Strangers in a Strange Land

Spanish Journeys into Yuta Country

Local History
By Paul O’Rourke
Summer/Fall 2009

NO ONE REMEMBERS much about her, only that she was Yuta, from the territory north of New Mexico, and just one of many Natives visiting Abiquiú for the trade fair in May 1765. The local blacksmith hardly noticed her: She was there to retrieve a bridle repaired the day before.

When told the fee, she extracted a small leather pouch and placed it in the forger’s outstretched hand. distracted momentarily by an agitated stallion in a back stall, he didn’t see the woman gather the bit and reins and slip into the crowd. The blacksmith opened the leather sack, hoping its contents were commensurate with his services, and withdrew a sizeable piece of virgin silver.

The news raced through Abiquiú and made its way to Spanish colonial authorities in santa Fe. That the Yuta (later known by Americans as “Ute”) possessed silver may not have come as a complete surprise, but after hearing the story of the woman and the blacksmith, Governor Tomas Veléz Cachupin was excited to think those long-told tales about a mythical mountain of silver in Yuta country might be true. He began organizing an expedition to find out for certain, and he knew just the man to lead it.

Juan Maria Antonio Rivera was said to have had a military background and experience in the mines of old Mexico, an apt resume for an expedition leader in search of silver. Directed to chronicle his journey and keep a record of the flora and fauna, geography and natural resources he encountered along the way, Rivera was more than simply literate: he was intuitive, perceptive and well-equipped for the job. Rivera was charged with locating a yuta man who went by the name of Cuero de lobo (“Wolfskin”), and who, according to Cachupin, knew the source of that now-famous piece of silver.

Rivera finally tracked down Cuero de Lobo after a Yuta-led Wildgoose chase through the rugged country near present-day Durango. De Lobo guided him to a mountain, where he was told the silver had been mined. Rivera’s diary describes a two-day stay in a mountainous region he called the “Sierra de la Plata,” but despite the Yuta’s claims, the ore samples taken back to santa Fe met with an unenthusiastic review: Their content was more lead than silver. Though outwardly unsuccessful, Rivera’s expedition had traveled as far north as the Big Bend of Rio de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores (the Dolores River), over country and across waterways that today bear those place-names—San Juan, los Pinos, los Piedra, las Animas and Florida—he gave them at that time.

Eager to return to yeti country, Rivera told Cachupin he’d heard about a great river, Rio del Tizon (the Colorado). Cachupin had learned, through talks with new Mexico’s pueblo Indians, that the headwaters of this river were near what the publicans called “Teguayo,” the original home of their people. Located near a large lake in what is now the Great Basin of Utah near Provo, Teguayo, according to early Spanish writings, was also thought to be the birthplace of the Aztec civilization and home to a strange breed of native men with beards and white skin. Cachupin authorized Rivera’s second expedition to yeti country to locate Rio del Tizon, learn more about Teguayo, and discover the origin of the elusive trove of virgin silver in the sierra de la Plata. The expedition was dispatched on the heels of Rivera’s first, in late September 1765.

Two weeks after leaving Abiquiú and navigating decades-old Yuta pathways through and around the region’s mountains and river canyons, Rivera’s party rode north from the Big Bend of the Dolores, over the Dolores plateau and into the paradox valley. After continuing northwest along Rio Dolores and nearing its confluence with Rio del Tizon, Rivera elected to change course and head east over the Uncompahgre plateau. A few days later, looking across Rio san Xavier, he stood at a spot just below where that river joins with the Uncompahgre near present-day delta. There, Rivera carved a cross onto a cottonwood tree, adding his initials above and the year below, before turning back to Santa Fe.

Rivera failed to locate Rio del Tizon and Teguayo or anything resembling a mountain of virgin silver, yet he did produce a remarkable account of his 375-mile journey, paving the way, as it were, for others to follow. For over a decade, and in spite of a Spanish ban on trade and travel in Yuta country, numerous parties—some involving veterans of Rivera’s expeditions, if not Rivera himself—conducted business with the natives as far north as the Gunnison River.

Rivera’s experience, not to mention the knowledge gained of those trade routes traveled during those 11 years after 1765, was not lost on Cachupin’s successor, Governor Pedro Fermin de Mendinueta. In 1776, he authorized an ambitious expedition to Yuta country, its breadth and scope dwarfing anything attempted by Rivera.

Standing under the noonday sun in the plaza de Santa Fe on July 29, 1776, Fray Francisco Atanasio Dominguez and Fray Silvestre Velez de Escalante distributed the holy Eucharist among the members of their expedition. Prayers followed, asking God to guide them to Rio del Tizon and Teguayo, then on to the Pacific Ocean and the Catholic missions in Monterey, California.

Mexican-born Dominguez, 37 years of age—and a Franciscan for 20 of those years—had been sent north to New Mexico during March of 1776, ostensibly to inspect the province’s missions. But he was also instructed to investigate an overland route from Santa Fe to California. For that mammoth task, it was recommended he call on Fray Escalante, a Spaniard and a Franciscan 10 years his junior. Velez de Escalante had lived with the Pueblo Indians since 1774, having last been stationed in Zuni before being summoned to Santa Fe by Dominguez in June 1776. Escalante had established his reputation, with both secular and religious authorities, as an able observer of frontier conditions and an accomplished communicator. And it was Escalante, apparently convinced that a recently explored southern route from California through hostile Hopi territory was too dangerous, who ultimately convinced Governor Mendinueta that a northern route was the better passage to Monterey.

The two padres and their party—which included several veterans of Rivera’s second expedition—set out to the clanging of church bells and a flock of waving white handkerchiefs on what would be a five month, 1,700-mile odyssey that, while falling short of its intended destination, chronicled and mapped territory never before seen by European explorers.

The expedition traveled as far as the Big Bend of the Dolores over the well-blazed trail followed by Rivera—Dominguez carried Rivera’s diary with him—but rather than take the path over the Dolores plateau as Rivera did, the explorers turned northwest, proceeding along the often-treacherous Dolores River, past present-day dove Creek and Slickrock, and then spent three days wandering aimlessly in the August heat before locating Rivera’s route out of the Gypsum valley. Escalante noted in his journal that the task of finding Yutas—it had been three weeks since they had last encountered any natives— should be considered a priority.

On August 20, the party arrived in the valley that Escalante named Rio san Pedro, at a spot just northwest of present-day Naturita. Renaming the San Pedro to the now-familiar San Miguel would come later by way of Spanish or New Mexican traders, perhaps during a late-September excursion coincident with the feast of St. Michael.

The explorers headed east along Rio San Pedro and followed a branch of horsefly Creek over the Uncompahgre plateau. Escalante observed that this high country “abounds in excellent pasturage, is very moist, and has good land for crops without irrigation.” They made their way to the Uncompahgre River, descending the plateau just south of what was to be Montrose, then paralleled that river north toward the Gunnison. Escalante referenced Rivera’s tree-carving episode in his own journal but failed to mention seeing the tree itself, perhaps indicating that they were no longer on Rivera’s route.

Dominguez had learned of a large gathering of Yutas to the east and north of what is now delta. Also at the camp were reported to be a contingent of Laguna Indians (later called “Uintah Utes”), who had traveled from their home near the Great Salt Lake of Utah. in hopes of learning the best and safest route to the Great Basin, Teguayo and California, Dominguez diverted the expedition east along the north Fork of the Gunnison River. Just beyond what is known today as Leroux Creek, the party turned north and reached the confluence of Willow and Hubbard Creeks, where they met 80 Yuta warriors and a contingent of Lagunas. Dominguez’s intuition had paid off. In addition to knowledge gained about the Great Basin, the padre recruited two Lagunas who agreed to guide him there. Northwest over Grand Mesa, past present-day Collbran and then north over Battlement Mesa, the party approached Rio del Tizon at a point just above what is now Debeque.

Dominguez and Escalante were repeatedly warned not to cross Rio del Tizon, because murderous Comanche warriors and other lethal dangers would await them on the other side. Considering their small numbers and dearth of weapons, it must have been a relief when, on September 23—after crossing Rio del Tizon and a two-week trek through rugged and presumably dangerous country—Dominguez saw the Great salt lake, which he named Nuestra Señora de la Merced de los Timpanagotzis.

Escalante didn’t refer to it as such, but the mysterious land of Teguayo had been found, though what the padres discovered was no Tenochtitlan or anything remotely comparable to the great city of the Aztecs. In describing the settlement’s hospitable inhabitants, Escalante observed that the men resembled Spaniards more than Indians and “were so fully bearded they looked like Capuchin padres.”

Dominguez and Escalante had reason to be pleased with their accomplishments. After two months and over 800 miles, they had located Rio del Tizon and Teguayo, and, with encouragement from the Lagunas, they agreed to return and establish a mission in the Great Basin. Yet when snow and cold marked their passage south of Utah Lake during early October, they were forced to admit they had underestimated the vast expanse of territory that still lay between them and California. They decided to cast lots to determine whether to proceed to Monterey or return to Santa Fe—a democratic gamble, considering both Escalante and Dominguez were keen on going back. Following the historic “Crossing of the Fathers” on the Colorado River in early November, the padres made their way back to Santa Fe, arriving to little fanfare on January 2, 1977. Dominguez and Escalante never returned to Yuta country nor the Great Basin.

Spanish traders continued doing business with the Yutas in the years after the Dominguez-Escalante expedition, and one wonders whether any of those excursions ever made it into San Miguel Park near Telluride. Unlicensed trading was illegal, severely punished and not generally made public— unless, of course, one got caught. On March 31, 1785, Vicente Serna and four associates were brought before the mayor of Abiquiú and found guilty of trading with the Yutas near the san Miguel River, though where on the river this alleged commerce took place is not known.

Rivera’s two explorations in Yuta country, not to mention those conducted without official sanction, were precipitated by the story of the blacksmith and Yuta woman with the virgin silver. But in a region that would become world renown for its reserves of precious minerals, the Spanish, who were skilled at mining, apparently failed to locate any sizable gold or silver. Nor is there any evidence, except perhaps in the imaginations of a few American pioneers, that the Spanish did much, if any, mining in the San Juan or Telluride areas.

Martin Wegner, in Recollection of Telluride, Colorado, claims founding father Charles painter told him that miners in Marshall Basin reported that they stumbled upon prospecting tools of a vintage, they surmised, that could have only been Spanish. Another pioneer and self-proclaimed hermit, Linnard Remine, alleged, again according to Wegner, that he was told by a Ute chief (Remine had come to san Miguel park when it was still part of Ute territory) that a party of Spanish miners had been found placering for gold along the san Miguel River and that the Utes had killed some of the prospectors and drove the rest out of the valley.


Dominguez and Escalante returned from their epic journey to no hero’s welcome. Despite making what were viewed as significant contributions to the geographic and ethnographic understanding of the southwest, the trailblazers resumed their lives in relative obscurity. Dominguez was recalled by the church to old Mexico in 1777 and spent his remaining 25 years in service to God: Escalante, often afflicted with kidney-related ailments, died within two years of the expedition, just after reaching his thirtieth birthday.

Official Spanish interest in Yuta country was curtailed not long after the Dominguez Escalante expedition, when conflicts with the Comanche, Navajo and Yuta escalated. If hostilities with the natives weren’t enough to occupy the attention of Spanish authorities, another challenge soon appeared on New Mexico’s northern horizon: With its purchase of Louisiana in 1803, the United States entered the game of imperial politics in the southwest, but with more than just territorial expansion in mind.

The American fascination with the West during the early decades of the nineteenth century was spurred not so much by a desire to discover precious minerals or a practical route to California—that would come later—but by a shift in European fashion. The almost pandemic popularity of beaver fur in the design of men’s hats and women’s outer garments sent trappers and traders scurrying west from St. Louis and north from Taos in a search for high-priced pelts. The frenzy began in the Northwest Territories and then continued into the Rocky Mountains. This obsession started a new chapter of exploration in Yuta country.

Historians continue to debate how to best interpret the Spanish explorers’ journals (Rivera’s diary was discovered in Madrid as recently as 1964) to determine the exact routes taken. For excellent accounts of Spanish exploration, see Explorers, Traders, and Slavers: Forging the Old Spanish Trail, by Joseph p. Sanchez, and Pageant in the Wilderness, by Herbert e. Bolton. Look also for a soon-to-be published comprehensive translation and trail study of the Rivera journals by Steven G. Baker and Rick Hendricks.