Fray Francisco Atanasio Domínguez

by Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint

Although neither fray Francisco Atanasio Domínguez nor fray Francisco Silvestre Vélez de Escalante spent much time in New Mexico, they both left historical legacies of importance for understanding the Spanish colony. Both were Franciscan friars, and both were sent to New Mexico about the same time, Domínguez in 1775 and Vélez de Escalante in the previous year.

Domínguez was the senior of the two, in both age and administrative position within the order. He had been born in Mexico City about 1740 to Lucas Domínguez and Juana Francisca Etchegaray and was admitted to the Franciscan Recollet convento of San Cosme in 1753. Before being sent to the Custody of the Conversion of St. Paul in New Mexico, he had served in other mission posts, including at the convent of Veracruz. In 1775, Domínguez was appointed visitador, or inspector, of the Franciscan missions of New Mexico. As historians Eleanor B. Adams and Angelico Chavez have pointed out, that assignment indicates that Domínguez "enjoyed esteem at [Franciscan provincial] headquarters for his learning and mature judgment."

The friar\'s charge was to survey all of the New Mexico missions and submit a formal, written report detailing the fiscal and ecclesiastical condition of each, as well as the number and state of Indians being served by them. Domínguez was also enlisted to further Viceroy Antonio Bucareli\'s goal of establishing a route of regular communication from New Mexico to Sonora and newly founded Monterey in Alta California. The final report would prove valuable for "both Majesties," that is the Spanish king and his councils, as well as the provincial authorities of the Franciscan order.

The royal administration had been increasingly concerned with defending the frontier regions of the empire (including New Mexico and California) from encroachment by other European colonial powers, particularly France, England, and Russia. Thus, up-to-date knowledge of the viability and stability of the mission kingdom of New Mexico was needed for military planning. Physically linking the various northern prongs of Spanish penetration of the continent was crucial. Meanwhile, both the king of Spain and Franciscan administrators were concerned over the continued financial dependence of the Custody of the Conversion of St. Paul on royal subsidies.

Between September 1775 and December 1776, Domínguez toured the missions of New Mexico, from El Paso in the south to Taos in the north and from Pecos in the east to Zuni in the west. In his travels he was joined by fray José Mariano Rosete y Peralta and fray José Palacio, who served as secretary. Generally speaking, Domínguez found the missions of the province to be poverty stricken and struggling.

He looked in detail at the structure of the church buildings and the ornaments and vestments each possessed and with this base of observation, he appraised the quality of each mission. He then went on to assess the devoutness and effectiveness of each of the 29 friars then at work in the province. Domínguez was relentlessly exacting in his judgment of both physical resources and the cadre of friars. Reporting the state of affairs at Galisteo Pueblo, he wrote: "The church is small. Its walls are about to fall. Half of the roof is on the ground…It is useless and needs to be completely rebuilt from the foundations." At Isleta Pueblo, he saw to it that the priest, fray José Junco, was removed from his post because he had been selling merchandise for profit at the pueblo. In order to discover this malfeasance, it was necessary for Domínguez "to use subterfuge," as he himself put it, a step clearly distasteful to the visitador.

He was disappointed with the provincial capital of Santa Fe. "Its appearance, design, arrangement, and plan," he wrote, "do not correspond to its status…it is like a rough stone set in fine metal." There were a few bright spots in his assessment of the missions and missionaries. Writing about Jemez Pueblo, for example, he stated the he was "very gratified and pleased to see the little teachers of the catechism so learned and well instructed in Christian doctrine, reading, singing, and the manner of assisting at Mass." But shortcomings were plentiful, and the visitador lamented the chaotic state of many of the missions and derelictions committed by too many friars. Domínguez\'s vision of New Mexico was, thus, much less rosy than had been that of his predecessor Alonso de Benavides 150 years earlier.

So harsh was Domínguez\'s criticism and so stringent were his standards that a number of the friars complained. Some went so far as to direct written grievances to the visitador\'s superiors in Mexico City. Although he was himself subsequently appointed custos, or ecclesiastical administrator, of the New Mexico missions, Domínguez asked to be allowed to resign from that post and spent much of the remainder of his life attempting to defend himself against charges of extremism.

In the midst of his tour of New Mexico missions, Domínguez had decided to attempt to journey to Monterey, California, with a young priest from Zuni Pueblo, Francisco Silvestre Vélez de Escalante. A native of Santander in Spain, fray Silvestre was about 26 years old in 1776, ten years younger than Domínguez. In the summer of 1775, after a year as priest at Zuni, Vélez de Escalante had been enlisted by the Spanish civil authorities in an effort to link New Mexico with Sonora and, especially, the new province of Alta California. While on a trip to the Hopi pueblos of northern Arizona, he was to seek out whatever information he could obtain about travel from there to California.

The need to define that route was obviated by the arrival of a letter from fray Francisco Garcés that reached Santa Fe in July 1776. Garcés had been with Juan Bautista de Anza during the latter\'s successful colonizing expedition from the presidio of Tubac in Arizona to Monterey. Garcés had been left in the Yuma area to establish a mission and to seek a route from there to Santa Fe, again by way of the Hopi pueblos. In the very early days of July 1776 he reached the towns of the Hopis and sent a letter to the priest at Zuni Pueblo, who happened to be Vélez de Escalante, announcing his success. When the letter arrived in Zuni, it was forwarded to Santa Fe, where fray Silvestre was already conferring with Domínguez about their own effort to scout a route to California.

Vélez de Escalante advocated for a more direct, northerly route to Monterey rather than the more southerly Hopi route. The letter from Garcés freed the two New Mexico friars from the necessity of re-tracing that route and allowed them to focus instead on the northern one. Besides, the Hopis had proven inhospitable to Garcés, as they had the previous year to fray Silvestre. They were, thus, likely to be an obstacle to travel on a California trail that passed through their territory; better to seek a different route altogether.

So it was that on July 29, 1776, Domínguez and Vélez de Escalante, along with 13 other men and boys, including seven Indians, departed from Santa Fe bound for California. One of those accompanying the friars as cartographer was Bernardo Miera y Pacheco, a long-time resident of Santa Fe. The group never reached its destination. It did, however, make a circuit of much of what is today known as the Great Basin.

The friars and their companions headed northwest from Santa Fe, crossing into modern Colorado at the San Juan River. Then they crossed the great sage plains of western Colorado by a looping route that took them across the Colorado River and into what is now Utah at about Green River. From there they bore westward, entering the Salt Lake Basin and seeing Utah Lake. The friars were enchanted by the huge valley south of Utah Lake. By October 8, though, winter weather was closing in.

As the friars recorded in their journal, "all the sierras we managed to see in all directions were covered with snow…we therefore feared that long before we got there the passes would be closed to us." They decided therefore to give up the attempt to reach Monterey that year and instead to return to Santa Fe while seeking a shorter route between there and the Salt Lake Basin. Bernardo Miera y Pacheco, Joaquín Laín, and Andrés Muñiz were very disgruntled over the friars\' decision. The malcontents would not be persuaded to turn back. Miera y Pacheco, for instance, insisted that the distance to Monterey was not great. As a way out of the impasse, the friars offered to cast lots and abide by whatever chance determined. After much praying on both sides, the pieces were thrown and the one indicating a return to Santa Fe turned up, and everyone consented to that course.

By January 1777, the expeditionaries were back in Santa Fe. On the third of that month, Domínguez and Vélez de Escalante presented a written diary of their journey to New Mexico governor Pedro Fermín de Mendinueta. The original of that journal disappeared long ago. A copy was prepared within a few days, however, by Domínguez\'s secretary, and it still survives, as well as a number of other later copies. The journal is the oldest written account of many of the places the friars visited, of the Ute tribe, and other native peoples they encountered.

The two friars also left behind other documents important to New Mexico\'s history. Domínguez prepared a detailed written summary of his visitation of the missions. It was filed by his superiors and then ignored, forgotten until the early twentieth century when it was located among the holdings of the Biblioteca Nacional de México. Relying on documents from the ecclesiastical archive of New Mexico, many of which have since disappeared, Vélez de Escalante wrote a history of the province covering the period 1693-1715. Both of these sources have proven invaluable for the understanding of New Mexico\'s past.

After returning from the abortive attempt to reach Monterey, Domínguez was recalled to Mexico City to answer charges resulting from his behavior as visitador. He lived another 30 years and returned to New Mexico to serve as presidial priest at various posts. He died at San Elizario, near El Paso, in 1803. His younger companion and fellow Franciscan, Vélez de Escalante, remained in New Mexico as vice custos, or assistant administrator, and missionary at several pueblos for three years following the expedition through the Great Basin. Illness, though, forced him to request a transfer back to Mexico City. He died en route in 1780; he was barely 30 years old.

Sources Used:

Adams, Eleanor B. and Fray Angelico Chavez, eds. and trs. The Missions of New Mexico, 1776: A Description by fray Francisco Atanasio Domínguez with Other Contemporary Documents. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1956; Reprinted, 1975.

Hendricks, Rick. "A Lost Chapter in the Ecclesiastical History of San Elizario, Texas: Fray Francisco Atanasio Domínguez," Password 50:2 (Summer 2006): 70.88.

Kessell, John L. Kiva, Cross, and Crown: the Pecos Indians and New Mexico, 1540-1840. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987.

Kessell, John L. Spain in the Southwest, a Narrative History of Colonial New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.

Warner, Ted J. and Fray Angelico Chavez, ed. and tr. The Domínguez-Escalante Journal: Their Expedition through Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico in 1776.Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1995.

Weber, David J. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992.

Much of what is known about New Mexico in the latter decades of the eighteenth century derives from documents written by two Franciscan friars, Francisco Atanasio Dominguez and Francisco Silvestre Velez de Escalante.

Reproducing prohibited without express permission from the State Records Center and Archives.

Courtesy of the State Records Center and Archives. <br />