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1776 expedition set Utah stage for Mormon pioneers

1776 expedition set Utah stage for Mormon pioneers

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SALT LAKE CITY — Friday marks the 231st anniversary of the end of the Revolutionary War, when British forces surrendered at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. The fighting had been ongoing for five years, since a fateful day in 1775 when British troops engaged with colonial minutemen first at Lexington, and later Concord.

The July 2 vote by the Continental Congress to declare independence from Great Britain, and the subsequent adoption of the Declaration of Independence, captured the attention of colonists east of the Mississippi River.

A war would be fought, and a sovereign nation born, but there was a different kind of revolution happening far west of the Mississippi, in what would later become the state of Utah.

These revolutionaries were few, and their actions would not lead to the creation of a new country. Rather, they would lay the groundwork for future explorers of the West, including the Mormon pioneers.

1776 expedition set Utah stage for Mormon pioneers

Franciscan priests Francisco Atanasio Domínguez and Silvestre Vélez de Escalante, along with cartographer Don Bernardo Miera y Pacheco, left Santa Fe, New Mexico, July 29, 1776, in search of an overland route to Spanish missions in California.

Three Timpanog Utes — from a tribe that lived in present-day Utah Valley — led the three through northern Colorado and Utah.

The group entered Utah on Sept. 11, mapping out as they traveled what is now the Uintah National Forest. One of the Ute guides, called "Silvestre," noticed smoke signals made by members of his tribe, and pushed the group forward. Silvestre and his compatriot, Joaquin, adorned themselves with woolen cloth and red ribbon before entering their village near Utah Lake, which at that time was called Lake Timpanog.

The group camped near present-day Spanish Fork and recorded that the area was conducive to settlement, with comfortable temperatures and plentiful food and land. They did not travel to the Salt Lake Valley, although they had heard of it.

The group entered Arizona on Oct. 16 and learned it would be nearly impossible to reach the Spanish missions, as their route was blocked by the Grand Canyon. Struck by illness and suffering from lack of water, the group made their way east across Arizona and back to Santa Fe.

Although the men wrote glowing descriptions of Utah Valley in their travel journals, Utah remained on the outer edges of Spanish and Mexican settlement. The trails they discovered, though, had a great impact on how Utah would come to be settled, as the trails they had mapped were used by traders throughout the area.

The Dominguez-Escalante Expedition enters Utah Valley
The Dominguez-Escalante Expedition enters Utah Valley (Photo:

The Mormon pioneers would benefit as well from the maps. The expedition caught the attention of path marker John C. Fremont, whose 1843–1844 expedition led him to Utah. Fremont's reports on the future state led members of the fledgling Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to consider the area for settlement.

Church President Brigham Young organized a company in April 1847 to follow a map based on Fremont's Utah report. The company was to break a trail west to the Rocky Mountains and choose a central gathering point in the Great Basin, which Fremont had previously explored and discovered it had no outlet to the sea or a river.

The first company arrived in July 1847 in the Salt Lake Valley, about which LDS church leader Orson Pratt later wrote, "we could not refrain from a shout of joy, which almost involuntarily escaped from our lips the moment this grand and lovely scenery was within our view."

It was a journey that would ultimately lead about 70,000 people to head across the country for the Salt Lake Valley, from which later settlements would branch. And it was made possible by two men whose discoveries, while accidental, opened up the land for future settlement.

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Stephanie Grimes


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