashioned invaluable maps and wrote their journal, but both the church and the treasure-hunters mostly shrugged and turned south – where another missionary had blazed a trail to California along the Gila River. The failure of the Dominguez and Escalante expedition shaped the history of the region – limiting the northern spread of the Spanish empire and leaving Utah to the Mormons a century later.
Subsequent explorers, including John C. Fremont, used their maps and journals. The members of the expedition mostly vanished into the wilderness of history. The “companions” never earned the fame and riches they coveted. Father Dominguez was recalled to Mexico City to defend himself against charges leveled by disgruntled priests he’d criticized during a tour of inspection of the missions in New Mexico. He spent 30 years in missionary work in northern Mexico, his reputation clouded and the reports of his extraordinary journey neglected until historians rediscovered an obscure archive in 1927. Father Silvestre Velez de Escalante spent several years in New Mexico as a missionary before succumbing to a painful kidney disease that had afflicted him even during the expedition – although he was barely 30 years old. Joaquin, the Indian boy whose diplomacy, intelligence and grasp of two irreconcilable cultures repeatedly saved the expedition, vanished without a trace. So did the Paiute medicine man who performed the ancient ceremony that so offended those intrepid fathers – saving souls and destroying cultures in a land so contorted and colorful that it still defies description.