Juan Bautista de Anza


By Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint


By the eighteenth century, populations from other European nations in addition to Spain were well established in the Americas. In Spain itself chronic financial difficulties all but ruled out expansion of Spanish controlled territory anywhere in the world. Meanwhile, unsubjugated, independent Indians often clashed with Hispanic New World settlers with deadly effect. The twin threats to Spanish sovereignty posed by independent Indians and aggressive colonists from other nations, compounded by a shortage of funds with which to pay for defense from either, were the bane of Spanish colonial administrative life on the thinly settled frontiers of the Empire throughout the 1700s.

Beginning as early as the mid-sixteenth century, royal Spanish officials had employed a series of presidios, or frontier forts, to counter pressure from indigenous and non-Spanish European opponents. Juan Bautista de Anza inherited a family tradition of service at presidios along the northern frontier of New Spain. His father, also known as Juan Bautista de Anza, was a presidial soldier and commandant. Juan (the son) was born in 1736 at the presidio of Fronteras on the extreme northern limit of what is today the Mexican state of Sonora.

At the time of Juan's birth, the Fronteras presidio's main mission was to protect Hispanic settlements, ranches, and mines in the area from attack by Apache Indians. In pursuit of that purpose Juan's father, soldier and then commandant of the presidio of Fronteras, was killed in an ambush by Apaches in May 1740. María Rafaela Bezerra Nieto, Juan's mother, also came from a presidial family. Her father was commandant of the presidio at Janos in modern Chihuahua.

Juan began his own presidial service at Fronteras at the age of 16. Just two years later, in 1754, he was promoted to a lieutenancy, and after five more years was elevated to commandant of the presidio at Tubac, on the Santa Cruz River, south of today's Tucson, Arizona. A garrison had been established there in 1753. Within two years of his appointment at Tubac, Juan married Ana María Pérez Serrano. The year was 1761. For the next 15 years, the burgeoning town of Tubac would be the couple's residence, as Juan faithfully executed the routine tasks of a frontier military outpost.

During Anza's tenure at Tubac, concern mounted at the Council of the Indies in Spain and the viceroy's office in Mexico City over the safety of Alta California and the rest of Spain's claims on the west coast of North America. Encroachment from British Canada and Russian Alaska loomed as threats to ships and crews in the lucrative Manila trade, which on their return to New Spain followed the California coast from Cape Mendocino to Cabo San Lucas.

Beginning as early as 1767 visitador general, or inspector general, for New Spain José de Gálvez worked energetically toward establishment of a Spanish settlement at Monterey Bay, then considered the best port on the California coast. New urgency for his project came in 1768 with reports of many Russians having come ashore in California. Working with meager funding, in 1769 Gálvez orchestrated the launch of a "Sacred Expedition" to establish Franciscan missions in Alta California. The plan was to occupy that region and thus forestall Russian designs on Spanish-claimed territory.

Gaspar de Portolá, fray Junípero Serra, and Fernando de Rivera y Moncada marched with small armed forces up the Baja California peninsula, while a tiny, parallel marine expedition headed for what became known as San Diego Bay. A successful rendezvous was made there by July. Portolá and a detachment headed on north in an attempt to locate Monterey Bay, the promising mission and presidio site that had previously been identified by crews of sailing vessels. It took two round trips as far north as the Golden Gate before Portolá and his companions succeeded in reaching Monterey and establishing a presidio in July 1770. Meanwhile, in the south, fray Junípero had founded the first mission in Alta California, San Diego de Alcalá. By 1774, there were five missions in the new province.

But without a dependable land route to California, the region was doomed as a Spanish colony. Resupply from New Spain by northbound ships that had to fight powerful contrary winds and currents was impractical. It was at this point that the viceroy approved a proposal that Anza had made two years prior to establish a trail from Tubac to the new missions. With three friars, 20 soldiers, and 11 muleteers and servants, capitán Anza and an indigenous guide left his home presidio in January 1774. By a circuitous route including the Río Altar Valley, the expedition at last reached the junction of the Gila and Colorado rivers, where it was received amicably by a band of Yuma Indians. Pushing on from there, Anza and company arrived at Mission San Gabriel, in the Los Angeles Basin, in March, after harrowing attempts to cross the deserts west of the Colorado River.

With a practicable route to California delineated, Anza was back in Tubac by the end of May 1774, where he was promoted to teniente de coronel. Within months he was ordered to conduct a column of colonists, recruited mainly in Sinaloa, all the way to Monterey. This time the expedition was much larger, comprising several hundred people, together with over 750 head of livestock. The caravan left Tubac in October 1775 and reached San Gabriel in January 1776, then continued north. When he had delivered the new colonists to Monterey, Anza carried out another assignment, to survey the area of San Francisco Bay for a favorable location for a presidio. Anza's recommendation was ultimately rejected in favor of the fort's current location, at the Golden Gate.

Returning to Tubac, Anza proceeded south to Mexico City. The results of that trip were commendation for making California a viable colony and receipt of another promotion, this time to the governorship of the province of New Mexico in 1777. In the meantime, overhaul of the administration of New Spain's northwest had been completed. A Comandancia General of the Provincias Internas (Interior Provinces) came into being, aimed primarily at military defense. During the next decade, Anza would prove to be a major figure in development and execution of frontier defensive strategies in the Comandancia.

Among Governor Anza's first important undertakings in New Mexico was a punitive expedition against Comanche Indians who occupied the eastern portion of the province, but ranged widely across the southern Great Plains. Since about 1700, when aggressive mounted warriors known as Comanches in the Ute Indian language first were noted in New Mexico, there had been periodic outbreaks of fierce hostilities between them and Apaches, Pueblos, and Hispanic settlers. It was not long before even Apaches were seeking Spanish aid against these newcomers from the Intermountain West.

After acquiring horses and with access to firearms from French traders, Comanche bands became a fearsome force on the eastern edge of the Spanish province. They were described by Pedro de Rivera in 1726 as "always on the move and in battle array." Certainly, war quickly became a major aspect of Comanche life. Because of Comanche pressure, by the 1730s, Jicarilla Apaches, traditionally trading partners of Taos Pueblo, had been pushed southward and now sought relations with Pecos Pueblo instead. That pueblo was itself attacked directly by Comanches in 1746, as was the Hispanic community of Galisteo.

Briefly, during the early 1750s, under the governorship of Tomás Vélez Cachupín, accommodation with the Comanches and other Plains tribes was the policy. Although occasionally marred by raids and retaliation, those few years were a time of general peace. The coming of hawkish Governor Francisco Antonio Marín del Valle in 1754, though, stirred the pot again. Punitive Spanish actions and Comanche reprisals succeeded each other like clockwork. That period of heightened bloodshed was followed by Vélez Cachupín's second term as governor, another interlude of relative calm. But after that, came the longest governorship in Spanish colonial New Mexico's history, that of Pedro Fermín de Mendinueta. It was characterized by wild swings between peace and war. Mendinueta's term was cumulatively the most violent during the century.

It was at the conclusion of those 11 years and under those conditions that Juan Bautista de Anza arrived in New Mexico. In accordance with policies hammered out during earlier meetings with Teodoro de Croix, the first comandante general, Anza sought first to re-establish fear of Spanish arms among Comanches and then to seek alliance with them against Lipan and Gila Apaches, who had become a plague, in Spanish eyes, in Sonora, Chihuahua, and Texas.

Accordingly, in 1779 Anza mounted a massive military campaign against Comanches in what is now southeastern Colorado. Nearly 600 armed men, mostly Pueblo Indians, rode from San Juan Pueblo in August of that year. They were joined by more than 200 Ute and Jicarilla Apache warriors. Traveling north by an unexpected route and at an unexpected time, they surprised an encampment of Comanches near modern Pueblo, Colorado. An ensuing running fight left 18 Comanche men dead and many women and children in captivity and earned Anza's Indian allies an incredible haul of spoils.

Seeking quick revenge, the well-known and much feared Comanche leader Cuerno Verde unwisely attacked Anza's huge force with only about 50 men. The results were predictable. Cuerno Verde and several other Comanche leaders were killed, as were more than a dozen lesser known warriors. Anza returned to New Mexico in triumph, showing off the distinctive "green horn" headdress of the defeated Comanche leader. The following year, and for at least one more after that, Comanche bands throughout the southern Plains were ravaged by European-introduced smallpox. By 1785, one of the three major divisions of Comanches, the Cuchanec, actively sought peace with Spanish New Mexico.

Governor Anza, as part of a hemisphere-wide Spanish policy, was most receptive to that opening. A general meeting with all three Comanche divisions occurred on the Arkansas River in November 1785. At that meeting, Anza's peace talk conditions were detailed. Chief among them was that there would have to be a single spokesman for the entire people and that peace terms concluded by him would apply to all Comanches, not only his band or division. A leader of the Cuchanec called Ecueracapa was designated as spokesman. In February of the following year, after an exchange of embassies, Ecueracapa and a throng of Comanches rode to Santa Fe to ratify a treaty.

The provisions of the agreement included permission for Comanches to establish their encampments closer to the settlements of New Mexico, permission for Comanches to trade regularly at Pecos Pueblo, promises from the governor to deliver stocks of gifts annually to the Comanches, promises from the Comanches to make war against southern Apaches, and agreement on both sides to notify other Indians and Europeans of their treaty. The peace thus concluded endured for nearly 30 years, until Mexico gained its independence from Spain and the new nation's lean revenues ended the payment of gifts.

Juan Bautista de Anza, the man who brokered the peace that made possible expansion of New Mexican colonial settlement into the Chama and Pecos river valleys in the final decade of the 1700s, ended his term as governor in 1787 and died at Arizpe in Sonora the following year.

Sources Used:

Bolton, Herbert Eugene.An Outpost of Empire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1930.

Bowman, J.N. and Robert F. Heizer. Anza and the Northwest Frontier of New Spain. Los Angeles: Southwest Museum, 1967.

Garate, Donald T. Juan Bautista de Anza, Basque Explorer in the New World. Reno and Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press, 2003.

Kessell, John L. Kiva, Cross, and Crown: the Pecos Indians and New Mexico, 1540-1840. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987.

Kessell, John L. Spain in the Southwest, a Narrative History of Colonial New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.

Weber, David J. Bárbaros: Spaniards and Their Savages in the Age of Enlightenment. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005.

Weber, David J. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992.