Historical Note on the Expedition
Few people have heard about the 1775-1776 Anza expedition from Mexico to California. Maybe because it happened at the same time as another important event: the American Revolution. But the Spanish colonization of California, seventy years before pioneers from the east crossed the Rockies, also helped shape the future of the United States.
By 1775, Spain had quite an empire in the New World. Most of the people of New Spain lived in Mexico, Central America, and South America. The empire also had settlements in present-day Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, and a few missions and presidios (military posts) in California.
A small number of soldiers and Franciscan priests lived in the presidios and missions. Many times they faced starvation as they waited for supply ships to make the slow journey up the coast from Mexico. Fighting treacherous waters and heavy winds, the ships were often lost at sea or destroyed against rocky cliffs.
Because of this difficulty in getting supplies to the soldiers and priests, and to bring more colonists to California, Spanish rulers wished to discover an overland route from Mexico to California. In 1774, King Carlos III authorized Captain Juan Bautista de Anza to lead an expedition in the hopes of finding this route. After a three-month journey, Anza arrived in San Gabriel, having discovered a safe passage across the desert and over the mountains to California.
With this success, the king ordered Anza to lead another expedition, this time bringing with him colonists and the supplies they would need to start lives in the new territory. Most of the colonists who signed on for the journey were poor. They hoped for a better life in California and were enticed by the new clothes, arms, household goods, and horses given to them by order of the Spanish king.
Lieutenant Luis Joaquin Moraga and Sergeant Juan Pablo Grijalba assisted Captain Anza. Three priests also accompanied the expedition. Father Pedro Font recorded the latitudes in his diary, adding descriptions of the Indians, weather, land, and more. Fathers Antonio Garcés and Tomás Eixarch traveled only as far as the Colorado River where they stayed to teach the Yuma Indians Christianity. Father Garcés and Captain Anza also kept diaries of the journey.
Thirteen muleteers packed and unpacked the mules, laden with the travelers’ supplies, at each campsite. Three vaqueros kept the herd of cattle together, which would be used for meat on the journey and the presidios in California. Anza and each of the priests had servants. Three Indian interpreters helped communicate with the Pimas, Yumas, and other tribes. (Please see the Author Notes for more information on the Indians.) In all, there were 240 people (including 115 children ranging in age from infant to eighteen), 695 horses and mules, and 355 head of cattle.
The expedition began in Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico in March 1775, where Anza recruited the first colonists, adding more between there and Tubac. They spent the summer in Horcasitas, at that time the capital of the state of Sonora, left there September 29 and, after traveling for three weeks, arrived at Tubac, the presidio Anza commanded. (This is where my novel Yakimali’s Gift begins.) There, more colonists signed on, and the expedition left again on October 23, 1775. The journey from Culiacán, Mexico to Monterey, California would cover almost 2000 miles and last almost one year.
The colonists survived extreme conditions and hardship along the trail: death, births, heat, dust storms, wind, rain, snow, dying animals, and limited supplies. Still, life continued. Three couples were married. Eight women gave birth, although only three of the babies lived and one woman died in childbirth.
The expedition crossed over into California on January 1, 1776 (where Yakimali’s Gift ends) and arrived at the San Gabriel mission on January 4. Anza left the colonists there for over one month while he joined a confrontation between soldiers and Indians at the San Diego mission. The captain returned to San Gabriel, and on February 21, 1776, Anza and those colonists who hadn’t settled in San Gabriel set off for Monterey and arrived there on March 10. Those colonists who had started in Culiacán traveled just a few days short of one year.
The expedition route is now a National Historic Trail with the National Park Service. You can read more about the trail here.