The Post-Pueblo Period: A.D. 1300 to Late 1700s
During Spanish colonial times, the Mesa Verde region was on the northwestern periphery of New Spain, a vast territory that included all of Central America and Mexico, as well as large portions of the American West and Southwest. Although the first Spanish exploration of the American Southwest occurred in 1540, Spaniards didn't actually settle in what would later become the Spanish state of New Mexico until 1598. They established their first capital near the pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh, which they renamed San Juan de los Caballeros.
In 1765, a Spanish explorer named Juan Maria de Rivera led a small expedition north from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to the Dolores River in the Mesa Verde region. Guided by Ute Indians, the expedition continued to the Gunnison and Colorado rivers, located north of the Mesa Verde region, before returning to Santa Fe.
The earliest well-documented Spanish expedition into the Mesa Verde region was the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition of 1776. One of the expedition's Indian guides spoke Ute and had accompanied the earlier Rivera Expedition. Two others were from Santa Clara and Zuni pueblos in New Mexico.
Fathers Francisco Atanasio Dominguez and Silvestre Velez de Escalante, both Catholic priests, were looking for a direct route from Santa Fe to the Spanish garrison and mission in Monterey, California. The expedition spent part of 1776 among the Indians of the Mesa Verde region and adjacent areas. In his journal, Escalante mentioned the Utes by name (Yutas). Following mishaps and accidents in the Grand Canyon, the group abandoned their explorations and returned to Santa Fe, passing by the Hopi pueblos in present-day Arizona.
Neither the Rivera nor Dominguez-Escalante expeditions recorded the presence of Navajo Indians in the Mesa Verde region.
Title page for Peoples of the Mesa Verde Region