Saturday, June 15, 2013


Kokopelli, Canyon Pintado, Rio Blanco County, CO.
Photograph: Peter Faris, September 1990.

In 1776 the Spanish priests Fray Francisco Atanasio Dominguez and Fray Sylvestre Velez de Escalante led an expedition from Santa Fe to try to reach the Spanish missions in Monterey, California.

Fray Dominguez was born in Mexico City about 1740, and joined the Franciscan order on 1757 at the age of seventeen. The first known reference to him is at the Convent of Veracruz as Commissary of the Third Order in October 1772, when he was thirty-two years old and in the order fifteen years. In 1775 he was sent to New Mexico from the Mexican Province of the holy Gospel to make an inspection of the Custody of the Conversion of St. Paul. He arrived in Santa Fe on March 22, 1776. He was also under instructions to investigate the possibility of opening an overland route between Santa Fe and Monterey, California. In 1777 he was recalled to Mexico and served as chaplain of presidios in Nueva Vizcaya. He was at Janos, Sonora, Mexico, in 1800. He died sometime between 1803 and 1805. 

Fray Escalante was born in the mountains of Santander in the town of Trecino, Spain, about 1750. He took the Franciscan habit in the Convento Grande in Mexico City when he was seventeen years old. He came to New Mexico in 1774 and was stationed first at Laguna pueblo and then, in January 1775, was assigned to Zuni. He continued to be its minister until summoned by Dominguez to Santa Fe in June the following year. He remained in New Mexico for two years following his return from this expedition. He died in Parral, Mexico, in April 1780, while returning to Mexico City for medical treatment. He was scarcely thirty years old.

On September 9, they encountered a large amount of Fremont-era and Ute rock art in a canyon south of present-day Rangely, Colorado. They named this Canyon Pintado in their journal of September 9, because of the painted pictures. Most sources state that they specifically noted the flute-player Kokopelli in the journal but in my cursory reading of the material I have been unable to locate this specific reference. “Half way down this canyon toward the south there is a very high cliff on which we saw crudely painted three shields or chimales and the blade of a lance. Farther down on the north side we saw another painting which crudely represented two men fighting. For this reason we called this valley Cañon Pintado.” In any case this 1776 record is an early report of rock art in western North America.

In October, with their expedition in Utah, deciding that they would not reach Monterey before winter, the fathers chose to return to Santa Fe. They reached Santa Fe, their starting point, on January 2, 1777.

The Kokopelli is painted on a surface that is sheet-spalling off the cliff face, and has in the past been reinforced with a cable set into the rock to hold it in place, an effort that has so far succeeded. This is one of the most compelling examples that I know of to provide motivation for developing improved conservation methods for pictographs and petroglyphs.

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