The Spanish colony of New Mexico was founded in 1598. Until 1821, Colorado was part of the extensive Spanish territories governed by the colony. These territories extended far to the north of the New Mexico capital in Santa Fe. In the sixteenth century and later, some Spaniards explored the Great Plains portions of these territories in eastern Colorado. Colorado’s Western Slope was not explored as early as the Eastern Slope because it was occupied by Ute Native Americans who did not welcome Spaniards in their territories. For many years, Utes attacked the Spaniards and their Native American allies.
Two major factors contributed to the Spaniards’ drive to explore Colorado’s Western Slope. The first was the colony’s need to find minable silver deposits. The second was the need to check out an ancient legend known as the Legend of Teguayo.
The Need for Silver Mines
By the mid-eighteenth century, the New Mexico colony had not grown and prospered like many of the other Spanish colonies farther south in what is now Mexico because, unlike New Spain’s more prosperous colonies, they had not found any silver deposits that could be easily mined. Based on silver specimens they obtained by trading with some Utes, the Spanish suspected silver to be present in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, 200 miles north of Santa Fe. This area was controlled by the Utes and was thus off-limits to the Spaniards.
In the 1750s New Mexico had a very bright and capable governor named Tomás Vélez Cachupín, who served two terms (1749–54 and 1762–67). He recognized that the colony would have to make peace with the Utes if it ever hoped to develop silver mines. He knew he could bring about a peaceful relationship if he would allow the Spaniards to begin trading with the Native Americans. If he could gain the Utes’ trust and make peace with them, he might be able to explore the San Juans and find the source of their silver.
The Legend of Teguayo
According to an ancient Native American legend, Teguayo (pronounced TewaYO) was an unexplored land far to the north of the colony near a large lake. It was said to be beyond the mountains, the territory of the Utes, and the then-uncharted Colorado River, which was known as the River Tizón. This land was supposedly the home of a variety of Native American people who spoke many different languages.
These people were said to include a strange kind of white people who grew long beards and looked more like Europeans than Native Americans. The Spanish authorities in New Mexico were afraid that these strange bearded people might be Frenchmen or Russians who were encroaching on their territories. They therefore considered it necessary to find out who these strange people were and to determine if they posed any threat to the colony. The Spaniards could not go to Teguayo, however, until peace had been made with the Utes.
During his second term in office, Governor Vélez Cachupín finally succeeded in making peace with the Utes of western Colorado. They gave him permission to send a party into their territory to look for the Colorado River and search for silver in the mountains. The governor sent a small group of men from New Mexico into the Ute territories to accomplish these things. This party of explorers was led by Juan Antonio María de Rivera. In 1765 the governor sent two expeditions north under his leadership.
Rivera’s First Expedition, 1765
In June and July 1765 Rivera and his men traveled north on horseback from Abiquiu, New Mexico, to the Piedra Parada (Standing Rock). This prominent geological feature, located just west of Pagosa Springs, Colorado, is now known as Chimney Rock. From Piedra Parada the party traveled west along the south edge of the San Juan Mountains to the Animas River near present-day Durango. From there they headed west to a big bend of the Dolores River, where there was an important trail junction. Rivera and his men followed the path that became the Old Spanish Trail through this region. During their travels they named several of Colorado’s rivers, including the Navajo, San Juan, Piedra, Pinos (Pine), Florida, Animas, and Dolores Rivers.
Rivera’s party was supposed to meet a Ute named Cuero de Lobo (Wolf Hide) in a Native American village on the Animas. This man was supposed to know where the Spaniards could easily find some pure silver ore high up in the La Plata (Silver) Mountains. However, when Rivera and his men arrived, the man was not present; he had gone off far to the west to visit his mother-in-law, a Paiute Indian.
Rivera and his men were still committed to finding the silver, so they spent several days riding along the south edge of the La Platas looking for it and for the man who supposedly knew where it was. Rivera finally caught up with the man on the La Plata River, and he guided the Spaniards into the high mountains. Although Rivera found some silver ore, it was not the pure, virgin silver he had been seeking.
On this first trip Rivera did meet a lot of Ute- and Paiute-speaking Native Americans. They told him the way to the Colorado River and the trail ahead toward the legendary land of Teguayo. Although he did not find any pure silver, Rivera did cement good friendships with the Native Americans, and they invited him to come back in the fall when the weather was cooler. They offered to guide him to the great Colorado River if he returned to their land. Rivera headed home and reported the results of his expedition to the governor. He had gained a lot of information on the land and peoples of extreme southwestern Colorado.
Rivera’s Second Expedition, 1765
After Rivera returned to the colony from his first trip, a number of Utes and Paiutes came to Abiquiu and met with him and the governor. They made plans for another Spanish expedition into Ute country in the fall. The governor gave Rivera very precise instructions: he was to return to the big bend of the Dolores where he had ended his first trip; he was then to proceed to the Colorado River with the help of his Paiute guides. He was to cross the river, look over the land, and make notes on the people living there. He was then to proceed to the land of Teguayo and locate and report on the strange-looking bearded men who were said to live there. Once he had completed these objectives, the governor would allow him to trade with the Native Americans for tanned buckskins and to prospect for silver.
Rivera and his men set out again for the Ute territories in early October. They met up with their new Indian friends on the La Plata River at the base of the La Plata Mountains. Some of the Indians did not want to honor their promise to assist Rivera. They were afraid that if they let him travel ahead and meet other Native Americans, it would spoil their role as brokers in the native trade. At that time, the Indians were moving trade goods from the colony on to more distant people by trading from hand to hand, or, as Rivera called it, “nation to nation.” This difficulty almost led to violence between various factions of Utes and Paiutes. Rivera managed to resolve the dispute and obtained Paiute guides to lead him toward the Colorado River.
Keeping with the governor’s instructions, Rivera and his men returned to the camping place at the big bend of the Dolores River. From there they proceeded over the Dolores Plateau to Disappointment Valley on an old route that became known as the Navajo-Uncompahgre Trail. They followed this route across Big Gypsum Valley into Dry Creek Basin in extreme western Colorado. The Paiute guide then took them to Monogram and Davis Mesas high above the massive Paradox Valley near Bedrock, Colorado.
The guide then tried to take Rivera down the difficult Dolores Canyon to the Colorado River, but Rivera and his men could not get all their horses and mules down the tight canyon. They could not move forward and were forced to stand in cold water. They finally escaped from the canyon and proceeded to present-day Naturita, Colorado. There they camped with Tabeguache Utes at a place called Pissochi. They rested for a few days and traveled to the top of the Uncompahgre Plateau, where they camped in a wet, cold fall storm at Iron Springs. Rivera named that location “Purgatorio,” or purgatory, because he thought it was halfway between heaven and hell.
Rivera and his men then traveled down the crest of the Uncompahgre Plateau and dropped into Roubideau Canyon. Rivera left his name carved on a cliff face there. This inscription is one of the oldest in the western United States. Rivera proceeded to the Roubideau Bottoms just west of present-day Delta. At that point he was on the Gunnison River, an upper tributary of the Colorado. He rested his men and livestock there and interviewed all the Native Americans he could about the trail ahead toward Teguayo. Keeping with the governor’s instructions, he crossed the river and looked for native settlements.
Rivera and his men then traveled south up the Uncompahgre Valley to present-day Montrose, where they camped on the Marsh of San Francisco near the present-day Ute Indian Museum. Rivera continued up the Uncompahgre Valley to present-day Colona. There, at the junction of some major trails, including the Navajo-Uncompahgre Trail, he asked a Sabuagana Ute leader about the way to Teguayo and sources of silver. The Ute man was too sick to take Rivera to the silver and warned that there was much danger from marauding Comanche raiders in the area. Rivera then turned his party homeward and arrived back in the colony in November 1765. Once he left the Uncompahgre Valley he made no more entries in his journal.
Although Rivera did not find any rich silver deposits or reach Teguayo, he did make peace with many Utes and learned about the trail that supposedly led to the legendary land. He essentially pried open the door to Teguayo and opened the Ute territory up for more traders to come in.
In recent years a few historians have encountered some problems interpreting Rivera’s route. It is known for certain that Rivera arrived at the Gunnison River near present-day Delta. This is confirmed in the travel journal of Fathers Domínguez and Vélez de Escalante when they went to the Gunnison River near Delta: on August 26, 1776, Father Vélez de Escalante wrote that Rivera had arrived at the same river but at a point a few miles downstream. Historians have considered the fathers’ journal a reliable source for decades; the fact that they were on the Gunnison when they made this comment was never disputed.
This all changed in the early 1970s, after Rivera’s actual journals were discovered in Madrid, Spain by personnel working for the noted historian Donald Cutter. Cutter translated the journals and published an article in a major historical journal, in which he overlooked what Vélez de Escalante had written about Rivera traveling to the Gunnison. Instead, Cutter stated that Rivera had gone to the Colorado River at Moab, Utah. Over the years, a couple of other writers followed Cutter’s lead and also wrote that Rivera had gone to Moab. No one challenged that view and as a result, much of the recent writing about the early Spanish explorers, including websites and books, has argued that Rivera went to Moab. It is thus very easy for the unwary reader to believe in the Moab destination. But there is no evidence to support this viewpoint. More recent scholarship has resulted in a definitive trail study of Rivera’s expeditions and it is clear that he went to the Gunnison. Joseph Sánchez has prepared a good translation of the Rivera diaries and also did not accept the Moab routing. In 2004, Cutter publicly recanted his earlier work and now accepts that Rivera arrived on the Gunnison.
The 1776 Expedition of Fathers Domínguez and Vélez de Escalante
By 1776, no Spanish expedition had ever been able to reach Teguayo. Thus, there were still unanswered questions in the minds of colonial authorities about the bearded white men who were supposed to live there. By that time Spain had also established some missions in California. The Spanish were interested in finding an overland route from Santa Fe to California so they could supply the missions without having to send ships. Spanish authorities requested that priests working among the Native Americans in New Mexico help them gather information about Teguayo and a route to California.
One of the priests was a young Franciscan named Silvestre Vélez de Escalante. He was given the task of planning a route from the colony to California. While he was planning the route, another priest, Francisco Tomás Hermenegildo Garcés, managed to travel overland from California to Zuni Pueblo, demonstrating that there was already an open route. The year before Father Garcés found the usable route, Father Vélez de Escalante had written to the governor of New Mexico, saying that he was giving up on finding a way to California. He claimed the distance was too great and there were too many unknown and hostile Native Americans along the way.
But by then the church authorities had instructed Vélez de Escalante’s superior, Father Francisco Atanasio Domínguez, to lead the expedition from Santa Fe to California. Domínguez was still in Mexico City when he got his orders. To get to New Mexico, he had to make a six-month trip on horseback. By the time he finally arrived in New Mexico, in 1776, Vélez de Escalante had given up on making the trip to California. He had an entirely different goal for the trip – instead of heading west toward California, he wanted to go north to Teguayo to check out the reports of the bearded white men who looked like Europeans.
So, instead of traveling west toward California, the father started northward on the Navajo-Uncompahgre Trail Rivera had taken eleven years earlier. His party had Rivera’s journal with them, along with some men who had traveled with Rivera. Vélez de Escalante’s goal was clearly to complete Rivera’s failed mission. It was not, as almost universally argued by historians, to find a way to California. That was only the official justification for the trip and likely for the church’s sponsoring of it.
The Franciscan fathers largely followed Rivera’s route but stayed more on the direct path of the Navajo-Uncompahgre Trail to the Uncompahgre Valley. They traveled down the valley past the Marsh of San Francisco near Montrose, where Rivera had camped. They commented on how the spot would nicely accommodate a settlement. They proceeded down the Uncompahgre Valley to the Gunnison River at present-day Delta. There they commented about Rivera’s visit to that same river, noting that the explorer had come to the Gunnison over the top of the Uncompahgre Plateau instead of through the valley. They pointed out that Rivera had reached the river only a few miles below their location.
After the fathers reached the Gunnison, they traveled up its North Fork and crossed over Grand Mesa. They then crossed over the Bookcliffs near Grand Junction and reached the canyon of Douglas Creek. They traveled down the canyon, naming it the “Canon Pintado,” or Painted Canyon, because of all the Fremont Indian rock art they saw on the cliff faces. The fathers followed a path near the White River into Utah. They journeyed on to the Wasatch Front and arrived at Utah Lake.
At Utah Lake, they were actually in the land of Teguayo and encountered heavily bearded people who they determined were Native Americans rather than Europeans. They traveled on west and south, met more bearded Indians, and eventually arrived back in the colony after a long and grueling trip.
At one point, Father Domínguez wanted to push on over the Sierra Nevada to California. Father Vélez de Escalante was against it, as it was getting late in the season and there was likely already snow in the mountains. But Father Domínguez was the man in charge. It is little wonder that the two men cast lots – essentially, they rolled dice – to determine if they should proceed on to California or turn back toward the colony. Father Domínguez lost, and the fathers headed home, arriving in January 1777.
The fathers dutifully debriefed their superiors about the bearded men and determined that they presented no threat to the colony. It is clear that the legend of Teguayo and its strange bearded men was no myth, as commonly supposed. The accounts of the fathers and Rivera are far more closely related than historians have commonly recognized. The fathers, particularly Vélez de Escalante, were clearly trying to fulfill Rivera’s failed mission. Historians have generally believed the fathers’ mission was a failure because they did not find a route to California. It was, however, actually a resounding success in that they did reach the Colorado River, entered the land of Teguayo, and found the bearded men. In doing this, they actually fulfilled the instructions originally given to Rivera by the governor at the start of his second trip.
After the fathers’ trip, the legend of Teguayo rapidly faded, and the Wasatch Front of Utah became the destination for a host of trappers, traders, and slave raiders looking to capture Indian slaves. Eventually, it became the heart of the Mormon settlements in the New Zion. The route Rivera and the fathers followed from the big bend of the Dolores River northward was eventually abandoned. The Spanish Trail by way of Moab, Utah, and the North Branch of the Spanish Trail from the San Luis Valley became the major travel routes northward from New Mexico. The journals of Rivera and the fathers provide the first descriptions of western Colorado, as well as the first useful ones for all of Colorado. They also provide the first meaningful descriptions of the Ute and Paiute Indians. On account of this, the journals are part of the very foundation of Colorado history.