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The Revolutionary era trail that led to California's isolation

Built in the Bay
(Mario Tama / Getty Images)

By Ian Firstenberg

As revolutionaries on the East Coast began drafting the Declaration of Independence, gathering guerilla forces for war and eventually, sounding the alarm that the British were indeed coming by land a different kind of history was being made on the other side of the country.

In the southwest, still under Spanish/Mexican rule at the time, a New Spanish military officer, who later became governor of New Mexico, named Juan Bautista De Anza forged the first land path to California from the New Spanish territories. The stark and stunning landscapes of the Juan Bautista De Anza National Historic Trail are colored by a rich historical backdrop of expedition, colonialism and isolation.

The trail itself is a 1,210-mile path from Nogales along the U.S. Mexico border through the Southern California desert, up the coast, ending in San Francisco. It commemorates the two voyages made by Juan Bautista De Anza between 1774 and 1776. It was eventually closed in 1781 following a revolt by the indigenous Yuma tribes of the area. It would remain closed until the 1820s, isolating California from both the rest of the Mexican colonies and potential American settlers.

First Trip

On January 8, 1774, Juan Bautista De Anza left Tubac Presidio, just south of what is now Tuscon, Arizona, with three padres, 20 soldiers, 11 servants, 35 mules, 65 cattle and 140 horses. Initially, the caravan went south to avoid attacks from native Apaches until they reached the Yuma Crossing of the Colorado River.

The caravan followed the river to what is now the southwest corner of Arizona before turning westward to follow a tributary of the Colorado River. That took the caravan into modern-day Mexicali, Mexico before they turned northwest, eventually leading into what is now the Imperial Valley.

Anza and the rest then turned northwest, eventually leading into the valleys of Southern California and the already established Mission San Gabriel Arcangel near what would eventually become Los Angeles. The Pueblo de Los Angeles was established in 1781, after De Anza's trail had been shuddered, by families initially recruited in the Sonora y Sinaloa Province on De Anza's first journey. In all, it took 74 days to establish the first land route into California.

According to Vladimir Guerro's The Anza Trail: The Setting of California, the return trip took Anza just 23 days and he encountered several indigenous Akimel O'odham villages along the Gila River tributary. They were reportedly a peaceful, agricultural-based tribe with extensive irrigation systems throughout the southwest.

Second Trip

On October 22, 1775, De Anza and a colonist group set out from Tuboc, Arizona. They eventually arrived in San Francisco on March 28, 1776. Once there, they established the Presidio of San Francisco and Mission San Francisco de Asis, also called Mission Dolares

During Anza's second trip, in 1775 and 1776, he traveled along the Gila River path into California where he eventually found 240 soldiers, friars and colonists with their families.

The colonists had roughly 700 horses and mules and roughly 400 Texas Longhorn bulls and cows with them, which eventually led to the cattle and horse industry in California. Neither the cattle nor the horses had many natural predators in the undeveloped region so they were feral, and with plenty of grasses and feed, the populations of both cattle and horses ballooned rather quickly, doubling every two years.


The Anza trail played a pivotal role in the settlement of Los Angeles in the early 1780s.

A group of settlers under Alfèrez Ramon Laso de la Vega did not use the trail but traveled over the Gulf of California eventually getting to the San Gabriel Mission, according to Hubert Bancroft's History of California.

The second group of settlers led by Fernando Rivera y Moncada, a New Spanish officer, took the Anza trail through the desert and arrived at the Colorado River in June 1781. Rivera sent his party ahead while he stayed behind to tend to the livestock. His party would never make it. Rivera and other settlers were killed during the Yuma Revolt in 1781.

In mid-July 1781 the indigenous Yuma (Quechan) destroyed both the pueblo and the church in Bicuner and Purisima Concepcion, following a dispute with the New Spanish government. In total, they killed over 103 soldiers, colonists, and Friars capturing roughly 80 women and children. Fernando Rivera y Moncada and former governor of California Father Francisco Garces, founder of the missions, were among the casualties.

In four punitive expeditions in 1782 and 1783 the Spanish managed to gather their dead but failed to reopen the Anza trail. The trail remained closed for nearly 40 years until the 1820s, making travelers take a 40 to 60-day voyage on the sea to get to isolated California. The closure of the Anza trail made California, according to historian David Weber, essentially an "island." The isolation in part led to the development of a distinct Californian culture which served as a blend of Mexican and ranchero culture at the time.

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