San Francisco History

The Beginnings of San Francisco

El Camino Del Diablo, 1774

While Don José de Galvez was organizing the expedition for the conquest of California, there was in the far-off frontier presidio of Tubac, a gallant soldier, Juan Bautista de Anza, by name, who manifested the liveliest interest in the undertaking. He petitioned the visitador-general for permission to make a journey overland from Sonora by way of the Rios Gila and Colorado to meet the expedition of Portolá at Monterey bay. [Note 24] He proposed to pay the entire cost of the journey and only asked to be allowed to take with him twenty soldiers whom he himself should name. It was represented that with the reduction of California a road of communication could be opened between Sonora and the new foundations by which the latter could be succored more surely and quickly than by the uncertain sea voyage. Anza's request was refused. The visitador-general did not consider such an expedition necessary at that time and the opening of such a road was believed to be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Not only were the two great rivers, the Gila and the Colorado, to be crossed, but between them and Sonora lay vast, inhospitable deserts. [1]

The expedition led into California by Portolá founded the presidios of Monterey and San Diego, and under their protection, the missions San Diego, Monterey, San Antonio, San Gabriel, and San Luis Obispo. The life of the new establishments was precarious in the extreme. All supplies were brought in by sea from La Paz or San Blas, and the ships were sometimes many months on the voyage. The only ships the government had at that time on the western coasts of New Spain were a few small, poorly constructed, ill found boats built at San Blas for carrying dispatches and supplies to the missions. In addition to the ordinary perils of the sea, dread scurvy, that decimator of early navigators, made the arrivals irregular and uncertain and the unfortunate colonists were in constant danger of starvation.

Anza now renewed his request for permission to take an expedition overland to Monterey, alleging that by the road he would open supplies could be taken to the new colony in less time and with much more certainty than by sea. Again he offered to conduct an expedition at his own expense. The difficulty of maintaining the new foundations caused the viceroy, Don Antonio Bucaréli y Ursúa, to lay the matter before the king, and while awaiting his reply he consulted the president of the California missions, Fray Junípero Serra, to ascertain his views. Fray Junípero gave enthusiastic support to the application and suggested a similar expedition from Santa Fé, in New Mexico. The reply of the king not only approved Captain Anza 's proposal but directed the viceroy to provide him from the royal treasury with all that was necessary to make his expedition a success. Anza's preparations were soon made and on the 8th of January 1774, he set out from Tubac on his long and hazardous journey. The expedition consisted of the comandante with an escort of twenty soldiers, Fray Juan Diaz and Fray Francisco Garcés, of the College of Santa Cruz de Querétero, the necessary guides and muleteers, thirty-four persons in all, one hundred and forty saddle and pack animals, and sixty-five head of beef cattle. Just as Anza was starting a war party of Apaches descended upon him, killed some of his escort and ran off a large number of his horses. Not having sufficient stock to replace these he was obliged to make a detour of about one hundred and twenty-five miles southwest to the Piman pueblos of the Altar river to get pack and saddle animals. Starting January 8th he was on the 9th at Aribac (Arivaca) where, he says, the gold and silver mines were worked up to the year 1767, when they were abandoned because of the Apaches. On the 13th he was at Saric, on the Altar river, a place of great fertility of soil but one most harried by Apaches. He notes that the distance from Saric to Arizona or Las Bolas is seven or eight leagues to the northeast. [Note 7] On the 17th he was at the presidio of Altar and on the 20th reached the mission of La Purisima Concepcion del Caborca. The only animals he could obtain, however, were a few worn out mules, and with this insufficient equipment he left the mission of Caborca, January 22d, crossed the Rio del Altar, and struck across the forbidding Papaguería, [2] a wide and desolate desert reaching from the Rio del Altar to the junction of the Rios Gila and Colorado. In five days of travel, moving as rapidly as he could push his decrepit outfit he reached the ruined mission of Sonoitac on what is now the boundary line between Arizona and Sonora. For the next two days the route was easy through the dry arroyo of the Sonoyta river, which is described by Dr. W. J McGee as a channel broad enough for the Ohio and deep enough for the Schuylkill but dust-dry from bank to bank. A march of twenty-three miles brought the expedition to the sink of the Sonoyta and here the brief existence of the river is ended. This is ancient Carrizal of Father Kino and may be seen on his map (1702) and on that of Venegas (1757). From here on to the junction of the Gila and Colorado, distant one hundred and twenty miles, the country contains not one permanent inhabitant and but two known watering places. The trail is well known and has long been traveled. It is the dreaded Camino del Diablo, whose terrible length is lined with the graves of its victims. Over this dreadful road came, in 1540, Captain Melchior Diaz of Coronado's army to die amid the sandy wastes of the Colorado. Later it formed the highway of that untiring traveler and missionary Eusibio Francisco Kino. [Note 8] During the gold excitement in California this trail was used to a limited extent by Americans who braved the terrors of the desert rather than risk encountering the hostile Apaches by a more northerly route. So great was the mortality, however, among the travelers that the route was soon abandoned. It is said that during a period of eight years four hundred travelers perished of thirst between Altar and Yuma.

From Carrizal the trail stretches across the Tule desert with the nearest water forty-five miles distant and but a scanty supply then. Dividing his expedition into two parts Anza marched with the first division at noon of January 30th, leaving the second division, which consisted of the pack trains, under charge of a corporal and seven soldiers, to follow later. He made about sixteen miles and encamped for the night in what he calls a bajio (flat place) without either water or pasture. This bajio was a low lying place in the Tule desert called Las Playas. It is bordered by a fringe of mesquite and greasewood and in certain seasons a little water may be found there. Resuming his march at seven thirty o'clock the next morning an hour's travel brought him to the mal pais, a vast, sloping sheet of black lava reaching from the Sierra Pinto on the north to the Sierra Pinecate on the south, and which, Anza says, grew neither grass nor tree, small shrub nor larger one. Passing the lava beds, the division reached the Tule mountains and the Tinajas del Cerro de la Cabeza Prieta—The Tanks of the Blackhead Butte—having traveled about sixteen miles. Anza gave to the tinajas the name of La Empinada—the Elevated. It is the Agua Escondida—Hidden water—of Father Kino or his Agua de la Luna; it is situated in longitude one hundred and thirteen degrees, forty-five minutes, about five miles north of the boundary line and consists of several tanks high up a rocky cañon reached only after a hard climb. These tanks hold, when filled by the rains, about five thousand gallons. [3]

Anza found but a scanty supply of water in La Empinada, and leaving it for his pack-train pushed on eight miles into the Lechuguilla desert, [4] and camped for the night without water and with little pasture for the animals. Resuming his march at eight o'clock in the morning after the second night without water, Anza remarks that the ground they passed over gave forth a hollow sound under the tramping of the horses as if there were dungeons beneath the road. [5] A march of twelve miles brought the division to Las Tinajas Altas—the High Tanks. Here was water in plenty and pasture nearby. These tinajas have been known since the time of the earliest Christian explorers and were probably known to the Papagos centuries before. [6] They are set in the side of a natural semi-circular area on the east side of the Gila mountains, about three and a half miles north of the boundary line, and consist of a number of tanks worn in the solid rock by the waters of a narrow rocky valley several hundred feet above, which during the rains come tumbling through the narrow gorge and fill the tanks. There are seven large tanks and a number of small ones; but with exception of the lowest tank, which can be approached by animals, they are very difficult of access. They range one above another and can only be reached by climbing several hundred feet up the steep side of a ravine. The water, surrounded and protected by overhanging walls, is deliciously cool and palatable. The tanks will hold from fifteen to twenty thousand gallons. [Note 9]

Anza remained here until the morning of the third day to rest his command and let his packtrain come up, the mules being in bad condition and barely able to travel. In honor of the day, which was the Feast of the Purification of St. Mary, Anza named the aguage La Purificacion.

He resumed his march February 4th, and crossed the Gila range by the Tinaja pass. His next day's march was thirteen miles and he stopped at some wells named by him Los Pozos de en Médio—the Half-way Wells. The next day he followed the same general direction, north-northwest, keeping close to the base of the Gila mountains to avoid a range of high and almost impassable sand-hills extending in a northwesterly direction from below the boundary line, in longitude one hundred and fourteen degrees, twenty minutes, to the Gila river. A march of eighteen and a half miles brought him to his next watering place, a spring off the road—perhaps in the Telegraph pass of the Gila mountains. Neither this well nor that of the preceding camp is known to-day. Anza says from its being out of the road they inferred it was the one named by the Jesuit fathers La Agua Escondida—the Hidden water. The Agua Escondida shown on Father Kino's map is east of the Gila range.

At this last camp he found a Papago Indian awaiting him with a message from Palma, chief of the Yumas. Anza had met Palma at the presidio of Altar just before starting to cross the Papaguería and had notified him that he would pass through his territory. The Yuma chief now sent to warn Anza of an intention among the Indians of the river to murder him and his company and seize his outfit. Palma, the messenger said, had vainly endeavored to dissuade the Indians from attempting such an act which, as he told them, would bring down upon the tribe the vengeance of the Spaniards. [Note 10] They were, however, bent upon mischief and he advised Anza to be on his guard and approach the junction of the rivers with caution. Anza did not consider the matter serious, but sent the Papago to ask Palma to meet the expedition, that they might confer in regard to the conspiracy, and at two o'clock the following afternoon resumed his march for the rivers, distant twelve leagues [7] (31.2 miles). He made about one-half of this distance and halted for the night where there was some feed for the animals, but no water. Starting at sunrise the next morning he met his messenger returning with an under-chief of the Yumas, Palma being absent. This under-chief was unarmed and was accompanied by eight warriors armed with bows and arrows, and all, like himself, entirely naked. In his hand he carried a lighted brand with which, Anza tells us, he warmed himself by applying it to the stomach or hindquarters. [8]

 The chief informed Anza that Palma had taken vigorous measures for the protection of the Spaniards by expelling from his jurisdiction those who were trying to make trouble, and all was now quiet and peaceful; that Palma had been sent for and would soon meet him with a hearty welcome. Resuming his march Anza reached the Rio Gila at three in the afternoon accompanied by two hundred Yuma braves who had come out to meet him and who escorted him with shouts and laughter and other demonstrations of joy. At five o'clock Palma arrived with a body of sixty Indians and the white and red chieftains embraced each other with affection before the company. Captain Anza entertained his visitors with some refreshments while at Palma's request he permitted the Indians, most of whom had never before seen a white man, to examine the dress and equipment of the men. Palma, noting the posted guards with swords drawn and horses ready, asked why this was done and said the men should betake themselves to rest and liberty, relying on the friendship of the Yumas. Anza informed him that soldiers were ever on guard; that even in the presidio the men were on guard as if in the face of the enemy.

After bestowing a decoration on the chief, Anza, in the name of the king confirmed him in his command of the Yumas, giving him a brief account of the authority of the king who, in his turn, was responsible to God the ruler of all. After this Palma took Anza's staff and made a long harangue to his people, explaining the nature of the honor done him and of his responsibility to the king, and then ordered them to their huts for the night. In the morning a short journey down the river brought them to the ford of the Gila and the house of Palma where, in the presence of six hundred of his people, the chief received and entertained the white men with generous hospitality.

The first stage of the long journey is completed. In one month Anza has traveled one hundred and thirty-eight leagues (three hundred and fifty-nine miles) of desert, with a worn and decrepit outfit. So far he has braved the known danger, traveled the known trail. He is now to face the unknown. Desolate as was the land through which he has come, he has now to encounter deserts as dreadful, fierce savages warring against each other and hostile to the invader, and without guides, wander amid sandy wastes in search of water.

1. Palou: Noticias, iii, 154. [back]
2. Papaguería, The land of the Papagos. [back]
3. A tinaja or tank is a pocket in the rock where water may be found after local storms. [back]
4. This desert lies between the Tule mountains and the Gila range. It takes its name from a plant of the Agave family called Lechuguilla—Little Lettuce. Costansó writing of the Indians of San Diego, says: "They wear no clothing save a girdle, woven like a very fine net with a fiber which they obtain from a plant called lechuguilla. Anza notes the Indians of San Jacinto mountains wearing this girdle, also a headdress of the same. The illustrations in Venega's Noticias show the Indian women of Lower california wearing the netting in that manner. [back]
5. Captain Gaillard of the Boundary Commission informs me that he noticed the same peculiarity in that locality caused by the horizontal stratifications and separation of the underlying layers of rock. [back]
6. Prof. Herbert E. Bolton identifies La Tinaja of Father Kino with a tank east of the Gila range, about fifteen miles south of the Gila river.  [back]
7. The league was 5000 varas—2.604 miles. A vara is 33 inches. [back]
8. Melchior Diaz, who reached the Colorado river in the fall of 1540, named it the Rio del Tizon—River of the Firebrand—because of this custom. [back]
Source: Eldredge, Zoeth Skinner. The Beginnings of San Francisco. 1912: San Francisco.

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