In 1775, along the East Coast of North America between what would become the states of New Hampshire and Georgia, America’s founding fathers were busy fomenting rebellion against the King of England, ruler of the 18th century’s global superpower.
In the Western region of the North American continent, what is today Mexico and the American Southwest (Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming) the King of Spain was bent on conquest and rapid domination of the region to prevent the Russians, who had settlements in Alaska, from doing the same.
He was also concerned that the British would try to colonize California as they had long since colonized the Eastern Seaboard.
This was the New World geo-political landscape in 1775, the year El Presidio San Agustin del Tucson was established. In that year, the Viceroy of New Spain, with the blessing of the Spanish Crown, agreed to a request by a young Spanish officer, Juan Batista de Anza. Seems young Anza wanted to accomplish a dream of his father to discover a land route from Tubac to Alta (Northern) California. Anza’s father died before he could attempt this feat.
The previous year, 1774, Anza the Younger had fulfilled his father’s dream at his own expense. By this time, he had been commander of the Presidio at Tubac for the previous 15 years.Read More
- Why A Land Route?
- The First Anza Expedition
- Anza's 2nd Expedition
- A Brief Detour
- Fording The Big River And Crossing The Mojave Desert
- The California Coast
- Arriving At Monte Rey Bay (Monterey CA)
- Death On The Trail
- The Golden Gate
- Anza's Diary
- A Future Neither The King Nor Anza Could Have Imagined
- The Mexican War and Its Profound Consequences.
Why A Land Route?
A land route was necessary because Spanish ships were too small to carry large numbers of people and livestock, food and other supplies, around the tip of South America, then navigate the treacherous waters of the Pacific coast … a voyage that would have taken many months.
The First Anza Expedition
This first Anza Expedition consisted of 3 priests, 20 soldiers, 11 servants, 35 pack mules, 65 beef cattle, and 140 horses. The expedition followed Rio Santa Cruz (Holy Cross) north to the Rio Gila, then west to Rio Colorado. Here Anza made friends with the Quechan natives, some 2-3,000 people engaged in significant agriculture and trade. Once across the Colorado River, Anza detoured south for about 50 miles to avoid the massive Algodones Dunes. These sand dunes cover over 200 square miles and anyone who has driven I-8 near Yuma knows why Anza went way out of his way to avoid them.
Then he turned northwest and passed through the Imperial Valley (now Indio and Palm Springs CA) before arriving at Mission San Gabriel (est. 1771). San Gabriel was about 10 miles east of the future site of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula (The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of the Porciúncula River.)
Los Angeles, the City of Angels, would be established by 11 families in 1781. 235 years later, the Porciúncula River is jokingly referred to as the Los Angeles River, lined with concrete and dry except for the occasional flood. The LA metro area is home to over 18,000,000 people, some of them legal U.S. residents and all of them seemingly parked on a so-called “freeway”.
This first reconnaissance trip took 74 days to establish a viable land route to Alta (Northern) California. He returned to Tubac in only 23 days. Anza had not been home long before he organized his second expedition, this one paid for by the government.
Anza’s 2nd Expedition
At the final staging area at Tubac Presidio, on October 23, 1775, this 2nd expedition included Anza, 240 colonists (both military and non-military families) of which 155 were women and children. In addition, there were escort soldiers, muleteers, vaqueros (cowboys), blacksmiths, and Indian interpreters. Nearly 300 in all.
Livestock included 340 horses, 165 pack mules, and 355 beef cattle: 860 livestock in total. There were no wagons as there were no roads. Everyone either walked or rode horses or mules on their five-and-a-half-month journey from Tubac to Alta California.
The settlers were mostly of mixed race: Native American, Spanish, and Black African descent. They were poor and represented the lowest rung of the Spanish caste system. They were promised a salary, rations, gear, new clothes and land if they would make the difficult and dangerous trek to Alto California and establish a Spanish settlement there.
177 adventurous (or desperate) colonists had been recruited from Culiacán and Horcasita (present-day Mexico). Here, Anza spent considerable time teaching the recruits survival skills necessary for the expedition’s success. They then walked or rode 600 miles north from Culiacán to reach Tubac Presidio.
At Tubac, another 63 colonists were added to the traveling village. If you understand their circumstances, this should not be a surprise. Had they stayed at Tubac, their chance of being killed by Apaches was very high.
The day before arriving at Tubac, they had stopped at Mission Tumacácori (Now a National Historic Park) where they were given additional cattle for the journey.
Tubac was the final staging area. Not only would the 5-and-a-half-month, 1200-mile trek from Tubac require provisions for almost 300 people plus their livestock, the new settlement in Alta California would immediately need supplies, particularly food, clothing, and tools. The pack mules began the journey from Tubac carrying six tons of flour, salt, beans, sugar, chocolate, and cornmeal. The settlers hoped to find sufficient firewood along the way. Additionally, there was another ton of cooking utensils, ammunition, hardware tools, and horseshoes. Then another ton of tents, clothing, shoes, and blankets. These intrepid souls would pack and unpack all this every day until they reached their destination. Breaking camp each morning took about 2 hours. Once underway, the procession was a mile long and a quarter mile wide.
Certainly Anza, upon launching his 2nd Expedition from Tubac on October 23, 1775, knew this would be the last he would see of the active Tubac Presidio and village. The decision to move the presidio north to Tucson had already been made on August 20th of that year. And without the protection of the presidio from relentless Apache attacks, Tubac village would have to be abandoned.
Back then, people lived in a 3-mile-per-hour world. That was the best speed at which they could average in a day’s travel. Moreover, their route was always determined by the availability of water. This was particularly true when traveling through the brutal deserts of Northern Mexico (Chihuahuan & Sonoran) and the (future) American Southwest (Sonoran & Mojave).
This reality forced Anza to follow Rio Santa Cruz north to Mission Tumacacori, then Tubac Presidio, then Mission San Xavier, then Tucson Presidio, north past Picacho Peak to Rio Gila (pronounced “he’-la) near present-day Casa Grande. (Note: “picacho” means “peak” in Spanish. So when we moderns refer to Picacho Peak, we are inadvertently saying “Peak Peak”.)
At the time of the 2nd Anza Expedition, the magnificent church at Mission San Xavier we know today was still 22 years from completion.
A Brief Detour
Just prior to turning west, Anza, Fray Font, and a few others took a 5-mile side trip east to the Casa Grande Ruins (now a National Monument) that Father Kino had mentioned in his journal 80 years before. By the time Anza witnessed these ruins, this once substantial ceremonial center and farming community had been abandoned by the Hohokam for at least 325 years.
From Casa Grande, they traveled west about 80 miles along the Gila to the mighty Colorado (red) River near present-day Yuma Crossing.
Fording The Big River And Crossing The Mojave Desert
At the big river, these Spanish settlers must have been terrified. Few knew how to swim. Fortunately, the local Yuma natives were excellent swimmers and willing to help. They all arrived at the west bank cold, but alive.
Once across the Colorado, they encountered the desolate Mojave Desert where there were no rivers. Anza was nothing if not resourceful. He divided his people into 3 smaller groups, each following men with shovels.
When these smaller groups came upon a dry wash, these men dug down 5, 6, sometimes 8 feet to water. The holes filled with the precious liquid, sufficient to sustain the smaller number of people and their animals. It was enough to get his expedition to Mission San Gabriel on January 4, 1776, their first encounter with European civilization since leaving the village of Tuquisón (an early spelling of present-day Tucson) October 26, 1775.
The California Coast
The expedition rested and re-supplied at San Gabriel until February 21st, when they headed for the California coast for a few days of surfing on the rolling Pacific waves and fine dining at the upscale Malibu restaurants. No. Wait. That’s not right. They had in fact forgotten to bring their surf boards and wet suits. Talk about poor planning!
Once they got to the coast, they followed it north, then inland to Missions San Luis Obispo, (March 2, 1776), Los Robles (March 6th), then back to the coast at El Presidio de Monte Rey (Monterey, CA. March 27th).
We moderns tend not to appreciate Anza’s concepts of time and space. We easily travel from Spain to New York to San Diego in a day. A long day for sure, but still … Of course we complain about the hardship of such a journey … baggage claims, security lines, delayed flights, etc. By the standards of the 18th century, we are true time travelers. Moreover, while we complain about narrow seats crammed together in a big aluminum tube, by their standards, we experience travel in a luxury that even the Kings of England and Spain could not buy.
While we think of travel in hours or days, they thought in terms of years, decades, and centuries … a different mindset entirely. For example Columbus “discovered” American in 1492. It would take a half-century (1542) before a Spanish ship would explore the coast of California. Then it would take more than two centuries before Spain could establish a permanent settlement at San Diego (1769). Sufficiently motivated, we could do it in 48 hours.
Arriving At Monte Rey Bay (Monterey CA)
On March 27, 1776, Anza left most of the settlers at the Monte Rey Presidio. It was their 95th camp. No doubt they were exhausted but exhilarated. They had trekked over 1800 miles from Culiacan and 1200 miles from Tubac Presidio. They had suffered a brutal, 4-day winter storm in the Mojave Desert that had killed many of their livestock. They had walked 158 days from Tubac, enduring thirst, sandstorms, cactus thorns, dense thickets, injury, sickness, and extreme fatigue. A few of these adventurous souls had died along the trail between Culiacán and Tubac.
Death On The Trail
Yet amazingly, after leaving Tubac, only one person on the expedition had died. This death occurred one day out from Tubac as a result of childbirth. Not only had everyone else survived, they arrived at Monte Rey with more people than they started with because several women had given birth to healthy infants and lived.
Surely they owed their success to their own dogged determination. But they also knew what they owed to the one man whose planning, resourcefulness and leadership had made it all possible: Juan Bautista de Anza.
The Golden Gate
Within a few days, accompanied by a priest and a few soldiers, Anza’s small party went on to explore the area. It was not long before they came to an overlook and beheld one of the most magnificent sights in the world … the Golden Gate. Here, Anza declared, would be the future village and presidio dedicated to Saint Francis of Asissi: the fort and mission that would become the great City of San Francisco. As visionary as Anza was, I doubt he could have imagined a bridge across this span of water.
Of this two-day outing, Anza, ever the practical military man, wrote dispassionately in his dairy:
Wednesday, March 27. — A little before seven we set forth on the march, going in the main to the northwest, whereby we arrived at half past ten at the mouth of the port of San Francisco. Here we halted on the banks of a lake which until today has been regarded as a lagoon, because its outlet into the sea had not been seen, but it has a stream sufficient for a mill. Here we concluded a march of about four leagues made in three and a half hours. Although, as I have said, we halted at the lake mentioned, as soon as our baggage was unloaded I went to inspect the neighborhood of the mouth, going west and south in order to see if there are any conveniences for the establishment of the fort. In this pursuit I employed the time from the hour mentioned until five, when I returned. The advantages of the site which I have noted are running water of good quality and of the quantity already expressed, to which are added other streams nearby in the same directions, much firewood and good pasturage , sufficient and even in superabundance for pasturing cattle . But along with these good qualities one must mention the lack of timber, for in the district examined there is none even for barracks, but I shall continue to look for some tomorrow in the remaining directions. — From Tubac to the port of San Francisco, 351 1/2 leagues.
Thursday, March 28. — I went to the narrowest opening made by the mouth of the port , where nobody had been before. There I set up a cross, and at its foot I buried under the ground a notice of what I have seen, in order that it may serve as a guide to any vessels that may enter, as well as a report of what I am going on to explore in order to establish the fort belonging to this harbor.
This done, I continued exploring the country on the shore of the harbor to the east and east-southeast. Very soon after leaving the site of our camp I began to find running water, an infinite supply of firewood , timber for barracks, mostly of oak , both green and dry and of good thickness, but bent toward the ground because of the constant northwest winds on this coast. Likewise, after continuing to the southeast a league and a half along the coast of the estuary, I found a good site for planting crops with irrigation by taking the water from a good spring or fountain, even though it should diminish to half the volume which is running now above the site. And since a little more than half a league to the east of the camp there is a very large lake which cannot be anything less than permanent at all seasons, and which is running at present, either because its fountain is perpetual or because it has a spring now, whichever the case may be, with a week’s labor and with a stockade and an earthen embankment it could be made extremely abundant. It does not have any land which could be irrigated, because the tide of the sea overflows the lowlands there, but on the banks of the lake good gardens can be planted, for it is already known that the climate is good, and that the crops grow with less moisture because of the heavy fogs which fall almost every night, and of the cloudy days, which are many in the course of a year, and even the majority, it may be said.
In the district which I have examined today and from which I returned at five o’clock in the afternoon, I have also encountered numerous and docile heathen, who have accompanied me with great pleasure but without going a step outside of their respective territories, because of the enmity which is common among them.
A Future Neither The King Nor Anza Could Have Imagined
The Spanish King, Carlos (Charles) III, and his Viceroy in Mexico City, wanted to colonize Northern California before the Russians could come down from Alaska and expropriate the strategic San Francisco harbor that Spanish sailors had discovered. If he could establish a strong colony and presidio, he could also thwart England’s attempt to gain a foothold in California.
As it turned out, the Russians never posed a significant threat to New Spain. Nor would the English be able to colonize California. However, remember those pesky rebels on North America’s eastern seaboard? The ones who in 1776 were squabbling with the King of England over trivial matters, such as taxation and liberty? Well, they turned out to be something that neither King Carlos III nor Juan Bautista de Anza could possibly have imagined.
Recall that we are dealing with an era of history when time was marked, not in hours and days, but in decades and centuries. Seventy-two years after Anza secured San Francisco for the Spanish, the Americans took it away from them.
The Mexican War and Its Profound Consequences.
Mexico won its 10-year war of independence from Spain in 1821. Mexico thus inherited the northern frontier of New Spain that included all or significant parts of the future states of Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, Utah and Wyoming … 525,000 square miles. All this Mexico lost to the United State in the Mexican War 1846 – 1848.
Six years later, Mexico signed the Gadsden Purchase agreement of 1854 that sold about 30,000 square miles of Southern New Mexico and Southern Arizona (including Tucson) to the Americans for $10,000,000. In the span of 6 years, 1848 to 1854, Mexico gave up half of all its territory to the United States.
For his successes, Anza was rewarded with the governorship of New Mexico and lived in Santa Fe from1778 to 1787. In the fall of 1788, he became the commander of El Presidio San Agustin del Tucson. However, he soon returned to his home in Arizpe, Sonora where he died unexpectedly in December 1778. He was only 52 years-of-age.
Note: two resources are of particular interest.
- Chronicles the arduous trek from campsite to campsite based on the diaries of Anza and two accompanying priests.
A worthwhile National Park Service YouTube video that tells their story visually and viscerally.