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De Anza Expedition


On the eve of the American Revolution in 1776, Spain sought to control the Pacific coast of today's United States against British and Russian incursions.Juan Bautista de Anza, a third- generation frontier soldier of New Spain, shepherded 198 emigrants and their escorts and 1,000 head of livestock on the first overland colonizing expedition from Sonora, Mexico into Alta, or Upper, California. The goal of the expedition was to reach the lands discovered during the Portola expeditions in 1769, when san Fancisco bay was discivered, and in 1772 when Eurpoeans traveled inland for the first time to the san Joaquin and sacramento Valleys. The De Anza expedition led to the founding of the Presidio of San Francisco and missions San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores) and Santa Clara de Asís.

By the 1770s, the Spanish had been in the New World for over 200 years. Their empire included the present-day western United States, Florida, and the Philippine Islands. Still, they needed to secure the Pacific coast from Russian and English influence. Expeditions led by Gaspar de Portolá in 1769 and 1771 created only small settlements in Alta California.

By 1773, there were two presidios and five missions, but the total Spanish population was about 70. Settlement and supply of Alta California was difficult: the small ships that could make the arduous sea voyage from San Blas, Mexico, could not carry cattle or many people. The land route through Baja, or Lower, California proved to be treacherous, and difficult to supply. To ensure their possession of Alta California, the Spanish needed a new overland route originating in Sonora. This situation prompted Juan Bautista de Anza, among others, to pursue opening such a route. Anza was Captain of the Royal Presidio at Tubac, Sonora (now southern Arizona). In 1774, he proved that an overland route was possible by financing his own successful exploratory trip. Planning to return with emigrants and a herd of livestock, he charted watering spots and pasturage, and established contacts with native tribes along the route.

In 1775, the Viceroy of New Spain authorized Anza to command an expedition escorting soldiers and their families to occupy and settle the port of San Francisco. Anza began to enlist volunteers in the large city of Culiacán, where poorer people might be likely to accept the rigors of an arduous trek to start a new life. Recruits gathered at the Presidio of San Miguel de Horcasitas, Sonora's provincial capital. Anza chose as his lieutenant José Joaquín Moraga. Friar Pedro Font, a Franciscan missionary, was picked as expedition chaplain for his ability to read latitudes.

The final staging area was Tubac. Apaches had driven off the entire herd of 500 horses three weeks prior to the expedition's arrival, forcing it to continue with no fresh mounts. Food supplies included six tons of flour, beans, cornmeal, sugar, and chocolate, loaded on and off of pack mules every day. Materials from cooking kettles to iron for making horseshoes added more tonnage. The commander and his servants had a tent, as did Padre Font and his assistants. The families, cowboys, muleteers, and soldiers shared ten tents among them. Over 240 people set out from Tubac on October 23, 1775. The first night out, the group suffered its only death en route when María Manuela Piñuelas died from complications after childbirth. Her son lived. Two other babies born on the trip brought the total number of settlers to 198. Of these, over half were children 12 years old and under.

The expedition continued down the Santa Cruz River to its junction with the Gila River. While they camped, Anza, Font, and a few soldiers visited Casa Grande, which was already known as an ancient Indian site. They followed the Gila to the Colorado River crossing, one birth occuring along the way. They were assisted in crossing the Colorado by Olleyquotequiebe (Salvador Palma), chief of the Yumas (Quechan), whose tribe had befriended Anza on his 1774 trek. As the route headed through the sand dunes and deserts of southeastern California, the journey became more difficult. To better secure forage and water during one of the coldest winters on record, Anza divided the expedition into three groups, each traveling a day apart to allow water holes to refill. They regrouped near what is now Anza Borrego Desert State Park.

On Christmas Eve they welcomed another birth and reached Mission San Gabriel Arcángel on January 4, 1776. From there they followed known trails through Indian villages along the coast of California, visiting Mission San Luís Obispo de Toloso and San Antonio de Padúa, to arrive at Monterey and nearby mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo on March 10. Anza then took a small group to explore San Francisco Bay, where he chose sites for the presidio and the mission. Following orders to explore the "River of Saint Francis," he traveled the east side of San Francisco Bay before turning south to return to Monterey.

On April 14, 1776, Anza left Monterey for Mexico City and a later appointment as governor of New Mexico. In June, Lieutenant Moraga brought the settlers from Monterey to San Francisco Bay to build the presidio and found the mission. (Salvador Palma), chief of the Yumas (Quechan), whose tribe had befriended Anza on his 1774 trek. Anza successfully opened the first southern overland route of emigration and supply from Sonora to the missions and settlements of Alta California. He confirmed that San Francisco Bay was a great harbor. The soldiers and families that Anza escorted brought with them their language, traditions, and diverse New World Hispanic culture. The backgrounds of all soldiers and settlers were carefully recorded as español, mulato or mestizo. Almost all the expedition members were born on this continent and had mixed European, African or Indian parentage. These influences changed the lives of the indigenous peoples and shaped the development of Arizona and California. The route Anza opened supplied the settlements of Alta California long enough for them to become established.

In 1781, another band of Mexican settlers, following the overland trail from Spanish-held Mexico, escape a massacre by once-friendly Yuma Indians along the Colorado River. This attack closed the route during the rest of the colonial period. Fifty-five members of the party were killed and nearly 70 are taken captive. The 46 survivors forged on to Mission San Gabriel, near which they establish Los Angeles. But the overland route to California was abandoned and Spain's northernmost province became increasingly isolated and self-dependent. In later years, Anza's trail served the military, settlers, cattlemen, forty-niners and other desert travelers.


Portions of this history have been excerpted from the National Parks web site and from The West, a PBS web resource.Additional ReadingHerbert Eugene Bolton, Editor, Anza's California Expeditions, 5 Volumes, Berkeley, CA, 1933. Don Garate, Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, 1994.Richard F. Pourade, Anza Conquers the Desert, Copley Books, 1971.