In October 1775 Juan Bautista de Anza departed from the Northern Mexican town of Tubac with an expedition of 240 settlers, heading to the San Francisco Bay in Alta California. The goal of the expedition was to establish a military presidio and catholic mission near the mouth of the bay, and to secure the area for the Spanish crown. Their 500-mile journey led them on horseback across rivers, deserts, and snowy mountains, through territory that had been traveled by only a few Spanish explorers before them.
The expedition was expected to be so difficult that the Spanish Viceroy had to promise to pay for the colonists’ clothing, food, and supplies for years to come, and still only the poorest families volunteered, in the hopes of a better life in Alta California.
The Anza expedition was like a traveling village. In the journal he kept of the journey, Anza recorded the following number of travelers: Commander Juan Bautista de Anza; Three priests; 40 Spanish soldiers; 29 women who were the wives of the soldiers; one hundred thirty-six other family members, including children of the soldiers as well as four other volunteer families that did not include soldiers; fifteen Muleteers (mule drivers); three cowbows; seven servents of the priests and of captain de Anza; five indian interpreters; and a commissary. Animals in the expedition included 165 pack mules carrying supplies, 320 Horses, and 302 cattle.
Most of the people in the group knew they would never again return to their homes in the settled regions of Mexico. They had to bring things with them that they would need to survive in the new land they were going to, a land they had never seen, where no Spanish people had settled before them. .
The expedition reached Monterey in March of 1776. From there Anza led a party of twenty men onward to the San Francisco Bay to investigate possible sites for the new presidio. Fray Pedro Font accompanied that trip, and kept copious notes about the journey in his journal. The following excerpts recount the group’s experiences while traveling from the South Bay Peninsula through an area which today is the Santa Clara Valley. They provide some striking images of the world that the Spaniards encountered:
“Friday, March 29, 1776. We traveled through the valley some four leagues to the southeast and southeast by south, and crossed the arroyo of San Mateo where it enters the pass through the hills. About a league before this there came out on our road a very large bear, which the men succeeded in killing. There are many of these beasts in that country, and they often attack and do damage to the Indians when they go to hunt, of which I saw many horrible examples. When he saw us so near, the bear was going along very carelessly on the slope of a hill, where flight was not very easy. When I saw him so close, looking at us in suspense, I feared some disaster. But Corporal Robles fired a shot at him with aim so true that he hit him in the neck.
Saturday, March 30, 1776. … On beginning to go around the head of the estuary we found another village whose Indians showed great fear as soon as they saw us, but it was greatly lessened by giving them glass beads. One of the women, from the time when she first saw us until we departed, stood at the door of her hut making gestures like crosses and drawing lines on the ground, at the same time talking to herself as though praying, and during her prayer she was immobile, paying no attention to the glass beads which the Commander offered her. ”
After this survey of the bay, Anza returned from Monterey to Mexico, and his second in command, Lieutenant José Joaquin Moraga, took command of the expedition to lead it to its final destination. On June 17th the the weary colonists departed Monterey for the San Francisco Bay. Here is an excerpt from Moraga’s correspondence in which he describes that final leg of the journey:
“In the valley of the latter there appeared before us a herd of elk to the number of eleven, of which we got three without leaving our road. This merciful act of the infinite providence of the Most High is noteworthy, for the soldiers were by now tired out by the difficulties of the road and weak on account of the customary fare, consisting only of maize and frijoles, on which they were being fed, a reason why the women with continuous sighs were now making known their great dissatisfaction. But this refreshment of meat appearing before us, and we being able with such ease to take advantage of it, the soldiers not only were revived with such a plenty of food, but they were also delighted with the prospect of the abundance of these animals which the country promised. And it is certain, most Excellent Sir, that these elk are of such size and have such savory flesh that neither in quantity nor in quality need they envy the best beef.”
On June 27, 1776, the expedition reached the northernmost tip of the San Francisco peninsula, which Anza had previously selected as the site for the military presidio.
Although they had arrived at their destination, the colonists could not begin construction of the presidio until the arrival of the supply ship San Carlos, which was delayed in its arrival, taking 42 days to sail from Monterey due to poor sailing conditions. This delay caused further hardship for the soldiers and their families, as recounted here by Lieutenant Moraga: “The bark was now tardy and provisions were getting low, so I ordered the sergeant to prepare four soldiers, two servants, and fifteen mules equipped with pack saddles, so that on the 30th they might go to Monterrey to request some provisions of Don Fernando Ribera and at the same time ask him to supply me with some goods, for the soldiers are naked and the cold in these days is severe, and it is a pity to see all the people shivering, especially since they were raised in hot climates and this being the first year in which they have experienced the change of temperature. For this reason I am living in fear that such nakedness may bring upon us some disastrous sickness. It was now necessary to reduce the ration for the soldiers until the bark should arrive or the pack train return, and, in order that hunger might not make the people disconsolate, on the same day I detached my sergeant with three soldiers and six servants with the order that, not sparing any effort whatever, he should see if he could capture some elk, but although he tried hard he was unable to aid us with this succor.”
George Vancouver, a British naval captain who visited the San Francisco Presidio in 1792, described the military encampment as follows:
“We soon aarrived at the presidio, which was not more than a mile from our landing place. Its wall, which fronted the harbor, was visible from the ships; but instead of the city or town, whose lights we had so anxiously looked for on the night of our arrival, we were conducted into a spacious verdant plain, surrounded by hills on every side, excepting that which fronted the port. The only object of human industry that presented itself was a square area, whose sides were about 200 yards in length, enclosed by a mud wall and resembling a pound for cattle. Above this wall, the thatched roofs of their low, small houses just made their appearance.