Escalante Days: 38 years of summer fun

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This sign along U.S. Highway 160 near Hesperus commemorates the expedition that delved into Southwest Colorado in 1776, noting the development potential along the Dolores River.

In 1776, the same year the Declaration of Independence was signed, the Dominguez- Escalante Expedition passed through the Four Corners region. The trek is noted on historical markers along Highway 160 between Mancos and Durango, and in Dolores.

After leaving New Mexico, members of the expedition camped along the Animas River near Durango, at Hesperus, spent a day on the Mancos River, and then ended up camping and staying over two nights near present-day Dolores.

That expedition by two Spanish Franciscans is now celebrated in an annual event called Escalante Days every August in the town of Dolores.

The famed expedition took place from August through December 1776 and was led by Francisco Atanasio Domínguez and Silvestre Vélez de Escalante, who had orders from their superiors to find a safe route between the missions at Santa Fe, N.M., and Monterrey, Calif. Spanish traders and trappers had been using what was called the “northern” route through remote and mountainous country, because the southern trail was “blocked” by Hopis near the Little Colorado River and hostile Apaches on the Gila River.

The northern, or so-called “outlaw,” trail was notorious for being rough and dangerous, and in those days was only utilized by nefarious sorts who traded slaves and other illegal merchandise with the indigenous tribes. Dominguez was a native of Mexico and the leader of the expedition, since he was the religious superior, but Escalante, who had been stationed at Zuni, had experience the previous year trekking through to Oraibi and Havasupai.

The 10 men set out July 29. Escalante wrote the journal entries, and thus has gained more historical notoriety than the expedition leader, Dominguez. The two missionaries were accompanied by Don Bernardo Miera y Pacheco, an engineer, astronomer and cartographer from Santa Fe who took geographical readings and drew the maps; Pedro Cisneros, mayor of Zuni; and several other residents of Zuni and El Paso whose names have been lost to history but who were likely traders and trappers. Also along was Andres Muniz, who acted as interpreter due to his knowledge of the “Yuta” (Ute) language.

Many people believe it was these Franciscan fathers who named the Dolores River, but this is incorrect, according to Herbert Bolton, who wrote “Pageant in the Wilderness,” a narrative of the expedition published in 1951. Bolton asserted that the river was named by earlier New Mexican traders who encountered heavy brush and steep narrow gorges that made travel nearly impossible (and sorrowful!).

Apparently members of the expedition did know the river was called the Dolores, and finding a comfortable location near the junction of Lost Canyon, they spent Aug. 12 and 13 in what is now Dolores because Father Dominguez was ill and needed to rest. Miera took his readings, determining the latitude of the place to be 38° 13 ½ north (just 2/3 of a degree off), while the other members of the expedition took the day to explore, discovering a ruin on the top of the south bank of the river.

The site – which was named Escalante Ruin by archaeologist Jesse Fewkes in 1919 because it was the first ruin in Colorado recorded by a white man – is now the location of the Anasazi Heritage Center a few miles from Dolores on Highway 184.

Escalante wrote a now-famous (to Doloreans!) sentence noting that on the banks of the Dolores River there was “everything necessary for the establishment and maintenance of a good settlement.”

Two hundred years later, the residents of Dolores decided to celebrate the bicentennial by honoring the expedition.

Rocky Moss, current director of the Dolores Chamber of Commerce, said because of the bicentennial, there were federal monies available and Dolores wanted to be a part of the action. As part of the project to create McPhee Reservoir, the Escalante Ruin was being excavated, and the chamber was trying to push for some recognition for Dolores.

There had been a previous summer celebration called Dolores Days, which featured water fights on Central Avenue. In 1976, it morphed into Escalante Days, which was scheduled for early August, when the expedition had originally passed through.

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From July 2014.