The Rivera Expedition

Thomas G. Alexander
Utah, The Right Place

Anxious to expand the Spanish Empire to thwart the expansion of other European powers, and to enrich themselves, New Mexican authorities sent expeditions northward. In 1765, a Ute from the north had sold an ingot of silver to a blacksmith in Abiquiu, a small settlement northwest of Santa Fe. That transaction set in motion a series of events that led to two well-documented European penetrations of Utah. Believing that the fringe territories held numerous, easily mined treasures, Juan Maria Antonio Rivera led a small party of Spaniards to the Dolores River in western Colorado.

After Rivera’s return to Santa Fe from the north in July 1765, New Mexican Tomas Velez de Cachupin, who fathered a policy, in David Weber’s words, of “trade, fair treatment, and alliances,” sought to learn more of the region to the north. Asking Rivera to return to the lands he had just visited, Velez de Cachupin instructed the explorer to Rio del Tizon–the Colorado. The governor also asked him to learn the extent of Indian settlements to the north, whether other Europeans had yet arrived on the scene, and whether Lake Copala Gran Teguayo–the reputed seat of a wealthy civilization sought by Coronado–lay in the unexplored territory. Since Velez de Cachupin knew of the expansion of other European powers, he thought the possibility of European colonies to the north quite likely.

Most of the journey took Rivera along trails well-worn by Spanish and Ute traders. Following the La Plata northward, the party passed into the Dolores River drainage, moving to the site of Dove Creek, Colorado.

After leaving the Dolores River, they ventured into unknown country. Crossing into Utah northeast of Monticello, most likely on October 6, 1765, they traveled into the Lisbon Valley. Continuing northwestward, they skirted the southwestern base of the La Sal Mountains and pushed into Spanish Valley, which flows toward the present site of Moab. There they discovered an excellent ford of the broad, deep Colorado.

As a symbol of discovery, conquest, and Spanish sovereignty, Rivera left a large cross with an inscription. Instead of pressing farther into Utah before returning to Santa Fe, the explorers apparently followed the Colorado upstream, perhaps as far as the Gunnison and the Uncompahgre in western Colorado, probably in search of Lake Copala. Although Rivera had found neither gold nor European villages, he had discovered an excellent ford later used by the Old Spanish Trail, and he had documented a portion of the route that was followed eleven years later by Dominguez and Escalante.