Almost a hundred years ago, the eminent historian Herbert Bolton complained that standard narratives of U.S. history left out the Spanish story almost entirely. Every schoolchild knew about Lewis and Clark; few if any, even in the schoolhouses of the West, knew of the equally, if not more, impressive expeditions and explorations of Junípero Serra, Juan Bautista de Anza, or Francisco Garcés. Furthermore, what little was taught about the entradas of the Spanish pioneers was inevitably colored by the Black Legend of their depredations and iniquity—a legend popular in the Protestant English-speaking world for centuries.
Bolton’s response to this state of affairs was to undertake one of the most impressive scholarly projects in American intellectual history. In dusty, often disorganized archives scattered throughout Spain, Mexico, and elsewhere, he uncovered long-forgotten, never-translated manuscripts. Among them were documents related to Coronado’s conquest of New Mexico; the memoirs of the great Jesuit Eusebio Kino, charismatic missionary to the peoples of Baja California and New Spain’s northern frontier; the reports filed by Anza, Father Garcés, and others about the trails they had blazed into California and the unmapped wilderness north of Sonora; and the diary of Fr. Garcés’s Franciscan contemporary, Fray Silvestre Vélez de Escalante, which tells the story of the nine-month journey he and his companions made from Santa Fe into today’s Colorado, Utah, and Arizona.
Bolton was no armchair historian. He retraced the paths of each of these explorers, often on horseback and under difficult conditions, the better to see the terrain through their eyes and to understand and more truthfully tell their stories. His 1951 book on the Escalante expedition draws on such firsthand knowledge. It is one of very few books devoted to this remarkable journey.
Enter David Roberts, journalist and author of two dozen books of exploration and Southwestern history. His Escalante’s Dream: On the Trail of the Spanish Discovery of the Southwest offers a contemporary reinterpretation of the Escalante expedition. In 2017 Roberts and his wife retraced the expedition’s winding path through the arid, still largely unpopulated intermountain West. It is an interesting book, but it ultimately reveals much more about Roberts and the prejudices of our time than it does about Fray Escalante and his companions.