Father Escalante and the Indian Boy

Patricia Hale Kendig
Beehive History 1

When Father Silvestre Velez de Escalante set out on a trip from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Monterey, California, some two hundred years ago, there were no super highways. There were not even any maps of the area. But, like other missionaries of his day, he was inspired not only by the desire to spread the good news about God but also by the adventure of exploring unknown territory.

On July 29,1776, Father Escalante, Father Francisco Atanasio Dominguez, and eight companions began their epic journey under a commission from the Spanish government to find a route from Santa Fe to Monterey and to record certain facts about the unknown country. For this reason, Escalante’s diary was not intended to be entertaining.

Shortly after the trip began, however, an Indian boy voluntarily joined the party and, in recording incidents about him, Father Escalante gave us a glimpse into his feelings, and the diary received a touch of color.

Before the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition had been underway a month–moving north through New Mexico and into Colorado–Father Escalante learned about a settlement of Indians to the northeast. Hoping he could persuade one of them to guide his party through the unknown land–Utah–to the west, he made a historic detour. At this Indian camp, Father Escalante told the natives about the good news of the Lord. “All listened with pleasure,” he recorded. One of these Indians agreed to guide the explorers. As they were leaving, a young Laguna Indian boy unexpectedly decided to go with them. He didn’t even have a horse, but to avoid further delay, Father Escalante put him on the back of his own horse. The Spaniards called this Indian boy Joaquin.

Near Jensen, Utah, on September 14, 1776, the explorers made camp on the Green River (near Dinosaur National Monument). They remained there overnight while the tired animals grazed on the abundant pasture land and had a good rest. While they were there, Joaquin must have grown restless, because he mounted a high-spirited horse and, while galloping across a meadow, it tripped in a hole and fell. The quote from Father Escalante’s diary concerning this incident gives some insight into either his patience or his affection toward this young Indian:

“We were frightened, thinking that the Laguna had been badly hurt by the fall because when he had recovered from his fright, he wept copious tears. But God was pleased that the only damage was that done to the horse which completely broke its neck, leaving it useless.”

On September 23, 1776, Escalante arrived at Utah Lake, which was in Laguna territory. The party’s initial meeting with the Laguna Indians was a success because of Joaquin.

At first some Lagunas had come out to meet them with weapons, but the Indians were convinced of the group’s good intentions “on seeing that the boy Joaquin was on such good terms with us that he paid no attention to his own people. He even refused to leave the father….sleeping at his side during the brief space of time that was left in this night. Such an attitude found in an Indian boy so far from civilization that he had never before seen fathers or Spaniards was an occasion for surprise not only to his own people but to us as well.”

What did the members of the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition do to earn this kind of trust and love? Several passages in the diary written by Father Escalante indicate the kind of person he was and give some hints of what Joaquin saw in him. From these passages, it is evident that he not only instilled confidence through his words but by his faith and courage as well. It was probably his example that so impressed this young Indian boy.

Joaquin was not the only one impressed with the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition. Professor Herbert E. Bolton, eminent historian of the Southwest, closes his translation and interpretation of the adventures of Father Escalante in this way:

“Thus ended one of the great exploring expeditions of North American history, made without noise of arms and without giving offense to the natives through whose country they had traveled.”