Most people possessing even a nodding familiarity with Utah history know about the celebrated Dominguez-Escalante expedition of 1776 in which two Franciscan friars led a party of explorers across much of modern Colorado, Utah and Arizona covering some 1700 miles in 159 days. It was one of the most remarkable journeys in history and those Spanish Catholics were the first people of European descent to enter the territory that is now Utah.
Except that they weren't. They weren't even the second party to have done so. The first two parties entered Utah in the spring and fall of 1765 and were led by a Spanish soldier named Juan Maria Antonio de Rivera, a person about whom so little is known that one historian calls him "the phantom pathfinder."
The Spanish settlers in colonial New Mexico always had troubled relations with their Indian neighbors. Even the relatively docile Pueblo tribes had risen up in 1680 and driven the Spaniards completely out of the territory. The more warlike tribes around the periphera of the Spanish settlements, the Navajos, Apaches, Commanches and Utes, were even more numerous and dangerous and always held the military advantage over the sparsely populated settlements. The settlers, when they had to deal with them at all, did so very delicately.
Captain Rivera's fragmentary diary, which was found in the Spanish archives in 1975, suggests that his forays into Utah and Colorado had three purposes: to locate reputed silver deposits in the mountains of southwestern Colorado, to verify the existence of the Colorado River and to attempt to reach it, and to spy on the indigenous Indians to ascertain their numbers and their intentions. In order to conceal the fact that the ventures were essentially military reconnaissances, the members of the party disguised themselves as traders.
The first expedition, which proceeded in a northwesterly direction from Abiquiu, New Mexico in June and July, 1765, wandered throughout southwestern Colorado and eventually reached a destination near Aneth, Utah, in what turned out to be a futile attempt to locate an Indian guide to whom they had been referred. Eventually, the Spaniards were advised to put off their quest until the cooler weather of the fall.
Rivera and his men returned in October and located their guide, who, however, turned out to be uncooperative when he learned that the Spaniards wanted to contact other Indians to the north of the Colorado River whom he seems to have feared would monopolize trade with the Spaniards. Eventually, though, after a very arduous journey through Utah's canyonlands, they reached and crossed the Colorado River near the site of modern Moab.
Although the Rivera expedition did locate a deposit of silver, they lacked tools to excavate a sample, so the rich mines in Colorado's San Juan Mountains had to await another day for exploitation-long after Colorado had passed from Spanish to Mexican hands and then to the United States. Much more important results of the ventures was a significant increase in trade with the Utes, and an expansion of geographical knowledge that led to the Dominguez-Escalante expedition and eventually development of the Spanish Trail from Santa Fe to Los Angeles in the early nineteenth century.
And so the Catholic history of Utah goes back more than a decade beyond the point where we used to think it began. Does it go back even further? We await more documentary discoveries.