Two Leaders, One Trail: Anza and Font; Leadership and Duty

February 13, 2018 Posted by: Ronald D. Quinn, Ph.D.

In February the National Park Service is exploring stories and inspiration from leaders and about leadership. From Frederick Douglass (born 200 years ago this month!) to George Washington, César Chávez, Maggie Walker, and others working individually and collaboratively—how do parks and public lands celebrate and help us understand leadership?

Juan Bautista de Anza is one of the great figures of Spanish colonial history of the American Southwest. His greatest accomplishment was organizing and leading the successful expedition that brought the first overland colonists from New Spain to Alta California, where they established the settlement that became San Francisco.

Anza’s abilities included organizational skills, and inspiring confidence in those he led. He recruited and selected colonists, chose soldiers, procured a thousand livestock, and gathered a mountain of supplies for 240 people. He led these people safely on a rugged trip of eight months. Over that entire journey only one traveler died, during childbirth, and other children were born.  He befriended indigenous people when he could, and there were no violent conflicts along the way.

Another measure of Anza as a leader is the loyalty he engendered from those he commanded. In 1774, Anza, his soldiers, and their animals were mired in the trackless sands of the eastern California desert. He had to turn back.  Anza gathered his soldiers and priests, and explained what lay before them. They rallied to his support, declaring that they “would not flinch”, and saying that if necessary they would complete their duties on foot, walking to Alta California. When Anza departed for the last time from the Alta California colonists, he was uncharacteristically open about his feelings. About the people he was leaving, he wrote: ”I was laden with their sympathy, embraces and wishes for my good luck, along with praise I do not deserve: in gratitude for which and for the affection I had from all of them ever since the time I recruited them”.  


Friar Pedro Font was the principal diarist, cartographer, and priest for the Anza expedition to Alta California. He was a keen observer of the events of the journey, physical and social. He had the ability, and disposition, to describe clearly and thoroughly all that he observed, as well as his opinions. His diary reveals that he was often judgmental, sarcastic, petty, and self-righteous. Nonetheless, he was always obedient to his commander. He often disagreed with Anza about matters large and small, and was quick to say so. He sometimes exasperated Anza with his frequent and insistent complaints, to the degree that Anza (according to Font) would avoid him for weeks at a time. In fairness, we must recognize that Font was ill, sometimes seriously, for almost the entire eight months of the expedition, first with malaria and later with scurvy. Even so, when he could rise from his bed he always fulfilled his duties. He may have been cross because he was ill. Many of us are.

Commander Anza was well suited as a leader by experience, ability, and character. Father Font faithfully carried out his multiple duties, and always obeyed Anza, much as he sometimes disagreed with him.  Whatever we may think of Font’s judgments and complaints about Anza, the detail and transparency in the diary makes it compelling reading, and good history. We would know far, far less about what really happened on the momentous expedition to Alta California without Font’s remarkable diary.

The Anza Society Inc., is a tax exempt, 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation incorporated under the laws of the State of Arizona.

We celebrate the life and times of Juan Bautista de Anza (1736-1788), Presidial Captain of La Nueva España, explorer, leader of the founders of San Francisco, California, peace maker, and Governor of New Mexico.  This included an annual forum to share results of our research.

These activities include Anza’s father, Juan Bautista de Anza, a Basque born in Spain, who emigrated to La Nueva España and became a Presidial Captain. These activities also include the study of 18th century Spanish Colonial History.

Members of the Anza Society facilitate the study, interpretation, commemoration, and preservation of places and artifacts related to both the United States and Mexico.

The Society holds the Annual Juan Bautista de Anza International Conference in either Mexico or the United States of America. The Conference includes presentations of scholarly papers, field trips, and re-enactments of historic people and events.

Learn more about the Anza Society by visiting their webpage,

leader, leadership, anza, font, Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, Trails 50, NTS, NHT, anza trail

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Last updated: February 13, 2018

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