Juan Bautista de Anza was a military officer, governor, explorer and diplomat. His life had an enormous impact on the history of California, Arizona, Texas and New Mexico, as well as Northern Mexico.
- 1 Birth
- 2 Losing His Father
- 3 A Young Soldier
- 4 Presidio Commander
- 5 The Expulsion of the Jesuits
- 6 Finding a Route to California
- 7 Anza’s First California Expedition
- 8 Anza’s Second California Expedition
- 9 Founding the Presidio of San Francisco
- 10 Anza Appointed Governor of New Mexico
- 11 The Yuma Massacre
- 12 Peace with the Comanches
- 13 Death
- 14 To Learn More
Juan Bautista de Anza was baptized at Cuquiárachi, Sonora, New Spain in 1736, in the far northern frontier of the Spanish empire. He was named after his father, Juan Bautista de Anza Sr., a frontier military captain who had immigrated from the Spanish Basque country as a youth in 1712.
Losing His Father
When Juan Jr. was only four years old, Apache Indians killed his father in an ambush. Juan’s mother, María Rosa, was left to care for her six children, including little Juan.
Living on the frontier, María Rosa had the help of a network of extended family and godparents. As a young boy Juan Jr. and his siblings lived at the presidio of Fronteras, just south of today’s Arizona/Mexico border. At sixteen, he followed in his father’s footsteps, and joined the Spanish army.
A Young Soldier
Because he came from a noble family, Juan entered as a cadet in the officer corps. During his training —much of which was in actual battles — he learned the life of a soldado de cuera (leatherjacket soldier). He had to deal with the harsh desert environment and to excel as a horseman. In 1755, when he was 19 years old, he earned his commission as a lieutenant.
Throughout the 1750s, Anza participated in military campaigns. Much of his time was spent battling a group of Pima Indians who had allied with the Pápagos of northwestern Sonora to attack Spanish settlements. He gained a reputation for courage in battle, taking great risks to his own life.
In 1760 he was named commander of the presidio at Tubac. He was only 24 years old, and he would remain in that position for the next 17 years. The next year he married Ana María Pérez Serrano, who would be by his side for the rest of his life.
Much of Anza’s time was spent in operations against the Apaches, the greatest Native American foes of the Spanish. Apaches often raided the lands of the Pima Indians and other native groups that had allied themselves with the Spanish. As presidio commander, Anza was both a warrior and a diplomat. He took full advantage of the Spanish policy of using Indian warriors, especially Pimas, alongside Spanish troops. His victories against the Apaches solidified his relationships with native allies.
The Expulsion of the Jesuits
Perhaps one of the most difficult things Anza had to do was to oversee the imprisonment and expulsion of the Jesuit fathers from the territories under his control. The Jesuits were missionaries, and many Native Americans of Sonora had converted to Christianity thanks to their efforts.
Anza was not very supportive of the idea of creating missions where native people would live. He preferred the idea of attracting Indians to Spanish culture through contact with settlers. Nevertheless, he had personal ties to many of the Jesuit missionaries and did not want them forced out.
In 1767, King Carlos III of Spain ordered the expulsion of the Jesuits from all Spanish territories, including New Spain. Anza was a loyal officer of the crown, and knew what his duty was. “After all,” he wrote to the governor, “the king commands it.”
When he received the order to proceed against the Jesuits on July 23, 1767, he did so without delay. But he was also aware of the human cost of his actions. Not only were some Jesuits his friends, but they had built up trust among many native people, who were upset to see them go. So Anza did his best to reduce the harshness of the process while carrying out orders he did not understand. “There may be more to it than we realize,” he wrote to the governor. “The thoughts of men differ as much as the distance from earth to heaven.”
Finding a Route to California
Anza’s reputation for toughness and loyalty caused royal officials to give him more difficult tasks. Since the 1700s, the Spanish crown had wished to expand settlements in Alta California. They knew Alta California had the potential for better agriculture than southern Arizona, and the seacoast would be a great place for establishing ports for the Manila Galleons arriving from the Far East. It would also help stop the English and Russians from extending their influence on the Pacific coast.
The two presidios established at San Diego in 1769 and Monterey in 1770 did not seem to be enough to accomplish that task. The Spanish government believed that if they could bring in families to settle there, it would help supply soldiers for more presidios and expose the local Indians to Spanish ways. Since the voyage by sea from Mexico was so difficult, Anza proposed an expedition to find a land route from Sonora to Alta California.
Anza’s First California Expedition
On January 8, 1774, Anza set out with a group of 34 men, including Franciscan friar Francisco Garcés and native scouts, to travel at least as far as Mission San Gabriel, near today’s Los Angeles. With them was Sebastián Taraval, a Cochimí Indian from Baja California who had left the mission and traveled to Sonora overland. Taraval would be their guide.
On February 9, they reached Yuma, near the border of what is today Arizona and California. There they met up with Chief Salvador Palma and several thousand Quechan Indians, who welcomed them with enthusiasm. In recognition of Palma’s authority, Anza placed around his neck a red ribbon with a silver medal bearing the image of King Carlos III.
From there, Anza and his men passed through the desert that is now bears his name, the Anza Borrego. They then continued over the San Jacinto Mountains and into what is today the Los Angeles Basin. The expedition reached the San Gabriel mission on March 22, but then continued to journey north, reaching the presidio at Monterey on April 19. Anza arrived back in San Gabriel on May 1 and the group back to to Sonora five months after starting their journey.
Anza’s Second California Expedition
With the knowledge that the journey could be made successfully, Anza set about recruiting families willing to go to Alta California. On October 23, 1775, Anza set out from Tubac with a group of 240 men, women and children. With them went friars Francisco Garcés, Tomás Eixarch and Pedro Font. Their guide was again Sebastián Taraval, and three Indian interpreters also accompanied them.
At Yuma the group was welcomed by Anza’s friend Chief Salvador Palma, as he had done with the expedition a year before. They then continued on to San Gabriel. During the crossing, they encountered the arid deserts and winter blizzards. But Anza saw to it that the party arrived safely on January 4, 1776. Along the way they had lost one member, a mother who died in childbirth, and three babies had been born.
Founding the Presidio of San Francisco
Anza did not stay long at San Gabriel. Instead, he continued up the coast with a smaller number of families, and reached Monterey on March 10. Once his second-in-command, Lieutenant José Joaquín Moraga, arrived with the remainder of the families, Anza set out to explore the San Francisco peninsula. Together with Fr. Font, he selected a place for a new presidio and mission in what is today San Francisco.
Anza returned to Sonora in fall of 1776 after having established the first Spanish colony in Alta California.
Anza Appointed Governor of New Mexico
The success of his California expeditions increased Anza’s reputation as a leader. In 1777, he was appointed governor of New Mexico, in recognition of his accomplishments as a frontiersman and diplomat. In New Mexico, he carried on the Spanish policy of maintaining peaceful relations with the Pueblos through war, trade and diplomacy.
The Yuma Massacre
But Anza’s life was not one of constant success. One of his greatest defeats was what came to be known as the Yuma Massacre. Despite his friendship with Chief Palma (Anza had even been his godfather at Palma’s baptism in Mexico City), problems arose. Teodoro de Croix, Commandant General of the Interior Provinces (Nueva Vizcaya, Sinaloa, Sonora, the Californias, Coahuila, New Mexico and Texas) promoted a plan to establish a settlement and mission among the Quechans.
Although Chief Palma had requested a Spanish settlement, Anza did not like the hasty plan Croix has approved. He warned the Commandant General against it, but to no avail. The commandant general went ahead against Anza’s advice and recruited families to settle near the Quechans.
In July of 1781, a large group of Quechans, irate at Spanish settlers’ use of their land and resources, and disaffected with Chief Palma’s leadership, attacked and killed over 100 Spanish settlers. Croix would later blame Anza for the disaster. He claimed Anza exaggerated the power of Palma to keep his people happy with the Spanish. For many years to come, the overland route to California would remain closed to the Spanish.
Peace with the Comanches
The Yuma massacre was a failure for Anza’s relations with Native Americans. Yet in New Mexico he had some of his most important achievements in dealing with Indians. He understood how many tribes valued Spanish goods and protection from enemies such as the Apaches.
One of Anza’s greatest accomplishments was establishing peace with the Comanches, who had been implacable foes of the Spaniards. After defeating them in battle, Anza convinced the Comanches to join the Spanish in their struggles against the Apaches. He also insisted that the Comanche make peace with the Utes, who also had become allies of the Spanish. Anza created similar pacts with the Navajo and Pueblo peoples. He owed much to the respect he earned among the Native Americans of the region as a warrior and diplomat.
Anza spent ten years in office as governor of New Mexico. In 1787 the Crown named him military commander of the entire Province of Sonora, the land of his birth. He left New Mexico in August of that year.
In Sonora his career did not last long, though. Throughout the remainder of 1787 and 1788, Anza suffered from ill health. He died on December 20, 1788 at the age of 52. He was buried in a side chapel of the Mission Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (Our Lady of the Assumption) in Arizpe, just south of today’s Mexico-Arizona border.
Juan Bautista de Anza was a man of many facets. He was a soldier, explorer and diplomat. He fought Indians, yet was their friend and ally. He was deeply religious, yet had profound disagreements with the clergy. He had difficulties with orders he received, yet he carried them out faithfully.
Today, Juan Bautista de Anza’s name can be found on streets and buildings throughout California and the West, as well as the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail that goes from Nogales, in southern Arizona, to San Francisco, California.
To Learn More
- Book: Carlos R. Herrera. Juan Bautista de Anza: The King’s Governor in New Mexico.
- Book: Vladimir Guerrero. The Anza Trail and the Settling of California.
- Anza Trail Guide: This guide to the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail was developed by Anza party descendant Greg Bernal-Mendoza Smestad. I interviewed Greg on the California Frontier Podcast.
- The Anza Society has an extensive list of books about Anza.