On writing Yakimali’s Gift
Fernanda’s story came from a group of short stories I wrote about children telling how and why their ancestors settled in the United States. When I decided to write a novel about Fernanda and the expedition, and delved into the research, I was fascinated to learn that the colonization occurred during the time of the American Revolution and some seventy years before the often-told story of the east-to-west migration of pioneers. This further inspired me to write about this little known, but important, part of California and U.S. history.
The fun part about doing research is digging through layers and layers of information. I started out a bit overwhelmed, with little information and wondering how to tackle the project. I ended up overwhelmed by the amount of information I discovered, wondering how to fit it all into the story.
Fact versus Fiction
Although Fernanda and her story are fictitious, other characters in Yakimali’s Gift–Juan Bautista de Anza; the priests Pedro Font, Antonio Garcés, and Tomás Eixarch; Lieutenant Moraga; Sergeant Grijalva; Vicente and Manuela Feliz; Luis and Micaela Gonzales and their children; the Gutierrez family; and Feliciana Maria Arballo and her two children–were all real people who traveled on the expedition. The Web de Anza website has a wealth of information about the expedition including a Who’s Who on the colonists, and the diaries of Anza, Font, and Garcés. The diaries are fascinating to read, particularly Font’s “expanded” version. His details can be vivid, and his personal opinions about the Indians and other aspects of the journey give some insight into the Spanish attitudes of the time.
The incidents in Yakimali’s Gift follow many of those from the diaries such as the route traveled, encounters with Indians, deaths and illnesses, and the weather.
I did change some events for the sake of the plot. For instance, Anza and the priests rode out to the Casa Grande ruins, but there’s no record of any other colonists exploring the ruins. And though the horse races between the Yumas and the colonists are fiction, they did celebrate together as mentioned in Font’s diary November 28, 1775 (and in other entries where the Yumas were repeatedly referred to as “festive”):
The Yumas entertained us in an arbor which Captain Palma [the name the Spaniards gave the Yuma leader] had ordered erected here as soon as he learned of our coming, and many Indians of both sexes assembled to visit us, very festive and joyful and very much painted in various modes and colors… On our arrival the soldiers were ordered to fire a few shots to reciprocate the pleasure manifested by these people at our coming. This pleased the Yumas greatly and they responded to the musket‑shots with a great shouting and hullabaloo.
Yakimali’s Gift ends with the colonists’ arrival in California. The expedition continued to San Antonio (California) with many of the travelers settling in San Gabriel, Monterey, and other places along the way. Today, the Juan Bautista de Anza Trail is a National Historic Trail, and many of the original sites along the route still exist. During my research, I visited some of the sites in Arizona: Tubac and the presidio, the missions at San Xavier del Bac and Tumacacori, parts of the Yuma river, and the Casa Grande (a National Monument). I went on this trip after I had already done a lot of book research, and it was a real thrill to see the places that I’d been reading and writing about, and to see first hand the desert areas where Fernanda would have lived. Luckily, I was there in the spring, so I missed the rains and heat of August!
Women and Children on the Expedition
When I first read about this expedition, I was shocked to learn that several women chose to go even though they were in advanced stages of pregnancy. I wanted to know more about the women and their children who made up more than half the number of colonists. The diaries of Anza, Font, and Garcés give just cursory mention of the women’s experience, and almost nothing about the children. For instance, Anza briefly writes about the death of a woman during childbirth on the first night of the journey, October 24, 1775, without even mentioning her name (which was Manuela Feliz), and then goes on to talk about the weather:
At three o’clock in the morning, it not having been possible by means of the medicines which had been applied in the previous hours, to remove the afterbirth from our mother, other various troubles befell her. As a result she was taken with paroxysms of death, and after the sacraments of penance and extreme unction had been administered to her, with the aid of the fathers who accompany us she rendered up her spirit at a quarter to four. At seven o’clock today it began to rain, and continued until half past ten…
Who was the woman? Did she have other children? How did the death that occurred on that first night affect the other colonists? These questions and more intrigued me. Reading one of my resources, Women and the Conquest of California by Virginia M. Bouvier, further inspired me to look at the expedition through the eyes of women and children.
With limited information available, I began to imagine what life was like on that first march along the Anza trail—who the people were and why they had left their homes to emigrate to California. Thus the story of Fernanda and her journey was born. Though her life, her family, her connection with the Pima Indians and the old Pima woman, Sikul, are all fictitious, I created Fernanda’s story based on facts about that period of history found in the resources listed in the bibliography. There, I added a short description of each book should you like to read more about the period and journey yourself.
Race in 18th century New Spain and the Spanish/Indian Relationship
Just as we see today, there were race issues in 18th century Mexico, New Spain, and that interested me as well in writing my story. Most people of mixed heritage (typically Spanish and Indian) wished to be named Spaniard. Those with the “purest” Spanish blood enjoyed many societal privileges, thus people often claimed to have more Spanish ancestry than they actually did.
Classes were categorized and named according to what a group’s heritage mix was: People with one Spanish parent and one Indian parent were called Mestizo; people of Indian/Mestizo mix were called Coyote; Indian/Coyote were classified as Indian.
I didn’t research Apaches since they don’t play a big part in the story. But I was surprised that the expedition never encountered any Apaches since many historical records show them as an ever-present threat to other Indian tribes and to colonists. This could possibly have been because the travelers and animals were well guarded by the soldiers and vaqueros.
I did have difficulty, though, locating writings from the perspective of the Pimas, Opas, and Yumas who interacted with the colonists. And information about the relationship between the soldiers, missionaries, and Indians during that time is sketchy–as compared to books available about theses relationships in California and at the California missions. There was a campaign of course by the Catholic Jesuits and later the Franciscans to convert the Indians. But the Yumas and Pimas the colonists encountered were largely as yet not converted, much to the priests’ dismay. The Indians’ minimal clothing (and often nakedness) especially bothered the priests and embarrassed the colonists. The priests encouraged the Indians to wear Spanish-style clothes, but few Indians did unless they lived at the missions, which became more prominent after the Anza expedition, especially in California.
After much digging, I found some wonderful books that detailed the different tribes’ housing, clothing, religious beliefs, language, and social customs of that time. These books are also listed in the bibliography.
Parts of the story that the old Pima woman, Sikul (a fictitious character), tells Fernanda are based on fact, particularly the “uprising” of the Pimas. The conflict between the Pimas, the Jesuits, and the Spanish soldiers occurred in 1751 when Papa would have been sixteen, Mama four, and Fernanda yet to be born nine years later. There’s been much debate throughout history as to the cause of the fight. I had only uncovered the most basic facts about the conflict when I came across Russell Charles Ewing’s dissertation The Pima Uprising, 1751-1752 (see bibliography). Although his narrative can be construed as being biased on the side of the soldiers and the Catholic Church, he gives a lot of otherwise hard-to-find details about the circumstances before, during, and after the conflict, as well as further insight into the Spanish/Indian relationship of that time.
In subsequent years, beyond the time in which Yakimali’s Gift takes place, as the population of the California missions increased and the Spanish continued their efforts to Christianize the Indians, the relationship between the Spaniards and the indigenous people worsened. I’ll explore this and the impact of the California missions on the Indians in the sequel to Yakimali’s Gift when Fernanda will again confront conflicts arising from her mixed Spanish and Pima Indian heritage.
Celebrate Your Heritage. Live Your Passion
In the end, I wanted Yakimali’s Gift to be a story of hope. Hope that we value our ancestry and appreciate the richness of our country’s diversity. And hope that, like Fernanda, we have the determination and passion to live the lives we truly desire among the people we love.
Below are photos and descriptions of the prairie dogs and terrain I saw when I visited Arizona to research my novel Yakimali’s Gift.
These are black-tailed prairie dogs, or grassland squirrels, I saw at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a fabulous 20-acre site that includes a world-renowned zoo, natural history museum and botanical garden. The prairie dogs create quite a few holes and mounds, as you can see here, which made traveling difficult for the colonists and animals. Father Font, one of the priests on the Anza expedition, noted in his diary: “The footing on today’s journey was somewhat bad because of the squirrel mounds which abound.”
The next picture shows the saguaro cacti that are common in the Sonoran Desert where Yakimali’s Gift takes place. The saguaro, the largest cactus in the U.S., can grow as tall as 60 feet and live as long as 200 years. In Yakimali’s Gift, late one night Fernanda and her brother sneak a pair of horses away from camp and ride out to the Casa Grande ruins. The moonlight shines on the tall saguaros, reminding Fernanda of “soldiers frozen in a stiff salute.”
Here are other cacti and plants of the Sonoran desert. The plant in the foreground with the yellow flowers is a creosote bush, or hediondilla, which translates from Spanish to “the little stinker” because of the plant’s pungent smell. On the colonization expedition, the horses and mules were discouraged from eating the plant because the resinous leaves would burn their mouths.
This is a picture showing the typical terrain that the colonists would have traveled through at the beginning of their journey. They left Tubac (at that time Mexico, New Spain and now Arizona) in October and endured extreme heat, wind, sandstorms and, later, severe snowstorms. Many of the colonists saw snow for the first time. In Yakimali’s Gift, after a snowstorm the night before, Fernanda ventures from her tent in the early morning to marvel at the silent snowy scene before her:
“Although the sky was overcast with a steel gray, she squinted against the glaring whiteness that covered the ground, rocks, and shrubs—as bright as an expanse of sand in the sunlight, but oh, so cold! And so quiet. Once, wishing for privacy away from her family, she snuck to the back room of their hut and covered her ears to seal out all noise. Still she heard something—her breathing, her heartbeat, her thoughts. But here, now, there was not a single sound.”