Hello readers! Welcome to the fourth episode of On the Hidalgo Treaty Road: the twisted path leading into and out of the Mexican-American War in the Nineteenth Century.
I used my most recent post (Laurel And Hidalgo, Part III) to vent some smoke out my ears, nose, mouth and fingertips. For this post, I promise to keep my Spanish galleon and my Yankee clipper ship on more even keels. And with gentle comments instead of keel-hauling anyone.
As I’ve claimed, I read a lot of books while researching Alta California’s history for my new YA/historical fantasy/magical realism novel: A Plague of Flies: Revolt of the Spirits, 1846. The one I’d like to mention today is Reference Book #3: The Anza Trail and the Settling of California, by Vladimir Guerrero, Heyday Books, Berkeley, CA 2006.
Raise your hand if you actually recall reading or hearing anything about Juan Bautista de Anza and his expeditions through “the wilds” of Alta California in the Eighteenth Century. I grew up in San Francisco, passing by one “Anza Street” sign or another upon a number of occasions. (I lived my first 17 years in a more impoverished section of the city.) I’d almost retired from my day job in Richmond, CA, before I finally took the time to read any book about Anza and his part in the “settling” of Alta California by Spaniards—or the “unsettling” of the indigenous peoples who’d moved into the area thousands of years beforehand.
Yet nothing in the San Francisco School District Curriculum ever taught me, as a student in the 1940s and 1950s, that learning additional facts about early California would or should take a big chunk of my future time. In fact, until the 11th grade, school-taught history seemed simplistic, mostly more about “when” and “we’ll tell you why.” Recite “approved” facts and dates. Maybe participate in a play. In the third grade, I was assigned to paint an early California mural with a Latino in my class. Our friendship, as a result, lasted through high school, when our paths drifted apart. We even “went steady” for six months when I was twelve years old and he was around fourteen. Three paper routes allowed him to bring me long stemmed red roses and boxes of chocolates a number of times. How my mom must have worried. I never did. Salvador, a “perfect gentleman,” surely knew about his family history, but we never discussed the subject. Back then, I knew little about mine. I only wish that today, I could meet Salvador again to say “thank you” for his friendship. To share the family histories we didn’t or couldn’t back then.
Heyday Books (https://heydaybooks.com/), by the way, has published a lot of material about early California, and I’m glad they have done so. Pages of their books contain a lot of information I wish I’d known earlier in life.
Okay, let’s move along to today’s assignment. I’m asking you to close your eyes for a few minutes to mentally prepare for a California landscape without paved roads, cars, fast food joints, motels, drinking fountains, phones, radios, GPS, tourist attractions, or buildings larger than an occasional two-story adobe. Look for horses, cattle, and outdoor kitchens (so buildings wouldn’t catch on fire during meal preparations). Next modern rest stop: at least 150 years in the future.
In the Sixteenth Century, Spaniards first arrived in what is now California. Yet Eighteenth-Century Spaniards still had to reach their Alta California settlements via ports, such as San Diego and Monterey. Due to prevailing winds and currents along the California coastline, that coastal trek by sailing ship could take longer than an Atlantic Ocean crossing. Worried about English settlers invading Spanish territory, the Spanish Viceroys decided they needed a reliable overland route, as well. Thus Juan Batista de Anza embarked upon two expeditions: an exploratory one in 1774 and another in 1775-1776. Any of those years sound familiar? Light that sparkler on July 4, but not in tinder-dry California, please.
Just a reminder about Spain’s definition of “People of Reason” (meaning “citizens”), the term for any white, indigenous, black or racially-mixed Spanish-speaking Christian who was integrated into the economic system of New Spain, of which Alta California was a part. Sounds way more progressive than the slave-holding USA at the time. But don’t forget Spain’s long occupation by Muslim Moors. Religion rivaled skin color in importance. Having made that argument, I’ve got the feeling there may have been various unofficial sub-classes of who the Spanish government really thought had the most reason and who didn’t. Spanish military commanders and priests likely received a higher rating than many others.
The four main players in these Eighteenth-Century Alta California expeditions were Juan Bautista de Anza (either a white or mixed-race Spaniard born in New Spain rather than in Europe), Father Francisco Garcés (white and Spanish born), Sebastián Tarabal (a Native American from Baja California) and Salvador Palma (Chief of the Yuma Nation).
I have no sense of direction and never did. Born during WWII, I’ve always joked about donating any navigational abilities to the war effort. For example, I worked in Emeryville, CA for several years in the 1980s. Every time I stepped out of the elevator there, I had to figure out all over again whether to turn right or left to reach my office. Today, Garmin helps me a lot, at least while driving.
So how did Anza’s exploratory expedition (which had to split up on a number of occasions), manage to trek the badlands of what is now Arizona and California without a compass, timepiece and sextant for each sub-group? And the early version of the sextant they set out with (plus the additional one they managed to acquire) could only establish latitude, not longitude, on dry land. How could they have properly documented the paths they chose?
Saline water wells and inadequate forage for their animals. Trekking sand dunes. Many other hostile circumstances. Either one of Anza’s two expeditions could have turned into a disaster. Yet neither did.
Trying to read the hearts of strangers is never easy. Anza had a good sense of doing so, and his soldiers for the most part trusted his decisions. And Anza learned to trust and respect Salvador Palma and Sebastián Tarabal—and this went beyond Palma and Tarabal’s classification as “people of reason.” Yet I’m sure a distance between Anza and his so-called “underlings” remained.
One might wonder, as I do: What could or should have happened in 1774-1776 to peacefully change California’s stream of history, to avoid what happened in 1846? Or with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, Catholic missionaries, and diseases such as smallpox and measles from Europe prior to 1774? By the time of Anza, was it already too late to turn the tide against fate, greed, ignorance, intolerance, and US Manifest Destiny? It may well have been.