Juan Bautista de Anza was born in 1736 in Sonora, Mexico, at the northern frontier of the colony of New Spain. Like most boys of his age and rank, he trained at a Jesuit school. He joined the militia at 15, where he was soon promoted to lieutenant and, in 1760, to captain. The following year, he married Doña Maria Perez Serrano.
Anza spent his first 20 years of military service in Sonora, defending the colonial frontier against hostile Indian tribes. He also helped to set up new missions on Indian lands.
Anza was fascinated with the idea of creating an overland connection between the Sonora frontier and the western frontier of New Spain in Baja California. Although Spain had known about Alta California for over 200 years, they had never been able to settle it. The southerly currents and wind patterns made it very difficult for Spanish boats to sail up the California Coast. Up to Anza’s time, Spanish leaders felt that the immense deserts in northern Mexico made a land expedition impossible. Anza knew that American Indians had successfully crossed the desert and he thought Spanish settlers could do the same.
In 1773, Anza’s proposal to lead an exploratory expedition was approved by the government. The following January, he assembled a small group of soldiers and workers who set out from the presidio at Tubac across the largely uncharted deserts to the north and west.
The group reached San Gabriel Mission, near the California coast, on March 22, establishing the first overland link between the Sonora area and the growing chain of missions that was being created by Franciscans up the Alta California coast.
The Spanish viceroy was so pleased with Anza’s success that he promoted Anza to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. He also asked Anza to lead another expedition over the same route. This trip would include a much larger group of settlers, who would establish a presidio near San Francisco Bay and Spanish towns along the California coast. The viceroy would pay for the expedition and supply all of the families on the trip.
On Oct. 23, 1775, Anza’s colonizing expedition of about 300 men, women and children departed from the Tubac presidio. The group reached Mission San Gabriel on January 4, 1776 and Monterey on March 10. Anza went on to explore the area around the San Francisco Bay, then returned home to Sonora, leaving the colonists to settle Alta California.
Because of Anza's exceptional service, the king appointed him governor of New Mexico. As governor, Anza continued to conduct explorations along the colonial frontier and was responsible for arranging a successful peace treaty with the Comanches, Utes, and other Native American groups.
Anza returned to the military during his final years, serving first as
captain of the Fronteras Presidio at San Bernardino, then as commander of the Tucson presidio. During his life, there is no record of him having any children. He died on December 19, 1788.