On July 29, 1776, Fathers Francisco Atanazio Dominguez and Silvestre Valez de Escalante led an exploration party of 10 horsemen from Sante Fe, New Mexico to establish an overland route to Monterey, California, while spreading the Catholic faith to the native peoples they hoped to meet along the way.
On September 23, the party emerged from Spanish Fork Canyon into Utah Valley. Escalante recorded in his diary, “We went for half a league northwest, crossed over to the other side of the river, went up a brief slope, and caught sight of the lake and spreading valley of Nuestro Senora de la Merced of the Timpanogotzis. We also saw that they were sending up smoke signals on every side, thus spreading the news of our coming.” When camp had been established near Spanish Fork, the Padres proceeded to the Indian village on the Provo River. The natives readily accepted the teachings of the Franciscan Fathers and urged them to return with other friars to live among them.
Escalante’s diary gives us a graphic description of Utah Valley and is our best account of life in the 18th century in Utah. “In mid sierra lies L’Valle de Neustra Senora de la Merced of the Timpanogotzis surrounded by the sierra’s heights from which four medium-sized rivers that water it emerge. All over it there are good and very abundant pasturages and the climate here is a good one. It has plenty of firewood and timber in the adjacent sierra – many sheltered spots, waters and pasturages, for raising cattle and sheep and horses.
This one (lake) of the Timpanogotzis abounds in several species of good fish – of geese, beavers, and other amphibious creatures. Round about it reside the Indians mentioned who live on the lake’s abundant fish. Besides this, they gather the seeds of wild plants in the bottoms and make gruel from them, which they supplement with the game of jackrabbits, coneys and fowl, of which there is a great abundance here. They also have bison handy not too far away, but fear of the Commanches prevents them from hunting them.
“Their dwellings are some sheds or little wattle-huts of osier, out of which they have interestingly-crafted baskets and other utensils for ordinary use. They are very poor as regards to dress. The most becoming one they wear is a deer skin jacket and long leggings of the same. For cold seasons they wear blankets made of jackrabbit and coney rabbit furs. They possess good features and most of them are fully bearded. All the sections of the sierra are inhabited by a great number of peoples of the same nation, language and easy-going character.”
It is interesting to speculate on what might have happened, had the Spaniards been able to return to Utah Valley. Provo may have had an architectural flavor similar to that of Santa Fe and would probably have been the cultural center of Utah. The Mormons may not have settled in Salt Lake Valley at all, since they were seeking a land promised by God for themselves alone.