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Friars, Soldiers, and Settlers

A New Website Tracks Spain's Expeditions to California

By Meredith Hindley | HUMANITIES, January/February 1998 | Volume 19, Number 1

In 1774, a Spanish military officer set off with twenty soldiers, a dozen servants, and a herd of two hundred cattle intent on finding an overland route from Mexico to Mission San Gabriel in California.

After a dramatic three months -- punctuated by frequent bouts with starvation, currying favor with local Indian tribes, and wandering aimlessly through the desert -- Juan Bautista de Anza accomplished his goal. His discovery of an overland supply route expanded Spanish settlement in California and enabled Spain to maintain a hold on the region until the Mexican American War.

The DeAnza Project, created by the Center for Advanced Technology in Education at the University of Oregon, is building a large-scale instructional website about Anza's expeditions. When completed, students will be able to research Anza's expeditions and the history of the time by downloading diaries, images, and scholarly essays. Studies of Spanish exploration of America frequently leave off with the fifteenth- and sixteenth- century conquistadors. By picking up the historical thread of Anza's expeditions, Spain's role in colonizing California and the southwestern part of the United States can be woven into the larger history of the country.

"We imagine teachers using the website as a supplement to American history in the colonial period," said Lynne Anderson-Inman, the project's director. Anza's expeditions provide students with a chance to compare events in Spanish America with those in the thirteen colonies. It's an exercise that yields some stark results. In the bustling east coast port cities of Boston and Philadelphia, republican-minded colonists were maneuvering to throw off the yoke of British colonialism. On the Pacific coast, Franciscan friars and rough-cut soldiers presided over a series of austere outposts eking out an existence. Spain was struggling to establish the very type of civic order that the American colonists questioned.

When completed, the DeAnza Project will provide students and educators with access to an important passage in America's history. Anza eventually led some 240 settlers over the supply route to San Francisco. The soldiers and settlers who ultimately made the journey -- a mixture of European, Native American, and African heritage -- brought with them the traditions and culture of Spanish America, which continue to shape American culture.

"One of the nice things about this topic is how all of the forces of history converged on this adventure," said Anderson- Inman. As students who log on to the website will learn, Anza's expeditions were driven by a combination of international tensions, internal Spanish politics, and the missionary impulse.

By the eighteenth century, Spain's holdings in America had become an important source of wealth for the monarchy and were guarded over with a watchful eye. In Mexico and Latin America, a system of military outposts, known as presidios, was established to instill order and enforce Spanish rule. Spain also invited the various orders of the Catholic Church to establish missions, believing that Spanish subjects should also be Christian subjects. By the 1700s, presidios and missions dotted the landscape of Spanish America -- both as symbols and seats of Spanish power.

The key to Spain's New World wealth was its safe delivery. Spanish America generated valuable resources, primarily through mining operations. Its location was also integral to the administration of Spain's Far Eastern territories. With the acquisition of the Philippines, ports on the Pacific coast of Spanish America became an important stopover for ships making the journey across the ocean from Manila. Crews could find a temporary respite from Mother Nature, scurvy, and pirates before continuing to Spain.

In the mid-1760s, Spain faced a stepped-up challenge to its hegemony on the Pacific coast from rival European powers anxious to expand their own empires at Spain's expense. Britain and France were increasingly antagonistic on the high seas and launched their own voyages of discovery in the Pacific. French and British pirates, often working with the blessing of Paris and London, openly harassed the slow-sailing Spanish cargo ships. Meanwhile, the Russians made forays along the North American coast extending as far south as Oregon searching for new sources of seal and otter pelts. Spain's European rivals were systematically testing the soundness of imperial foundation, looking for weak spots they could exploit.

If international pressures weren't enough, Spain's internal situation complicated matters in Spanish America. Believing that the Society of Jesus had acquired too much wealth and influence over Spanish affairs, Charles III expelled the Jesuits from all Spanish-controlled territories in 1767 and turned over possessions controlled by the Jesuits to other religious orders. The expulsion of the Jesuits left a vacuum in Spanish America that the Dominicans and Franciscans rushed to fill.

From this milieu of high-seas drama, international tensions, and messy domestic politics emerged the idea of extending Spain's reach into Alta, or Upper, California. Spain was increasingly conscious of the need to consolidate its hold on the Pacific coast. At the same time, the expulsion of the Jesuits from Baja (Lower) California gave the Franciscans increased influence. With the Jesuits out the way, the Franciscans could push their plan to expand the mission frontier into Alta California.

From 1769 to 1772, the Franciscans worked their way up the California coastline establishing five missions: San Diego de Alcalá in 1769, San Carlos Borromeo del Carmelo in 1770, San Antonio de Padua in 1771, San Gabriel Arcángel in 1771, San Luís Obispo de Tolosa in 1772, along with two presidios at San Diego and Monterey. A scouting party stumbled upon San Francisco Bay during the 1769 expedition.

Supply problems immediately jeopardized the viability of Spain's new outposts. The sixty-one soldiers and eleven Franciscan friars scattered among the settlements were utterly dependent on outside supplies for survival. They encountered frequent brushes with starvation, since resupplying the settlements by sea was no easy task. The prevailing winds and currents along the California coast meant that a trip north from Baja California to Monterey took five times as long as same trip did south. Ships were frequently lost, either blown out to sea or destroyed on the rocky coastline.

It became clear that in order for the Spanish settlements to survive, an overland supply route between Mexico and Alta California had to be found. The crux of the problem was Baja California's landscape -- a desert of seemingly endless sand dunes that gave way to steep mountains. Attempts had been made since the seventeenth century to find a workable route, but none had met with success.

The final spark that launched the hunt for the overland supply route was Anza's own belief in its feasibility. As the commander of the presidio at Tubac, Mexico, Anza became friendly with the local Yuma Indians. His conversations with them convinced him that the supply route envisioned by the Franciscans was feasible. It was simply a matter of finding it. In 1773, Anza received permission to lead an overland expedition to Alta California from Antonio María Bucareli y Ursúa, the region's viceroy.

Anza's party set out from Tubac on January 8, 1774 bound for Mission San Gabriel. Serving as Anza's guides were Father Gracés, a Franciscan on friendly terms with the local Indian tribes, and Sebastian Tarabal, a Cochimí Indian, who was a last minute, but fortuitous, addition. The expedition headed north and reached the Yuma village at the junction of the Gila and Colorado rivers without much difficulty. With the help of the Yuma Indians, the Spaniards crossed the Colorado River, and proceeded southward in an attempt to circumnavigate the sea of sand dunes. Anza's party only succeeded getting lost. After ten days of wandering around the desert, they found their way back to the Colorado river and were reunited with the Yuma Indians. Determined to continue, Anza followed Tarabal's suggestion, which dictated a more northerly route through the San Gabriel mountains. Within days they camped along the San Jacinto River, reaching Mission San Gabriel on March 22 and Monterey on May 1. After staying only three days in Monterey, Anza retraced his route and arrived back in Tubac at the end of May.

Anza had found an overland route, but whether it could be used for large-scale expeditions remained to be seen. Anza's second expedition put his route to the test. As charged by Viceroy Bucareli, Anza was to recruit and lead an expedition of settlers from Mexico to the San Francisco bay, where they would establish a presidio and two missions. Spain believed that the stronger the settler presence in California, the stronger its hold on the region.

The expedition Anza spear-headed reflected the colonial mandate. He was joined again by Gracés and Tarabal, while for his second-in-command, he chose José Joaquin Moraga, an eighteen-year military veteran. The expedition also consisted of: Father Pedro Font, three officers, eighteen veteran soldiers from the presidios of Sonora and Tubac, twenty recruits, twenty-nine women (wives of the soldiers), four volunteer families, 128 children, twenty muleteers, three vaqueros, three servants, three Indian interpreters, 695 horses and mules, and 355 cattle. Anza also recruited some 170 settlers, most of them living on the edge of poverty, to make the journey.

The number of people on Anza's colonizing expedition is the subject of debate. Anza's diary indicates 240, but recent scholarship analyzing his letters suggests it might have been closer to three hundred. Whatever the number, it was quite a large group to be shepherding across Baja California's formidable landscape.

The colonizing expedition set out from Tubac on October 23, 1775, after being delayed by Apache raids. The first night out, a woman died in childbirth; she would be, remarkably, the only casualty of the expedition. At San Xavier del Bac, Father Font presided over the woman's burial and the marriage of four couples. With their departure from San Xavier del Bac, the expedition left behind the last Spanish settlement until Mission San Gabriel.

Anza's party slowly made its way northward up the Santa Cruz river valley (past what is now present-day Tucson), then followed the Gila River west until it intersected with the Colorado River. Frequent bouts of sickness affecting both humans and animals delayed their progress, as did the birth of a second baby. They reached the Colorado River on November 28 and, with the help of the Yumas, crossed it without incident. On December 4, the expedition parted company with the Yumas and Father Gracés, who stayed behind to conduct missionary work. As they followed the Colorado River west, Anza divided the expedition into four groups: three groups of settlers and one group of livestock, each traveling a day apart. He hoped that staggering the expedition would make better use of the available water supply and increase the opportunities for foraging.

Mid-December brought unseasonably cold temperatures. The weather conditions, which alternated daily between wet and dry, made life miserable on the trail. Rain and snow produced damp clothing and the increased chance of illness. Dry weather created its own problems. Thirst-plagued cattle stampeded, resulting in the loss of fifty cows intended to feed the settlers in California. Just before Christmas, Anza's party made their way into Coyote Canyon, and Christmas Eve brought the birth of a third baby. On December 26, the expedition finally reached the pass serving as the gateway to Alta California. Its arrival in Mission San Gabriel on January 4, 1776 effectively doubled the European population of Alta California.

Mission San Gabriel was to be a stopover at which to regroup and forge ahead, but the expedition stayed longer than anticipated. Anza was recruited by the comandante of California, Fernando Rivera y Moncada, to help suppress hostilities between Spanish settlers and the Kumeyaay Indians around San Diego. The expedition finally continued up the coast in mid-February.

After 130 days and nearly two thousand miles, the expedition reached the Monterey Presidio and Mission San Carlos del Carmelo on March 11, 1776. Despite accomplishing the treacherous journey, the colonists were forced to wait several months before finally calling San Francisco their home. Ignoring Anza's enthusiastic report, Rivera refused to grant them permission to establish a settlement. Citing his own 1774 exploration of the bay, Rivera declared San Francisco unsuitable for colonization.

Ironically, it would not be Anza who led the expedition into San Francisco Bay. Frustrated with the bureaucratic games and regarding the major part of his task completed, Anza departed for Mexico in April 1776. Rivera relented and on June 17, with Lieutenant Moraga in the lead, the colonists departed for San Francisco bay. Ten days later, they reached their new home and began the task of building Mission San Francisco de Aísi.

Over the next five years, enough settlers, soldiers, and cattle followed Anza's trail. Two new pueblos were founded, San Jose and Los Angeles. After a Yuma uprising in 1781, Anza's route was abandoned by the Spaniards, although in the nineteenth century, the Gila River section became part of the Butterfield Overland Mail Route. It was also the last leg of the "southern route" many Americans followed to strike their fortunes in the California Gold Rush.

What we know about Anza's expeditions come from the diaries kept by Anza and those who traveled with him, particularly Fathers Font and Gracés. The diaries form the core text of the DeAnza Project's website. The diary entries can be read straight through, read in three-day increments, or viewed on a day-by-day basis. Users will also have the option of culling all of the diary entries on a particular subject. For example, they can choose the entries that discuss Anza's encounters with the Yuma Indians. The diaries are supplemented with other contemporary documents, including letters between Anza and the Viceroy of New Spain and maps of the expedition made by Font. "One of the things that we hope is that by having the primary documents, people will get caught up in the adventure," said Anderson-Inman.

These primary accounts will be supported by secondary sources to provide both historical context and avenues for further inquiry. The site will include scholarly essays on historical, anthropological, cultural, and geographical issues related to the expeditions. Of particular note is the inclusion of Herbert Bolton's five-volume series on Anza's expeditions. Published in 1930, the volumes cover everything from the environmental impact of Spanish settlement in California to Anza's Basque heritage. Historical societies in California and Arizona have also agreed to let relevant material from their holdings be digitized. The Arizona Historical Society, for example, has given the project access to its archive on the Chirachau Apaches, one of the eight Indian tribes Anza came into contact with during his journeys.

Where feasible, the documents housed on the website will be available in both Spanish and English, enabling users to switch back and forth between the two languages. In key documents, important words or phrases will be highlighted, letting the user know they can follow a link to another document or image providing additional information.

The multimedia environment of the web allows the project to make wide-scale use of a wealth of pictorial evidence, such as drawings, etchings, and paintings, surviving from the period. Contemporary images from New Spain will be supplemented with photographs of geographical sites and artifacts, architectural renderings and floor plans, and three- dimensional models of equipment and buildings. Many of the museums and historical societies associated with the California missions have agreed to lend images to the project, as has the Center for Spanish Colonial Archaeology. The project will also draw on the five hundred thousand images held by the California Historical Society.

Users will be able to access a variety of maps -- from an overview of the whole route to minute segments of the trail (one inch equals three miles). Particular attention is being given to providing timelines and chronologies -- available at the click of a button -- so that users won't lose sight of the big picture.

Behind the website's flexibility and eclectic mix of sources is the idea of encouraging students to be their own historians. "We really wanted it to be a resource that students could approach from different perspectives," said Anderson-Inman. In order to accomplish this, the site allows them to control the process of inquiry. They can decide which direction to approach the expeditions from -- contact with Native Americans, religious zeal, women in New Spain, and so on. "In this sense, the students are using the website to perform the historical inquiry that professional historians do, but it's confined," said Anderson-Inman.

The focus on inquiry can make it a useful teaching tool. "We envision that a teacher might assign students to search the database to come up with all of the information in the database on a specific topic," said Anderson-Inman. "Teachers could then ask their students: What do you learn from these documents about the expeditions and the people?"

The DeAnza Project, which is still in the development stage, has benefited from the willingness of institutions to share their resources and grant copyright permissions. "When I contacted people to be involved in this project, everybody was gracious to a fault and supportive in helping, volunteering their time and energies," said Anderson-Inman. NEH has given money for a prototype and mock-up of the website to be used to solicit additional funding.

When complete, the DeAnza Project will provide teachers and students with a resource for learning about an underplayed episode in American history. With the click of a mouse, students will relive Anza's adventures and in the process gain a better understanding about the forces shaping the creation of modern America.