Anza Trail Blog

Momentous Encounters in the Life of Juan Bautista de Anza: Calling All Scriptwriters!

by Julianne Burton-Carvajal, Ph.D.

Tagged as:   history

Juan Bautista de Anza

Encuentros Claves en la Vida de Anza: Se Solicita Guionistas
Conceived, prepared and revised by Julianne Burton-Carvajal, Ph.D. Adapted from a joint presentation with Rita Vega-Acevedo for the Anza Society, Banámichi, Sonora, Mexico, March 2014.

In order to retain a place in public awareness, even the giants of history must capture the attention of each succeeding generation. In the 21st century, public attention is most effectively enlisted by audio-visual means: movies, television, video, digital animation, streaming websites and social media. As historians who admire the achievements of Juan Bautista de Anza the younger, we make bold to offer media-makers of the future a few signposts.

Juan Bautista de Anza the younger followed in the footsteps of his soldier father to become a man of action. Born and bred in Sonora, part of northern New Spain, Anza was a creole of Basque descent at a time when leadership positions were largely reserved for men born in Old Spain. Entrusted with the welfare of hundreds of soldiers and settlers across forbidding expanses of desert and mountain, and later elevated to the governorship of the Kingdom of New Mexico – the most remote and besieged province of the Viceroyalty of New Spain – Anza almost invariably rose to the challenge of every conceivable situation. Scholar and living history re-enactor Don Garate of the National Park Service in Arizona estimated that Anza the younger covered some 60,000 miles on horseback(!) in the service of the Spanish crown – perhaps more than any other “man of action” of his era.

The motivating principle of the following list of fifteen “momentous encounters” is not Anza as a man of action but rather Anza as a man of inter-action. Instead of the “Sonora Anza,” the “Arizona Anza,” the “Alta California Anza” or “Anza as Governor of New Mexico,” we have identified fifteen pivotal encounters over a twenty-year period (1767–1786) with the key figures of his era, and across the full radius of his extensive travels – as far south as Mexico City, as far north as today’s state of Colorado, and as far to the northwest as the port of San Francisco.

Most of the following encounters made history, but a few impeded the historical process due to personality conflicts or ingrained habits of resistance. Our selection emphasizes in-person encounters, some lasting for weeks or even months, and includes letters as an alternative form of dialogue. Three of the encounters are “illustrated” with words that the principals put down on paper. Most of the settings are highly cinematic. We encourage readers to unleash their imaginations, envisioning how a film director or video-maker might choose to depict the following richly varied scenarios.

1. July 1767 in Sonora: A top-secret royal order promulgated throughout the Spanish empire compelled Anza to arrest Jesuit fathers Roxas and Perera and transport them under guard to Aconchi on the western coast of Mexico for mass deportation. Father Roxas had not only baptized but also married Anza. For the young officer, the clash between duty and piety must have been agonizing.

2. December 1773 at the presidio of Altar in Sonora, Yuma Chieftain Salvador Palma introduced Anza to Sebastián Tarabal, the indio ladino (Hispanized Indian) from San Gabriel Mission in Alta California – the only one of three runaways to survive the desert crossing. The cooperation of Chief Palma, along with Tarabal’s first-hand knowledge of the rugged desert terrain, were key factors in Anza’s decision to route his exploratory expedition to Yuma and cross the Colorado River there.

3. On February 7, 1774 Yuma Chieftain Salvador Palma, already known to both Anza and accompanying missionary friar Francisco Garcés, welcomed the exploratory expedition near the junction of the Gila and Colorado rivers and enlisted his people, expert swimmers and raft-builders, to assist Anza and his troops in fording the treacherous river.

4. On April 27, 1774, Anza and Franciscan missionary friar Junípero Serra crossed paths at a Chumash village near Point Concepción on the Pacific coast just north of the future Santa Barbara. The Father-President of the Alta California missions was returning from Mexico City and a highly productive series of encounters with the Viceroy, while Anza’s contingent had just succeeded in blazing the first overland route between Sonora and Monterey. During that unplanned encounter, what impressions and insights might the soldier and the priest have shared around the campfire, each of them fresh from an endeavor that was pivotal to the continued survival of Alta California?

5. Instructed to report on his exploratory overland expedition from Sonora to Monterey and back, Anza had his first audience with Viceroy Antonio María Bucareli y Ursúa at the Viceregal Palace in Mexico City, the New World’s grandest colonial-era metropolis, on November 13, 1774. The fact that his father had been the first to suggest blazing an overland route to link the two extremes of the northern frontier would not have been far from his mind.

6. With viceregal authorization, by September 1775 Anza had recruited 240 settlers to build and populate the future San Francisco in Alta California. Pedro Font, the senior Franciscan friar attached to that second expedition, was a continuing thorn in Anza’s side from San Miguel de Horcasitas, the initial point of assembly, to arrival at Monterey on March 10, 1776. As Font’s diaries reveal, uneasy ill-feeling was mutual.

7. December 1775 through May 1776: After spending an unproductive month at San Diego, where the mission had recently been destroyed by a Kumeyaay rebellion – the most devastating event in the history of Spanish Alta California – Anza and Governor Captain Fernando de Rivera y Moncada carried on a mutually frustrating, increasingly hostile correspondence regarding whether and when the presidio and mission at San Francisco would be founded.

Writing to Viceroy Bucareli on May 24, 1776, Rivera y Moncada declared:

I do not believe there has ever been a Captain so disgraced in the King’s armies, whose Colonel has reprehended him with such bitterness, nor with such magnitude as Don Juan Bautista has done to me, even had it been ordered by [God] my Examining Judge. [Everything] is topsy-turvy, with the heads where the feet should be.

Rivera’s assertions were provoked by Anza’s 17th and final letter to him, written on May 3, 1776, which included the following paragraph:

…Your Honor’s highly exaggerated years and experience… are like deceptions to those who see through you. It will not be easy for you to excuse the way you acted at our meeting [on the road near San Luis Obispo]. My greeting to you was not even properly completed when Your Honor kicked your mule (it is irrelevant whether with or without spurs) and marched off, claiming [after four months of waiting on my part] that I was importuning, interrupting, or detaining you. [Later] Your Honor tried to attribute this great rudeness to the effects of your “illness.”

8. On March 11, 1776, during a particularly cold and wet spring, Franciscan friars Palóu, Murguía and Cambón convened with Serra at the Monterey Presidio to offer a ceremony of welcome to Anza, Lieutenant Joaquín Moraga, and the scores of settler families destined to found San Francisco. Anza, unwell, was invited to recuperate at Carmel Mission before his taxing return trip to Sonora.

9. On April 14, 1776 at the Monterey Presidio, Anza bid farewell to the settler families from Sonora and Sinaloa. His parting recollection and friar Font’s could scarcely be more different. Anza wrote:

When I mounted my horse in the plaza, the people I have led from their fatherland, to which I am returning, …came to me in tears, which they declared they were shedding more because of my departure than because of their exile... They showered me with embraces, best wishes, and praises that I do not merit. In … the gratitude that I feel to all … and in eulogy to their faithfulness – for up to now I have not seen a single sign of desertion in any one of those whom I brought to remain in this exile – I may be permitted to record this praise of people who, as time goes on, will be very useful to the monarchy in whose service they have voluntarily left their relatives and their homeland – which is all they have to lose. (Adapted from Richard Pourade, Anza Conquers the Desert, San Diego: A Copley Book, 1971.)

Font’s account of the same occasion ends on a very different note. When double-checking “the pigsty they had lodged me in, to see if I had left anything in it,” he chided a presidio soldier for have locked the room:

'''What is there to guard?' I demanded. 'Nothing but chicken droppings!'" (From Alan K. Brown, With Anza to California, 1775-1776: The Journals of Pedro Font, O.F.M., University of Oklahoma, 2011.)

10. On November 4, 1776 Anza and a delegation of Yuma Indians from the lower Colorado River basin attended a full-dress “Court Day” celebration at the Viceregal Palace in Mexico City honoring the birthday of Spain’s King Carlos III, who would turn out to be the last of the Hapsburg dynasty.

11. On the evening of February 13, 1777 in an elaborate ceremony at the grand Mexico City Cathedral that fulfilled Yuma Chieftain Salvador Palma’s long-expressed desire for baptism, Anza became his baptismal godfather, joining the two in spiritual kinship.

12. In April 1778, as designated but not yet inaugurated Governor of the remote and besieged Kingdom of New Mexico, Anza attended a meeting of governors of Northern New Spain, convened at the frontier outpost of Chihuahua by Teodoro Caballero de Croix, first Commander of the newly designated Internal Provinces.

13. In 1779, soon after his arrival at Santa Fe’s sprawling adobe Palace of the Governors, Governor Anza enjoyed a reunion with soldier and civilian official Bernardo Miera y Pacheco – a distant relation from Sonora whose talents as artist and cartographer, along with his unequaled familiarity with the territory of and beyond the Kingdom of New Mexico, made him a most valuable advisor.

14. From 1781 to 1784, while Anza was Governor, the ongoing ecclesiastical and civil trials of Fray Diego Muñoz and José Juan Bustos exemplified the bitter struggles between church and state – as well as between Spaniards and creoles – that wearied northern governors and impeded their effectiveness.

15. In February 1786, nearly six years after Anza had earned their respect by killing renowned leader Cuerno Verde in battle, Comanche Chief Ecueracapa and his retinue “talked treaty” with the Governor at Pecos Pueblo east of Santa Fe. That treaty brought a generation of peace to New Mexico at last, permitting a sustainable economy to develop after more than a century of Spanish-Indian warfare.



In 1781, Spanish soldiers, settlers and missionaries finally over-taxed the seven-year welcome extended by Salvador Palma’s people, provoking a generalized rebellion at Yuma that closed the Anza Trail for decades. The following declaration on behalf of the Yumas, written years before, exonerates Anza from the reprehensible accusations made by his superiors Teodoro de Croix and Felipe de Neve, who taxed Anza with responsibility for the Yuma massacre – including, among scores of other deaths, those of friar Francisco Garcés and former California Governor Fernando Rivera y Moncada. Anza’s reiterated recommendation to place a presidio at Yuma had been ignored. As to the treatment of Indians, he had spelled out his recommendations on November 20, 1776, in written response to a request from Viceroy Bucareli:

In view of the proofs [that the Yumas have demonstrated by their past and present behavior], I do not think that [they]…will change from the docility and good nature they have shown us on all occasions, especially if those who may govern them shall try to maintain them in [that good nature], and as long as the secular and ecclesiastical ministers forego the severity and force that has been used in other reductions [Indian settlements]. Excessive labor in the fields and other tasks demanded of the Indians at the beginning of their conversion are sufficient causes to exasperate the first generation, and to make them inculcate this feeling of exasperation in their children….

Extreme patience and compassion are necessary – not ordinarily possessed by men who do not understand the qualities of the Indians. Therefore I repeat to Your Excellency [that] nobody should go with authority to command who may lack knowledge of the management of the Indians, and who may not [also] be disinterested, charitable, and willing… (Adapted from Herbert Bolton, Anza’s California Expeditions, volume 3, San Francisco Colony, 1930.)







Anza Watercolor by James Smith
Smith's watercolors were commissioned for the U.S. Bicentennial and the 1976 Anza reenactment ride by California Heritage Guides Helen Shropshire and Winston Elstob. Slides of these images are domain of the Monterey Library California History Room.

Anza Statue in San Francisco
This statue was presented to the City of San Francisco by the State of Sonora in 1967; today it overlooks Lake Merced.

Juan Bautista de Anza
Portrait of Juan Bautista de Anza, on display in Arispe, Sonora, Mexico. Artist unidentified. Photo courtesy of Jud Mygatt and Julianne Burton-Carvajal.

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