Like most visitors from New Mexico, Francisco Atanasio Dominguez and Silvestre Velez de Escalante descended Farmington Hill, but would have to camp on the banks of the Animas River because Durango’s oldest hotel, the Strater, would not open for another 111 years.
On Aug. 8, 1776, Dominguez and Escalante, two Franciscan friars from Santa Fe who took vows of poverty, set up camp in an area known today for its big box stores such as Home Depot and Walmart, reaching the site almost a month after the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed in Philadelphia.
Dominguez was in charge of the trail-blazing expedition, but the middle school behind Walmart is named only for Escalante, who was 10 years younger than Dominguez.
Historically, it’s an odd slight because it was the “Dominguez-Escalante Expedition, and not the other way around,” said John Kessell, a retired professor of history at the University of New Mexico who now lives in Durango.
“Dominguez was the Franciscan superior. Escalante was very young. He was only 26 years old when he set out on that expedition,” Kessell said.
There is a street at the Walmart and U.S. 550/160 intersection named for Dominguez, but as one the busiest intersections in Southwest Colorado it’s also probably one of the most cursed.
“As far as I know, just that (dinky) little road that goes to Walmart is named for Dominguez (in Durango),” said Kessell.
“I don’t know of anything else named for Dominguez. Where is the Dominguez Middle School?”
Others are deserving credit for this expedition that reached the Great Basin area of Utah and influenced future explorers such as John Fremont, who in turn influenced the Mormon pioneers.
Kessell has just published a biography of the expedition cartographer called Miera Y Pacheco: A Renaissance Spaniard in Eighteenth-Century New Mexico. It was released Aug. 4 to mark the 300th anniversary of the birth of Don Bernado Miera Y Pacheco.
While Miera made the maps and Dominguez was the leader, Escalante has got schools, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and a city in Utah named for him.
Historians, such as Kessell, Paul Reeve of the University of Utah and Thomas Alexander of Brigham Young University, said Escalante upstaged everyone because he kept a diary of the trip that has become the historical record.
As the more active writer on the trip, he might unwittingly be analogous to a modern 20-something using Twitter to grab the spotlight.
Recognizing the slight, historians have tried to correct the record.
During the 1976 bicentennial celebration of the expedition, the state of Utah erected a cross at the mouth of Spanish Fork Canyon and renamed a hill Dominguez Hill, according to Thomas Alexander, a history professor at Brigham Young University.
A local history buff suggested the name for Dominguez Drive by Walmart when it was built in 1995-96, according to Greg Hoch, community development director for Durango. Escalante got his own street in the same neighborhood, too.
The name for Escalante Middle School was chosen by a committee in 1993 after soliciting names from the public.
“It doesn’t appear to be a cognizant effort to exclude. Escalante Middle School was one of many other name ideas submitted to the committee, as were other names like Purple Cliffs Middle School,” said Julie Popp, spokeswoman for Durango School District 9-R, in an email.
Popp was not aware of a Dominguez suggestion for the school.
The expedition had set out to find a route to link Santa Fe to the mission in Monterey, Calif.
After Durango, they passed through Dolores before eventually heading into Utah.
Snowy weather at Lake Utah convinced them to turn around in October and head back to Santa Fe. It was a good thing because their 10-member team would have ended up like the Donner Party, which resorted to cannibalism, if they tried to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the middle of winter, Kessell said.
The friars would present the diary of the expedition to the Spanish governor of New Mexico on Jan. 2.
They talked up the potential of Utah, but Spain neither had the resources or the motivation to extend its empire, leaving the area open for the eventual settlement by the Mormons, Kessell said.
Kessell said the expedition was remarkable for not losing any members, although they did eat about half of their horses.
Escalante, however, would die a few years after the expedition, probably from complications of a urinary infection.
Dominguez would get in trouble with his superiors after writing a scathing report on the condition of the missions in New Mexico.
“He’s really hard on the missionaries, who he says are drunkards. They were abusing their priestly roles,” Kessell said.
Because of the backlash, Dominguez was banished to remote missions in northern Mexico, never to return to his hometown of Mexico City.
Ironically, for a guy who has been overlooked in history, Dominguez has become popular among historians because his detailed report on the missions of New Mexico has become a “valuable historical document,” providing “us with a window into 18th-century New Mexico,” Kessell said.