History & Culture
The Story of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail
NPS illustration by David Rickman
-- Father Pedro Font, remarks opening his journal
"Everyone mount up!" This became a familiar call from Spanish Lt. Col. Juan Bautista de Anza. In 1776, while American patriots fought for their independence from England, Anza led about 240 people more than 1,800 miles to settle Alta California. Their journey was the first colonizing expedition from New Spain to come overland into California.
Pursuing a Dream
Juan Bautista de Anza's father had a dream. He wanted to find an overland route to Alta California beyond the Spanish frontier, but he died in an Apache ambush in 1740 when Anza was three years old. Anza followed in his father's footsteps and joined the Spanish military, eventually becoming a captain on the frontier at the Tubac Presidio.
Spain had been struggling to secure its outposts in Alta California from Russian and English exploration and colonization. Existing sea routes were dangerous and difficult. Just like his father, Anza requested permission from the Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio Maria Bucareli, to prove a land route to Alta California was possible. Permission was granted.
Following Indian trade routes, Anza scouted a path in 1774 that would allow for a colonizing expedition, including much-needed livestock and supplies. Upon this success, he was granted permission to recruit and lead a group of settlers to Alta California. Spain's goal was to establish the first colony in a place they called el río de San Francisco. Anza's goal was to safely deliver the settlers, thus fulfilling his father's dream.
Trusting a Promise
In September 1775, Anza arrived in places like Culiacán in Sinaloa and Horcasitas in Sonora. Residents heard a call from this military man who told stories of lush lands and plentiful resources in a place far from their desert homeland. Anza invited the men to join this expedition as paid soldiers on two conditions: they would not return, and they had to bring their families.
When the expedition left the Tubac Presidio on October 23, 1775, thirty families had joined Anza, totaling about 240 men, women, and children. These families put their trust in a promise for a better life from a man who did not guarantee they would reach their destination safely. It was a risk these families were willing to take.
The colonists were diverse in their heritage with a blending of indigenous, European, and African ancestry. The settlers, with their military escorts and support workers (cowboys, mule packers, and Indian guides) comprised an enormous group of people and more than 1,000 head of livestock. Led by Anza, the people, their supplies and livestock resembled a traveling town making its way through the desert.
Most days started with mass and the alabado, a hymn of praise, led by Franciscan priest Pedro Font, the expedition chaplain. Not only did Font provide religious leadership, he recorded latitudes with a quadrant and kept a meticulous journal. Where the tone of Anza's journal was official, Font's was eloquent. These two journals document dates, supplies issued, distances traveled, places visited, and people encountered, covering the struggles and successes of the journey. Without the diaries, details of this epic journey would never have been known.
NPS illustration by David Rickman
Native Americans and the Anza Expedition
On June 27, 1776, the expedition families arrived in what is now San Francisco. Anza ensured the settlers reached their destination, and Spain successfully established its northernmost colony in Alta California.
In the new land, many of the colonists obtained the better life Anza had promised.
The journey's success was due in part to Anza's ability to forge alliances with a few of the Native American communities encountered along the route. Some were very generous in their assistance. The Tohono O'odham and Chumash provided much-needed food. A Quechan group, led by Chief Palma, helped the expedition cross the Colorado River.
Spain intended to expand its society by acculturating the local Native Americans into mission life. To Spain, the frontier was full of souls to be saved.
Viewed as the beneficiaries, Indians were the required labor that built missions. Many were forced to accept an unfamiliar lifestyle. The Spanish believed this lifestyle would elevate the Indians in their new society. In reality, the approach significantly altered the tribal world. Indian populations declined and their traditions were disrupted.
Ultimately, Spanish colonialism spelled the end of the tribal world as it had existed.
While historical figures live on through names of streets, towns, counties and landmarks such as Berryessa, Bernal, Peralta, Moraga and Alviso, their living descendants are vital parts of today's communities.
Native peoples encountered by Anza continue to practice their traditions into the 21st century. Public presentations of Indian lifeways occur in places such as Satwiwa Native American Indian Culture Center and Coyote Hills East Bay Regional Park.
The 1775-76 Anza Expedition layed a new cultural foundation for the American West. The expedition's living legacy is found not only among its descendants and native peoples, but throughout modern Arizona, California, and beyond.
National Historic Trail
The National Park Service administers the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail through partnership with other federal, state, county, and municipal parks and agencies, local volunteer groups, non-profit organizations, and private landowners.
An Auto Route approximates the areas where the expedition traveled. Several communities and parks offer Anza Recreation Trail for walking, hiking, horse riding, and bicycling. A Historic Route comprises a variety of historic sites related to the Spanish Colonial era. If an area belonging to a private landowner is not open to visitors, permission must be obtained to enter the property.
To explore a dynamic online map of the Anza Trail, please visit http://www.AnzaHistoricTrail.org.