The Anza expedition of 1775-76 was one of those historic events which took place because of a unique combination of religious, political, economic and military circumstances.
In the mid-eighteenth century, the rulers of the Spanish empire in the New World, which had long been consolidated around Mexico and Central America, began to consider seriously the exploration and settlement of Alta (Upper) California. The principal influence behind this new look to the north was the need for strategically placed harbors and outposts to provide protection for the treasure ships from the Phillipines as they approached the North American coast. By the 1760's, the Russians had established outposts in Alaska, and Russian ships were reported as far south as Oregon, searching for seal and otter pelts. English and French freeboaters were becoming more of a problem in the Pacific, threatening the slow-sailing treasure galleons. Both the French and English crowns were supporting voyages of discovery, particularly in the search for the elusive Northwest Passage, the discovery of which would provide Spain's enemies with a quick and easy passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Finally, the mines of Mexico and Central America were beginning to play out, making the Phillipine riches critical to the health of the Spanish empire.
In the meantime, Other political factors were changing the course of events in Spanish America. In 1767, Charles III of Spain, reacting to the growing power, wealth and influence of the Society of Jesus throughout his empire, expelled the Jesuits from all his realms, and turned over the established Jesuit missions in the New World to the Franciscan order. The Franciscans, long desiring a foothold in the New World, were eager to seize the opportunity to expand the mission frontier in Upper California.
In 1768, Jose de Galvez was appointed to the post of Visitor-General of New Spain, with both the mission and the desire to return the empire to the old days of wealth and glory. Both Galvez and the Franciscans cast their eyes northward and began to lay plans for a major expedition from Lower California to the north.
In 1769 the first expedition set out, a combination of exploration and settlement, both by land and by sea. With the expedition was Fray Junipero Serra, the fervent and energetic Franciscan who was to become the father of the California mission chain. In July of 1769 the expedition reached San Diego Bay, which was claimed for the king, and Father Serra established the first California mission, San Diego de Alcala.
The expedition subsequently pushed as far north as Monterey by October, and in November a scouting party stumbled upon San Francisco Bay, which had eluded sea-borne explorers for more than a century. A Presidio was established at Monterey in 1770, as was the second California Mission, San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo. Three additional missions were established during the following years: San Antonio de Padua in 1771, San Gabriel Arcangel in 1771, and San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in 1772. By 1773 Upper California was guarded by these five missions and two presidios, manned by a small force of 61 soldiers and 11 Franciscan Friars. The new born California settlements however, were utterly dependent upon outside supplies for survival during their early years and were small, weak and constantly threatened with starvation.
Due to prevailing winds and currents along the California coast, provision of the struggling settlements by sea was hazardous. Supply ships attempting to beat their way northward from Baja to Monterey often took five times as long to reach their destination as those sailing south, and often were blown out to sea to disappear forever, or were driven to destruction along the rocky coastline. Overland travel from Baja California was also long and arduous, and the barren lands of Baja had little food to spare for export.
The feeble settlements and outposts - necessary for the protection of the empire's treasure line and for the Franciscans as they pursued the salvation of souls - could only be strengthened and supplied if a dependable and safe overland route could be opened between Upper California and the Mexican province of Sonora. Such a route could lure more settlers to California, and would allow food to reach the new settlements from the farms of northern Mexico.
Two men from northern Sonora (now Arizona) had also thought of the same possibility. Fray Francisco Garces, the wandering Franciscan missionary, had already explored the deserts of Arizona and California to the foot of the San Jacinto Mountains. Captain Juan Bautista de Anza, commander of the small presidio of Tubac, knew of Garces' travels. Anza became intrigued when he heard tales of desert Indians who could draw outlines of Spanish ships, for this indicated that the Indians knew of an overland route. He became convinced that a way could be found across the deserts and mountains dividing Sonora and Alta California.
Anza, a second-generation frontier soldier, has best been described as a "desert-toughened frontiersman who had spent a lifetime battling the Indians of northern Sonora". His request for permission to lead an overland expedition to California was quickly granted, no doubt helped by Father Serra's presence in Mexico City when the petition was being discussed. Serra, naturally, enthusiastically supported the attempt to open an overland route.
On January 8, 1774, Anza left Tubac with a small band of twenty soldiers, and a herd of cattle and pack animals. Father Garces accompanied the expedition to lend spiritual guidance, desert experience and to seek out friendly Indian villages he had visited on previous travels. By another good turn of fortune, a wandering Indian from Mission San Gabriel showed up at Tubac just before the expedition started. Since he had traversed the country west to east, he was immediately made part of the party as an additional guide.
The party reached the Yuma Indian villages at the junction of the Colorado and Gila rivers without difficulty, and after several false starts and skirmishes with thirst and starvation, succeeded in finding a mountain pass leading toward coastal California. On March 22, 1774, Anza arrived at Mission San Gabriel. Since San Gabriel was already linked by known trails to the growing chain of missions between San Diego and Monterey - the beginning of the famous El Camino Real - the overland route to California was now open.
Now that an overland supply, emigration and military route had been proven feasible, Spanish authorities were now ready to lay the last corner stone for the grand scheme of protection and settlement of Alta California - the establishment of an outpost on the recently discovered San Francisco Bay. This was a harbor which could be defended against all enemies, and which could provide a perfect northern anchor for Spanish defenses. San Francisco would be settled and developed as soon as possible.
Anza was, of course, the only man considered to lead such an effort. He was quickly promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel for his accomplishments, given appropriate recruiting authority and commanded to lead an expedition of settlers to the great bay, there to establish a Presidio, a mission and a village.
On September 29, 1775, the expedition left Horcasitas, located about 175 miles south of Nogales. After delays at Tubac due to Apache raids which depleted the stick, the expedition set out again on October 23, 1775. With Anza were thirty families, ten veteran Tubac soldiers, 115 children, 695 horses and Mules, and 335 cattle. Spiritual leadership and a scientific reckoning were provided by Fray Pedro Font. Both Anza and Font kept detailed diaries of the journey, much to the enlightenment of future generations. Father Garces set out with the expedition, as did Father Thomas Eixarch of Tumacacori.
The expedition had hardly moved north from Tubac when the first death took place - a mother in childbirth. The baby survived to live in California, and the mother was buried at Mission San Xavier del Bac. Amazingly enough, given the hardships yet to be endured, the expedition would record no more deaths.
After another short pause to celebrate three marriages conducted by Father Font, the expedition left San Xavier on October 26. This departure was momentous for the colonists, for they were now leaving the last outpost of Spanish civilization in Sonora, and could not expect to see another until they reached San Gabriel in Alta California. From San Xavier the expedition moved northward up the Santa Cruz River valley, through the area of present-day Tucson. A short rest was taken near the Gila River, which enabled Father Font to visit the ancient Casa Grande ruins. The party then moved on to the Indian villages on the south bank of that river, and then turned west to follow the Gila to its junction with the Colorado. The trail cut across the Maricopa Mountains, past Gila Bend and Agua Caliente, and finally to Yuma. Delays were numerous, due to sicknesses of both humans and animals, and stops for several more births.
The party finally reached Yuma, and the Colorado River, on November 28. They had been on the road 37 days since leaving Tubac, and 62 days since Horcasitas. The travelers were weary, tired of the Arizona desert, and now had to cross a major river. To complicate matters, the ford used by Anza the previous year had been washed away, and a new one needed to be found. With careful scouting and preparation, however, and the assistance of the friendly Yuma Indians, the crossing was completed without serious mishap.
On December 4 1775, leaving Fathers Eixarch and Garces behind to minister to the Yuma natives, the expedition set out again. It now had to conquer its most formidable obstacle, the shifting, sandy wastelands west of Yuma. The way was difficult, the toll on the animals was great, and water was scarce, but after nine days of toil the lead party reached the oasis of San Sebastian (Harper's Well). By December 17, the entire party had reached the haven, only to be met there by snow and unusually cold weather.
But the worst part was over. Although much hard travel remained, the rest of the way was relatively well known. Despite the cold weather, the colonists set forth again on December 18. Dry camps alternated with wet. At one dry camp, the thirst-plagued cattle, meant to provide future meat for California, stampeded. Only a few were recovered.
Water gradually improved as the expedition made the gradual ascent of the low mountains, but forage grew scarcer, as if to compensate. On December 26 the summit was reached, and the colonists descended to the Pas Real de San Carlos. They were now 50 miles from San Gabriel, and had finally entered fertile land. The Santa Ana River was reached on December 31, and Mission San Gabriel de Arcangel on January 4, 1776.
Although Mission San Gabriel, now seven years old, was still composed of crude buildings, it was surrounded by cultivated fields and boasted cattle, sheep and hogs. The colonists spirits were soon revived with food, water and rest. Their stay at San Gabriel was, however, to be much longer than desired.
The San Diego Mission had recently been attacked, and Father Juame and two Spanish workmen had been killed. Anza decided to travel to San Diego to render assistance, and also to seek additional supplies for the journey to Monterey, since the colonists straining the resources of San Gabriel. Delays were encountered in subduing the Indians and in gathering supplies at san Diego. Further delays occurred at San Gabriel when several soldiers deserted with precious foodstuffs, and had to be tracked down.
Finally, on February 21, 1776, the expedition set forth toward Monterey. The colonists were pleased with the seacoast around Santa Barbara, and were graciously received at Mission San Luis Obispo and Mission San Antonio. On March 10, Monterey was reached after a journey of 130 days and nearly 2000 miles from Horcasitas. The Monterey Presidio, now six years old, boasted a chapel, a barracks, some small houses and a stockade. Father Serra had moved the Mission itself to the Carmel Valley, a short distance away, where the land was more suitable for farming. The colonists settled down to wait once again in Monterey, while Anza set out to explore the San Francisco Bay area, and to pick out a site for settlement.
On March 23, Anza took a small party north. With him were Father Font, Lieutenant Moraga, eight soldiers from Tubac and some local guides. They moved northward up the bay shore and westward toward Lake Merced. After a stop at Mountain Lake, they climbed the headlands to look down on the magnificent bay, an obvious setting for a presidio and settlement.
A suitable site for a mission was also chosen, near an arroyo, and was named Arroyo de los Dolores, after the day of its discovery, "Friday of Sorrows". Although Father Serra later christened the Mission San Francisco de Asis, the former name of Mission Dolores was commonly used.
Eager to explore the extent of the Bay, the party moved on, southward around the end of the Bay, then northeast to Rodeo Creek, east to the Antioch vicinity, southeast toward the Livermore Valley, south along the edge of Crane Ridge into San Antonio Valley and Arroyo del Coyote and finally southeast to Salinas. By April 8, Anza was back in Monterey.
The colonists were still waiting in Monterey and they were destined to wait for several more months. The Commandante of California, Fernando Rivera y Moncado, had made his own exploration of the San Francisco Bay area in 1774, and had decided that the area was not suitable for settlement. Despite Anza's enthusiastic report, sent to Rivera at San Diego, the colonists were not given permission to leave Monterey.
Tired of waiting, Anza set off on the return trip to Sonora on April 13. The major part of his task was completed. With him went Father Font, the ten soldiers from Tubac, some servants and one couple who had decided not to stay in California. The party reached Horcasitas on June 1, after absence of eight months. After considerable delays, Commandante Rivera finally relented and the colonists left Monterey for their new home on June 17. There were 191 in the party, under the command of Lieutenant Moraga. On June 27 they reached the site of Mission Dolores and began the gradual tasks of building the mission, the presidio and their new homes.
The preceding article is from the National Trail Study Environmental Assessment, August 1986 on the Juan Bautista De Anza National Trail.
Western Regional Office
National Park Service
Dept. of the Interior, USA.
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