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Historical Context

Anza Portrait (Orsi, 1774)
Juan Bautista de Anza, drawn from portrait in oil by Fray Orsi in 1774.

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Historical Context

In 1773, Juan Bautista de Anza, captain of the small Presidio of Tubac in Sonora (now southern Arizona) received permission from Antonio María Bucareli y Ursúa, Viceroy of New Spain, to find an overland route from Sonora to northern California. Such a route was needed for two primary reasons. First, supplying the early California missions and presidios by ship had turned out to be risky and unreliable - something more predictable and safe was needed if these establishments were to thrive. Second, the king of Spain wanted the Viceroy to initiate a strong colonizing effort in "Alta California" in order to combat recent encroachments by other European powers (most notably England and Russia) and to ensure Spanish control over the recently rediscovered San Francisco harbor.

In January of 1774 Captain Anza, Father Francisco Garcés, a small group of soldiers and servants, and a herd of about 200 cattle and pack animals left Tubac to explore and open the needed supply route from northern Sonora to California. Under Captain Anza's leadership this first expedition established formal and friendly relationships with the Yuma tribe at the juncture of the Gila and Colorado Rivers, and elicited the active support of the tribe's chief, Salvador Palma. This support turned out to be crucial for ensuring safe passage over the rivers and preventing death from thirst and starvation when Anza was forced to retrace his steps after becoming lost in the sand dunes. On March 22, 1774 Anza and a portion of his expedition arrived at mission San Gabriel (near what is now the city of Los Angeles), having successfully found a route through near waterless deserts and uncharted mountain passes. An overland route to Alta California was now available for use in transporting supplies and colonists to the outermost reaches of northern New Spain.

For his accomplishments, Anza was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and charged by Bucareli to take an expedition of settlers over the newly opened route to establish both a presidio and a mission in the area of San Francisco bay. Thus, in March of 1775, Juan Bautista de Anza assumed the responsibility of recruiting families and organizing supplies for the first colonizing expedition to northern California. After numerous months spent preparing the newly recruited families for the arduous journey and delays due to Apache raids on the expedition's horses; Anza, a small military escort, and approximately 240 men, women and children left Tubac on October 23, 1775. For nearly five months they traveled by horseback, mule, and on foot; arriving at the Presidio of Monte Rey on March 10, 1776.

The trip had often been difficult and the colonists had endured lack of water and food, life threatening weather conditions, debilitated and dying animals, and roads that often seemed impassable due to rain, mud, sand or snow. At least twice the expedition was hampered by desertion of servants or military personnel. Nonetheless, only one woman died (due to childbirth complications) and four babies had been born. Without the help of Native American tribes they met along the way, the expedition may not have been so successful. In June of 1776, the colonists, led by Anza's second in command Lieutenant José Joaquin Moraga, were given permission to continue their journey to the bay of San Francisco and build there the presidio and mission for which the colonists had left their homeland.

This website is dedicated to providing students and scholars with an organized collection of information about Juan Bautista de Anza and the two overland expeditions described above. The diaries kept by Anza and by the Franciscan friars who accompanied him on both journeys form the core of this information base. This core has been enhanced by linking the diaries to each other and to numerous additional pieces of text (letters, commentaries etc.), as well as relevant graphics, pictures and maps. Study guides have been created to provide direction, and a search feature enables users to query the database in search of answers to their own individual questions.


Please let us know what you think of our contribution to the understanding of American history. And if you have information which is relevant to the two Anza expeditions, please consider sharing it with us.



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