In 1776, while the Founding Fathers were forging a new nation on the Eastern seaboard, a group of pioneers 2,000 miles away was making American history of their own. They just happened to be Spanish at the time.
Three weeks after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Francisco Atanasio Dominguez and Silvestre Velez de Escalante embarked on a trip that they hoped would connect their hometown of Santa Fe with the California coast at Monterrey. They didnt make it, but the 1,800-mile journey gave Western colonizers their first look at the landscape of the Four Corners.
In In Search of Dominguez & Escalante: Photographing the 1776 Spanish Expedition through the Southwest, photojournalists Greg MacGregor and Siegfried Halus retrace the explorers steps with the benefit of modern transportation and documentation. MacGregor and Halus will speak and sign copies of the book Saturday at the Animas Museum.
Locals are likely familiar with the route. Beginning in Santa Fe, Dominguez and Escalante headed northwest through Abiquiu and crossed the Animas River a few miles south of the site where Durango would be established 100 years later. They passed directly through what would be Mancos and Cortez before reaching the northernmost point in the trip near Jensen. They traveled Southwest almost as far as modern-day St. George, Utah, before turning back east through northern Arizona.
Not everything is as it was when the two made their trip. Dominguez and Escalante never tapped the power of the Navajo generating station or Glen Canyon Dam near Page, Ariz., nor was there a Mormon to be found in Provo. Railroads, tourist traps and even horses are some of the changes chronicled in the 2010 photos taken by MacGregor and Halus, but there are just as many pictures that illustrate the timelessness of the landscape, including the cottonwoods at Utahs Green River Crossing and the Mud Spring Bench in the Escalante Desert.
The book is arranged chrono-geographically, with each chapter detailing a dated and measured segment of the expedition. The photos are supported with text by the authors, but the real hook is the inclusion of letters sent back to Santa Fe by Dominguez and Escalante and Escalantes journal entries of the five-month trip. Escalantes descriptions of the real-life perils of the unknown, from attacks by native tribes and espionage to arid wastelands with no promise but starvation, play as entertaining as any Western on the big screen.
Saturdays program at the museum will last an hour and is the last leg of a three-stop mini-tour that included an appearance Thursday in Abiquiu and today in Farmington.
MacGregor is professor emeritus of photography at California State University and Halus is the former director of the art department at Santa Fe Community College. Both authors live in Santa Fe.