Although American Indian people were truly the first early explorers of this country, it wasn't long after Europeans arrived that they, too, began probing the periphery of the rugged plateau country.
The first recorded travels in the general vicinity of Capitol Reef National Park were conducted under the leadership of Franciscan friars Atanasio Dominguez and Velez de Escalante in 1775-76. The initial purpose of the expedition was to find a passable overland route from Santa Fe to the California missions. Rough country, bad weather and overwhelming isolation compelled the friars and their party to abandon their journey and, instead, head back to New Mexico across the jagged, southern edge of the Colorado Plateau. Weary and worn, they came to the Colorado River where Lee's Ferry is today, but they could not cross the swift, deep water. Starving and exasperated, the Dominguez-Escalante party struggled north. The closest they actually came to Capitol Reef was a spot between Gunsight and Dominguez Buttes, just north of the Arizona state line and about 50 miles southwest of the park's southern boundary. Here, at the Crossing of the Fathers, they were finally able to ford the river on November 7, 1776. Escalante recorded that his party of 13 celebrated "by praising God, our Lord, and firing off a few muskets as a sign of the great joy we all felt at having overcome so great a difficulty." 
This first extensive visit of Europeans to the area was significant for many reasons. Most notably, the Dominguez-Escalante expedition barely survived in a forbidding environment very similar to the Waterpocket Fold country. Their descriptions of this rugged landscape were no doubt an important factor in keeping others from risking a trip through the Colorado Plateau for over 50 years.
The Spanish also made several other excursions into what is today southern Utah, mostly in search of Indian people to enslave. There is no conclusive evidence that the Spanish or Mexicans ever ventured any closer to Capitol Reef than the Crossing of the Fathers and the old Spanish Trail (which, not coincidentally, circles around the Colorado Plateau). The Spanish Trail, actually not really used until the Mexican era, ran from Santa Fe north through southwestern Colorado and eastern Utah, and then crossed the Colorado River at Moab. After fording the Green River near the modern Utah town of the same name, the trail branched into northern and western courses. Taking the easier, northern route, a traveler would follow the Price River and Spanish Fork Canyon to Utah Lake before heading south again to the Sevier River. The more direct but more precarious western route passed through the northern San Rafael Swell, generally as Interstate 70 does today. From the top of Wasatch Pass, a traveler would follow Salina Canyon down to the Sevier River valley. From there, the trail headed mostly southwest, ending in San Gabriel, California. While a few brave souls attempted, like Dominguez and Escalante, to open trade with California by a more direct route, there is no conclusive evidence of--nor reason for--Spanish or Mexican ventures into the Waterpocket Fold country. The heart of the Colorado Plateau and its western barriers appeared dangerous and unprofitable to early Spanish and Mexican adventurers. 
Coinciding with the decline of Spanish rule north of the borderlands, the American, British, and French fur trade blossomed throughout the West. By the 1830s, however, the best of the beaver streams had been nearly trapped out. Hardy mountain men then began searching the remote drainages of the Colorado River for new beaver populations, free of competing trappers and disapproving Indian warriors. Surprisingly, even in this desert environment, beaver are still found all over Colorado Plateau, including Capitol Reef. There were probably more of them 150 years ago.
Jedediah Smith was the first known mountain man to follow the Indian and Spanish trails into Utah. On his first of many travels through virtually unknown terrain in 1826, Smith and his band of 18 trappers and traders picked up part of the Spanish Trail west of the Wasatch. They even traveled a little east of it into the high plateaus north of present day Zion National Park, on their way to Mexican-held California in hopes of securing trade privileges. 
Antoine Robidoux was probably the most influential fur trader in Utah. From his post at the junction of the Uintah and White Rocks Creek, Robidoux sent trappers to go up "the Big Bear, Green, Grand, and the Colorado rivers, with their numerous tributaries, in search of fur bearing game."  One of those trappers may have been Denis Julien, who is credited with the earliest inscriptions in the deep canyons of the Green and Colorado Rivers. Nothing is known of Julien except for his signature inscribed in 1831 on rocks near Robidoux's Fort Wintey, and other inscriptions dated 1836 in Labyrinth, Stillwater, and Cataract Canyons. Like other mountain men who ventured into the canyon lands in search of beaver and game, Julien wrote little and left nothing behind. Robidoux's trading post was eventually destroyed by Utes in 1844, near the end of the short-lived fur trade era. 
The Spanish friars, Mexican traders, and American mountain men were the first non-Indians to see the labyrinth of canyons, cliffs, buttes, and badlands that are now regarded as some of the most impressive scenery in the world. The earliest explorers, though, weren't looking for scenic vistas: to them, the rugged country was a barrier to travel and trade. Their routes circled around Capitol Reef, as do the transportation routes of today.
It was the search for a railroad route that brought the next group of explorers to the country north of Capitol Reef. In 1853, Lt. John W. Gunnison led an official government survey for a central transcontinental route that would have bisected Utah. Gunnison followed the Spanish Trail cutoff over Wasatch Pass and down Salina Canyon before he was killed by Indians in the vicinity of Delta, Utah. 
A year later, "The Pathfinder" John C. Fremont began his fifth and final cross-country trip, to locate a northern railroad route that would circumvent pro-slavery states in the looming civil conflict. Fremont and his party followed Gunnison's path until they crossed the Green River. There, Fremont headed south through the San Rafael Swell, coming very close to the present northern boundary of Capitol Reef before heading up over Thousand Lake Mountain.  He might have camped on the stream that now bears his name before traveling across the Awapa Plateau (Parker Mountain) and on to the Sevier River. How close this party came to Capitol Reef has long been debated. His artist and daguerreotypist, Solomon N. Carvalho, wrote a very general account of their journey, and a couple of his sketches and a map seem to put them somewhere in the vicinity of Salvation Creek, just east and north of Cathedral Valley. 
But despite the hard work and sacrifice of these expedition members, the transcontinental railroad route ended up crossing the Great Salt Lake further north. The interior Colorado Plateau, especially around the flexures of the Waterpocket Fold and San Rafael Swell, were too rugged and isolated for railroads.
The next wave of investigators was more determined to open up southern Utah. It began with Mormon attempts to overcome Indian resistance to settlement, and it continued with the adventurous but systematic examination of the landscape by the John Wesley Powell expeditions. A brief history of Mormon settlement of southern Utah is provided in the next chapter, but to understand the reason for early Mormon Militia expeditions into what is now central Wayne and Garfield Counties, a little background is needed.
Soon after the establishment of communities around the Great Salt Lake in the late 1840s, Mormon colonists began to push southward into Ute territory. The Walker War of 1853-54 was a direct response by Utes to Mormon encroachments. In 1865, the Black Hawk War, a general uprising of Utes and Paiutes throughout southern Utah and northern Arizona, was again in reaction to new Mormon settlements. After settlers were killed in Pipe Springs and Long Valley (between Carmel Junction and Hatch), the Utah Territorial Militia was sent out after any potentially hostile Indians. During these campaigns, a great deal of south-central Utah was explored. After the Indians were subdued, Mormons channeled their colonization efforts into promising agricultural areas that had been discovered by the militia. 
Captain James Andrus had led one such campaign in August 1866. The cavalry company, consisting of 62 officers and men, were to travel from the Kaibab Plateau to the mouth of the Green River:
Adjutant Franklin B. Woolley kept a journal and prepared the official report, which includes the first known map of the Capitol Reef region.
The mounted militia began from St. George and headed through sparsely settled country to Kanab. It then turned northeast, where on August 26 in the militia's only encounter with Indians, Elijah Averett, Jr. was killed in the canyons south of what is now Bryce Canyon National Park. Directed by the increasingly rugged upper canyon system of the Escalante, the militia followed Pine Creek up onto Boulder Mountain. From the proximity of Bown's Point, Woolley wrote the first known description of the Waterpocket Fold country:
For some reason, perhaps wishful thinking, the party estimated that from this lofty vantage point the mouth of the Green River was only 15 miles away, when actually it was closer to 80. Seeing no easy way across the Waterpocket Fold, the party voted unanimously to head back. The Andrus campaign rode down Boulder Mountain to the Awapa Plateau, and the campaign concluded its 464-mile journey by way of Grass Valley, Circleville, and Parowan, returning to St. George by mid-September. This expedition may not have met many Indians, but it did begin to break down the final barriers to settlement in south-central Utah. The Ute and Paiute threat, however, was not over. It would be another 10 years before settlers ventured in the high valleys west of the present national park. 
In the meantime, John Wesley Powell's expeditions would solve many of the final mysteries shrouding the Colorado Plateau, accomplishing the first documented travel through and geological examinations of the Waterpocket Fold. Powell's 1869 exploration was the first down the length of the canyons cut by the Green and Colorado rivers, taking nine men and three boats through unimaginable hardships into the heart of the Grand Canyon. Along the way, Powell made the first detailed descriptions of the Colorado Plateau. Records, sketches, and scientific measurements were made of the canyons he named Cataract and Glen, and the mountains later named Henry in honor of his friend and financier at the Smithsonian Institution. 
Powell's most direct contribution to Capitol Reef is his documentation of a river that empties into the Colorado between Cataract and Glen Canyons, draining the northern Waterpocket Fold country. In Powell's edited journal, he writes of that day in late July, 1869 when he discovered the mouth of an unknown stream. He records:
The Dirty Devil was so named at its mouth. It is believed, but not proven, that early Mormon settlers arriving to the west of Capitol Reef called the same river the Fremont in honor of The Pathfinder's 1854 visit to the area.  The confusion was later resolved when the map-makers labeled the river the Fremont up to its junction with the Muddy, at Hanksville. From Hanksville east to the Colorado River, it is known as the Dirty Devil.
Powell and five others eventually made it all the way through the Grand Canyon, one of the most remarkable stories in the history of the American West. Yet Powell's contribution to the West's history was only beginning.
Unsatisfied with one voyage down the Colorado, Powell made a second trip, although this one made it only as far as Lee's Ferry in 1871 and only to Kanab Creek within the Grand Canyon a year later.  Powell's energy and enthusiasm were now focused past the Colorado River itself toward a thorough scientific exploration of the Colorado's unmapped western drainages and the American Indians, especially the Paiutes, who lived there. Yet Powell, who had by this time tasted political life in Washington, left it up to his brother-in-law, topographer Almon Harris Thompson, to lead the actual exploration and mapping of the unknown territory between the Arizona Strip and the Green River crossing. 
The early exploration and mapping by the first Powell survey may have fueled rumors of precious minerals along the drainages of the Colorado River. This is turn may be the reason for "J. A. Call" and "Wal. Bateman" to travel through Capitol Gorge and leave the oldest inscribed signatures in what is now Capitol Reef National Park. Their identity as prospectors, and nothing more, is all that is known of this earliest passage through the Waterpocket Fold by someone of European descent. 
Beginning in late May, 1872, Thompson, Powell's brother Clem, Frederick Dellenbaugh, photographer Jack Hillers, and five others left the Mormon towns of southwestern Utah to chart the region between Boulder Mountain and the Colorado River. The main purpose of this trip was to find the mouth of the Dirty Devil River, where a boat had been left the year before. Whatever topographic information could be acquired would, of course, benefit Powell's overall survey. Thompson succeeded admirably on both accounts.
They initially followed the 1866 Andrus expedition route to Potato Valley, where the town of Escalante now stands. Once there, though, Thompson became confused: the creek heading southeast should be the Dirty Devil, but it was flowing through steep canyons in the wrong direction. The higher the viewpoint, the more certain Thompson was that this was a new, unmapped river drainage. He called it the Escalante in honor of the first white man to record passage through the Colorado Plateau. The Escalante became the last river added to the map of the contiguous United States. The mountains that Thompson could see rising out of the canyons directly to the east were the Unknown Mountains, later to be called the Henrys, the last-named and last-mapped mountain range in the lower 48 states. It was not until 1872 that the Capitol Reef region was finally explored. 
From the headwaters of the Escalante, the party headed north up the flanks and out onto the flat, spruce-and- lake-covered top of Boulder Mountain, west of the Waterpocket Fold. Each of the five known journals of this trip remarks on the lush grass, timber and numerous lakes on Boulder Mountain.  Thompson, as well as others, mention the old tracks and camps of Indians. Once on top, their view to the east was the same as the Andrus party's six years earlier. Only Thompson's party, having recently ridden down the Green and Colorado and trying repeatedly to get out of the canyons, had a much better feel for the topography before them. It was all beginning to make sense.
The problem now was getting from Boulder Mountain down to the mouth of the Dirty Devil. Thompson decided to head for the Henry Mountains and then find a route down to the river from there. Since the Waterpocket Fold lay directly in their path, this would become the first recorded expedition through what is now Capitol Reef. Unfortunately, the passage through the fold is not described in great detail. A careful examination of the diaries of Thompson, Dellenbaugh, and Hillers (the only writers who made it all the way to the river) suggests that the route crossed the top of Boulder Mountain and went down the eastern flank somewhere between Bown's and Chokecherry Points.
The previous day, they had observed camp smoke rising from a canyon directly below them. In scouting a trail down, Dellenbaugh encountered "tolerably fresh Indian sign, and a mile or two further on ... struck a recently traveled trail."  Since no other trail had been found, he concluded this was their best chance of locating a route down the mountain's steep, rocky slopes.
On June 13, after a rainy night, the party set off on the twisting and often indistinct trail traveling almost due east.  After several miles, wrote Hillers:
Thompson's similar description would place this camp in the neighborhood of upper Tantalus Creek, immediately below and east of the present Bown's Reservoir. Early the next day, the party came upon the Indian camp. Hillers identifies the band as Red Lake Utes in the area to gather seeds. According to Dellenbaugh, the language and appearance of this band of eight men and several women and children identified them as Ute. After a few tense moments, everyone became friendly and Thompson tried to obtain the services of one of them as a guide. This being unsuccessful, he convinced the "chief" to give directions. Recorded Dellenbaugh:
Clearly, this band and others were traveling through Capitol Reef on a regular basis. Hillers speculated that some of the tracks found in nearby canyons were those of cattle stolen from the Mormons and hidden down in the slickrock canyons, where they could not be tracked. Hillers also mentions that "wild oats grow here the same as cultivated does anywhere else only not so heavy" and that at the present time the Indians were gathering their "yearly supply of seeds and nuts. Those which we left had quite a crop gathered." 
After a peaceful night of trading, the Utes and explorers went their separate ways. Here, the actual route of Thompson's party through Capitol Reef gets confusing because it is mentioned only in passing. Without a guide, they traveled another 12 miles, passing through one narrow canyon, perhaps the limestone canyon west of Sleeping Rainbow Ranch, before descending into a larger one. Another possibility is that the small canyon is where Pleasant Creek cuts through Capitol Reef and the large canyon is that of Sandy Creek, immediately east of the fold. The recent rains had wiped out the trail, yet Thompson remarks on the presence of "many cattle sign" in the larger canyon. 
Once through the fold, the party became temporarily lost in the rugged country between Capitol Reef and the Henry Mountains. The difficulty finding water and getting out of the steep canyons, understandably, left a deeper impression on the men than the trip through Pleasant Creek. Once through the Henrys and down to the Colorado, the party split up. Hillers, Dellenbaugh, and two others rode the boat on to Lee's Ferry, while Thompson and the others went back toward Escalante to resupply. On the return trip, Thompson climbed the northern, tallest mountain in the Henrys and named it for his wife, Ellen. His route through Capitol Reef is again frustratingly unclear: his focus was on the structure and dip of the fold itself. 
After the Thompson-led exploration of the Waterpocket Fold, geologists assigned to Powell's fledgling U.S. Geological Survey took a more detailed look at the area. Geologists Grove Karl Gilbert and Clarence E. Dutton traveled through Capitol Reef on separate expeditions in the late 1870s. Their descriptions and analyses of the features they saw laid the foundation for modern sedimentary geology.
Gilbert was the first to investigate the geology of the Waterpocket Fold during his field work on the Henry Mountains in 1875-76. His 1877 report illustrated the geology of Capitol Reef, both in words and drawings. Gilbert traveled from Salt Lake City by way of Salina, observing that the town was "the last settlement on the route, but [that] there [were] 'ranches' as far as Rabbit Valley, and if [one delayed] a few years he [would]l find a town there." 
After a panoramic side trip up Thousand Lake Mountain, Gilbert descended east into the Fold. His report offers the first meaningful description of the landscape and the adventures awaiting those who entered:
On his second visit a year later, Gilbert went down the eastern edge of the Waterpocket Fold. While in Strike Valley and what was then called the Grand Gulch, he was particularly impressed with Halls Creek Narrows at the southern tip of Capitol Reef National Park:
Gilbert accurately portrayed the origins and weathering of this classic monoclinal uplift, giving it a proper sense of grandeur. But Clarence Dutton outshines any modern travel writer when it comes to describing the landscape of Capitol Reef National Park. Crossing Boulder Mountain only a short time after Gilbert, Dutton experienced his first impressions of Capitol Reef, writing:
Even as Gilbert and Dutton were remarking on the area's striking beauty, the first ranchers and settlers were arriving just to the west. Their attitude toward the land could not afford to be romantic: they had chosen to make a living in this inhospitable place. The probing of Capitol Reef country would continue through present times, but cattle, sheep, and wagons would follow the trails of explorers, instead of the fading Indian trails of the past.
2 C. Gregory Crampton, Standing Up Country: The Canyonlands of Utah and Arizona (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books, 1983) 48-50; Robert G. Cleland, This Reckless Breed of Men: The Trappers and Fur Traders of the Southwest (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1950; University of New Mexico Press, 1976) 265-268.
8 Ibid., note #2, p. 171; Mary Lee Spence, ed., The Expeditions of John Charles Fremont (University of Illinois Press, 1984) 4:466-67; Solomon N. Carvalho, Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the Far West: With Col. Fremont's Last Expedition (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1859), maps; Ferol Egan, Fremont: Explorer for a Restless Nation (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1977), 500-503; Todd Berens, Fremont scholar, personal communication, December 1992.
14 John Wesley Powell, The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1961) 227. There is some dispute over the exact reason for the name Dirty Devil, but Powell biographer Wallace Stegner dismisses these other arguments. See Stegner, 87-88.
15 Anne Snow, ed., Rainbow Views: A History of Wayne County, 4th ed. (Springville, Utah: Art City Publishing, 1985) 3, recounts a story of Fremont's name etched into a cottonwood tree in upper Rabbit Valley.
18 Charles Kelly, "Journal of Walter Clement Powell," Utah Historical Quarterly, 16-17 (1948-49) note 425; Patrick O'Bannon, "Capitol Reef National Park: A Historic Resource Study," June 1992, 12, prepared for the National Park Service, on file, Intermountain Regional Office, Denver.
22 Don D. Fowler, ed., "Photographed All the Best Scenery": Jack Hillers's Diary of the Powell Expeditions, 1871-1875 (Salt Lake: University of Utah Press, 1972) 120. Dellenbaugh states this was in May instead of June, but Stegner mentions that the trip did not even get underway until the end of May, so this author is inclined to go with the Hillers date, instead.
31 Clarence E. Dutton, Report on the Geology of the High Plateaus of Utah (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Interior, Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region, 1880) 286-287 .
Last Updated: 10-Dec-2002