Explorers and Surveyors

"The whole country is a region of naked rock of many colors, with cliffs and buttes about us and towering mountains in the distance."

-John Wesley Powell's journal entry on July 28, 1869


The Waterpocket Fold Country was the last territory to be charted in the contiguous 48 states. In 1776, two Franciscan priests, Francisco Atanasio Domínguez and Silvestre Vélez de Escalante, left Santa Fe with the intention of finding a route to missions in Monterey, California. They made detailed recordings of their findings through Arizona, Colorado, and Utah during their trip. They befriended Ute tribes by presenting them with gifts and promising to teach them to farm and raise livestock.

Two images: a black and white photo of two large triangular monoliths and cliffs. Second image: Pen and ink etching of men, horses, and the same two large triangular monoliths.
John Charles Fremont's expedition passed through the North District of Capitol Reef as evidenced by this pen and ink reproduction of the daguerreotype taken by Carvalho, and a photo of the same rock monoliths.


Old fashioned map of the geologic features in south central Utah and northern Arizona
The Waterpocket Fold is mapped (but not named) between the Henry Mountains and the Aquarius Plateau (which includes Boulder Mountain) on this 1875 map created by John Wesley Powell's expedition.

Library of Congress/ USGS

In the winter of 1853, John Charles Fremont passed through Utah and Colorado, attempting to find a northern railroad route to the Pacific Ocean. The expedition was difficult and the explorers were forced to eat their horses before stumbling upon a Mormon settlement. Fremont took care to document their journey, hiring a daguerreotypist, Solomon Nunes Carvalho, a Jewish South Carolinian, to accompany them. Carvalho took nearly 300 daguerreotypes, most of which were unfortunately lost in a fire after the expedition. However, one of the remaining images was identified from the northern district of the park as the formation "Mom, Pop, and Henry." Fremont and his men also recorded their encounters with Ute and Southern Paiute Indians.

John Wesley Powell, a former Major for the Union Army and avid naturalist, first traveled with nine geologists and geographers down the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon in 1869. Powell was formulating a theory about the formation of the Colorado Plateau and Colorado River. Geologists Clarence Dutton, Grove Karl Gilbert, and topographer Almon Thompson explored the Capitol Reef region during the Powell expeditions in the area. During the 1871-1872 expedition, Thompson named the large geologic monocline "Waterpocket Fold" because of the many waterpockets (depressions in the Navajo Sandstone that collect and hold water).

Traveling on the Colorado River, the men explored Zion and Bryce Canyons as well as the surrounding Henry and Uinta Mountains. They encountered Ute, Paiute, and other native peoples, studying their ways of life and recording their culture.

Read the chapter on Early Explorers in the Capitol Reef National Park Administrative History.

to Fremont Culture

to Pioneer Settlers

Last updated: May 7, 2020

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