Southwest in 1778

A Spanish ethnographic map of the Southwest published in 1778. The first Spanish explorers set foot in the area that would become Mohave County two years earlier.

While America’s Founding Fathers were signing the Declaration of Independence 242 years ago today, some Native American tribes residing in the Mohave County region had encountered Europeans for the first time.

Traveling from near Mexico north along the Colorado River in 1776, Franciscan missionary Francisco Garcés made his way to the Mohave County region meeting Mohave and Hualapai tribes, among others, along the way.

“…he along with an Indian guide (Tarabal), left Yuma and made their way north along the Colorado River to the Mojave Villages in the vicinity of present day Needles, California,” states Mohave County Historian Dan Messersmith’s unpublished book, “Mohave County History, 2nd Edition.” “He was received very well by the Mojave and was quick to win their friendship. They offered to show him the trade route that they used to the Pacific, and he accepted.”

According to chapter three of the book, provided by Messersmith, Garcés was assisted by Mohave and then Hualapai guides through the “heart of Mohave County” near modern-day Oatman to Supai. Peter Bungart, director of the department of cultural resources for the Hualapai tribe, said Garcés was reportedly led by Mohave guides to a group of Hualapai people living in the Hualapai Mountains, where he acquired Hualapai guides before heading to Supai.

“As far as we know, that was the first documented contact with Europeans that the Hualapai people had,” said Bungart. “That encounter probably did not affect the tribe that much and there was very little contact after that until probably the middle of the 1800s. This was just sort of a harsh and hospitable land it wasn’t till there were prospectors discovering gold and silver and other minerals that it starts to open up and ranchers came in about that time too and that’s when all the problems started with conflicts over land and springs and other resources.”

According to chapter three of Messersmith’s book, Juan de Oñate, a conquistador-governor, and about 30 other men were the first Europeans on record to enter Mohave County via the Bill Williams River in 1604 – during which he visited with Mohave people and explored the Colorado River. Silvestre Velez de Escalante, another Franciscan missionary, along with eight other men also entered Mohave County in 1776 along the Arizona Strip near Colorado City, the book states.

Garces went on to visit various Northern Arizona tribes before he returned to Yuma, where he died in 1781 following an attack by groups tribal warriors during the Yuma revolt of 1781.

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