Explorers and Trappers

Ron Rood and Linda Thatcher

Utah’s thousands of years of prehistory and its centuries of known recorded history are so distinctive and complex that a summary can only hint at the state’s rich heritage. The synopsis offered here follows major themes in Utah history and includes some of the significant dates, events, and individuals.

Mexicans and Spaniards were the first known non-Indians to enter what is now the state of Utah. The recent discovery and translation of the journals of Juan Maria Rivera show that he led no less than two expeditions into the area of present day Utah in 1765, accomplishing the first white man sightings of Hovenweep and the Colorado River, which he reached on the second trip at the site of modern Moab. Twelve years later, in July 1776 just as the American Revolution was beginning in the East a 10-man exploration team left Santa Fe, New Mexico, under the leadership of two Franciscan priests, Dominguez and Escalante. They entered Utah from the east near the present town of Jensen, traversed the Uinta Basin, crossed the Wasatch Mountains via Diamond Fork and Spanish Fork canyons, and visited the Indian encampment at Utah Lake. Traveling south, they eventually forded the treacherous Colorado River and returned to Santa Fe in January 1777. Early snows had forced them to give up their attempt to reach Monterey, California.

Utahns are indebted to the Dominguez-Escalante expedition because of the detailed diary kept by Father Escalante which describes plant and animal life; geography; and the appearance, dress, food, and life ways of the Utes and Paiutes. The Rivera journals, the Escalante diary, and the map made by Bernardo de Miera, who accompanied the Dominguez-Escalante party, are the first documents in Utah history.

Although there was no immediate follow-up to the historic Dominguez-Escalante expedition, traders continued to be interested in establishing new routes to California, and by the early 1800s trade between Santa Fe and the Indians in north-central Utah was fairly well established.

From 1807 to 1840 mountain men competing for fur explored vast areas of the American West, and their knowledge was eventually passed on to future settlements.

In the 1820s trappers explored most of Utah’s rivers and valleys as well as some of the desert land. Jedediah Smith, one of the great explorers, made several significant journeys through Utah and publicized South Pass in Wyoming, over which thousands of later immigrants traveled. Trapper Jim Bridger reported his sighting of the Great Salt Lake in 1824; Osborn Russell and a party of French-Canadian trappers wintered near present Ogden in 1840–41; and Miles Goodyear established Fort Buenaventura on the Ogden River in 1844–45. The explorations of other trappers including Peter Skene Ogden, Etienne Provost, John H. Weber, William H. Ashley, James P. Beckwourth, the Robidoux brothers, and Joseph R. Walker also contributed to knowledge of the Utah area. So did groups such as the Bartleson-Bidwell party whose wagons crossed Utah in 1841 and the Donner party who blazed a trail into the Salt Lake Valley in 1846 that the Mormons followed in 1847.

In the 1840s United States government explorers and settlers bound for California came into Utah. Among the most notable explorers of the West in this period was John C. Fremont, who mapped trails and described the land and plant and animal life of the Great Basin.