In this episode, I speak with Greg Bernal-Mendoza Smestad, a direct descendant of the families who settled Alta California over 200 years ago. Greg talks to us about their journey, the character of those people who risked their lives to come to come north, and the legacy they passed on.
When Spanish explorers came to Alta California in 1769, they soon understood that they would never be able to defend the province from the English and Russians if they did not found a colony populated by families.
In 1775, Felipe de Neve, the governor of California, together with Juan Bautista de Anza, an intrepid army officer from Tubac, in Sonora, recruited a group of about 200 people to journey north on foot and establish towns in Alta California. Neve knew that without families to raise crops and establish towns, it would be hard to create a stable Spanish presence in the territory.
Anza led these families, of mixed European, Native American and African ancestry, from what is today southern Arizona. They traveled for almost 1,000 miles on foot, horseback and mule, arriving at the Presidio of Monterey in March of 1776. Members of the expedition later branched off to found the Presidio of San Francisco and the Pueblo (now City) of San José.
Over time, a new, hybrid culture grew: the culture of the Californios.
In my conversation with Greg, he explains the significance of the Anza expedition, tells some wonderful stories about his ancestors and their dramatic journey, and gives insight into what it means to be a Californio.
Greg talks about his grandmother’s insistence that he carry on the family legacy. Later he tells us about the network of Californio descendants who are keeping their heritage alive and in sharing it with others.
In his drive to share his ancestors’ story, Greg has worked with the National Park Service to help found the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail. He has created original materials, in both English and Spanish, to help visitors understand the significance of this national treasure. He was instrumental in starting Founders Day or Happy Birthday San José, which celebrates the birth of the California’s third largest city.
Links for this episode:
- Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail: https://www.nps.gov/juba/index.htm
- Los Californianos: http://www.loscalifornianos.org
- The Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area: http://www.muwekma.org.
- Mount Umunhum: https://www.openspace.org/mount-umunhum
- Chitactac-Adams Heritage County Park: https://www.sccgov.org/sites/parks/parkfinder/pages/chitactac-adams.aspx
- My story about Ulistac Open Space Preserve: A Hidden Gem: Ulistac Natural Area (Video)
- My story about Happy Birthday San José: http://www.californiafrontier.net/happy-birthday-san-jose.
- Article from December about Greg: http://www.californiafrontier.net/beyond-cliches/
- Alan K. Brown’s book on the Anza Expedition of 1775-76.
- Vladimir Guerrero’s book on the Anza Expedition of 1775-76.
To learn more about Greg: