San Francisco History

The Beginnings of San Francisco

The Passage of the Colorado Desert, 1774

Anza reached the junction of the Rios Gila and Colorado, February 7, 1774. Giving up the following day to rest and to the enjoyment of the hospitality of the Yumas, he began the second stage of his journey February 9th, by the passage of the Rio Colorado, the first crossing into Alta California by white men. The river had been crossed by Meichior Diaz in 1540, Father Kino in 1701, and by Father Garcés, one of the two priests now with Anza, in 1771, but all these had crossed into Lower California. Palma guided the expedition to a ford where, with the assistance of the Indians, they made a safe passage. In celebration of this event, and of its being accomplished for the first time by the king's arms, the comandante fired a salvo and set off some rockets which pleased the Indians very much by their flight through the air, though the sound of the guns frightened them so that they threw themselves on the ground. Anza crossed the river above its junction with the Gila, and notes in his diary that it is the season of the greatest drouth and he found it only three and a half feet deep and five hundred and seventy feet wide. He gives an excellent description of the river and its surroundings, the San Dionisio of Father Kino, a Yuma ranchería, [1] now the town of Yuma, Arizona; the Purple hills ten miles to the north-northwest, through whose gorges the Colorado emerges into the open valley; the large peak to the northwest, which he named Cabeza del Gigante—Giant's Head—now called Castle Dome; a lesser peak fifteen miles to the north, which, on account of its shape, he named La Campana—The Bell—now called Chimney Peak. He also notes that below the junction of the Gila and Colorado the united river is constrained to a narrow strait about 100 varas (275 feet) wide between bluffs of moderate height. To this he gave the name of Puerto de la Concepcion. Here was established in 1780, on the bluffs of the California side, the mission of La Purisima Concepcion, the site of the present Fort Yuma.

Having safely transferred his baggage across the river Anza camped for the night, being much troubled by the multitude of naked Indians in the camp. He presented them with an ox, and trinkets and tobacco, hoping to get rid of them, but they remained to sleep with their new friends. Anza describes the Yumas as tall and robust, lighter in color than the Pimas, with faces which, though naturally good, they had disfigured with paint. Their ears were bored with from three to five holes in each of which they wore a ring. They also pierced the cartilage of the nose and through it passed a bunch of feathers or a stick a palm (eight and a half inches) in length, and as thick as a large quill. They went naked for they considered it womanly to be covered. They dressed their hair with clay and over it threw a powder that had a luster like silver, sleeping seated so as not to disturb this headdress. Their arms were bows and arrows of poor quality, staves four varas (eleven feet) long, and clubs. The women were large like the men, and Anza observes that their faces were about as he has seen other Indian women; he saw none that were horribly ugly nor did he see any specially handsome. Their dress consisted of a sort of petticoat down to the knee divided into two parts, that in front being the shorter.

Anza estimated the Yuma nation as numbering thirty-five hundred souls. Their lands were rich bottom lands capable of high cultivation. Indeed he saw wheat growing without irrigation so good that the best lands in Sonora could not equal it, and he was astonished at the abundance of maize, beans, calabashes, and melons they grew. He also notes that dams could be made and the water carried for a long distance for irrigation. All these descriptions are interesting in view of the reclamation work being done at this point by the United States Government and by private corporations.

On the following morning, February 10th, Anza resumed his march taking his way down the Colorado, which here flows almost due west, accompanied by about six hundred Yumas who, with somewhat troublesome kindness, insisted on driving the horses, pack mules, and cattle, each beast being surrounded by five or six Indians. The march was a weary one, for the road, though mostly level, was but a twisting corkscrew of a trail through a chaparral of mesquite and other brush that filled the river bottom and made it difficult for the animals. After four leagues of travel the expedition reached Pilot Knob, to which Anza gave the name of Cerro de San Pablo. Here the river takes a turn to the south, and traveling another league further the expedition halted for the night at the Ranchería de San Pablo, a Yuman village on the river-bank. This was the site of the second Colorado mission, San Pedro y San Pablo de Bicuñer, established in the fall of 1780, and destroyed, together with its sister mission La Purisima Concepcion, on July 17, 1781, by this same Palma and his Indians. The next day's march carried them six leagues further down the river in a southwesterly direction to a lake in the flood plain of the river which the commander called Laguna de las Cojas. Here the jurisdiction of the Yumas ended and that of the Cojat nation began. I find no record of any tribe of that name, but Anza's description fits that of the Cajuenche, a tribe inhabiting the lower Colorado below Yuma. The next day's travel of four and a half leagues to the south and west and away from the river, brought the command to a large laguna, two and a half miles in length, but narrow, some five and a half feet in depth, and well stocked with fish. This lake, to which Anza gave the name of Laguna de Santa Olalla, was left from the overflow of the river. It was probably located on the Rio Padrones, about twelve miles south of the boundary line and eight miles west of the river.

Anza had now reached the end of the known land. The Cajuenches, or, as he calls them, the Cojats, received him with the same friendly welcome given by their relatives, the Yumas, but their jurisdiction was confined to the flood plain of the river, and to the west ranged the fierce Comeya, into whose territory no Cajuenche or Yuma would venture. The expedition must cross the Colorado desert without guides and find the water-holes as best it could.

Among Anza's train was a Christian Indian, Sebastian Tarabel, by name, a native of the mission of Santa Gertrudes in Lower California. He was one of five Indians of that mission who had accompanied Portolá on his march to Monterey in 1769. Sebastian had found the country so well suited to his taste that he had brought his wife from Lower California and settled at the mission of San Gabriel. Becoming tired of life at the mission he had run away, taking with him his wife and his brother, and had struck out across the San Jacinto mountains and the Colorado desert for the pueblos of the Yumas. Lost amid the sand-hills of the desert, his wife and his brother perished, but he, rescued by the Yumas, had been taken by Palma to the presidio of Altar, where he joined the expedition of Anza as guide. These sand-hills of the Colorado desert reach from a point about thirty-five miles north of the boundary line to some ten or twelve miles below it, the tract varying in width from ten to thirty miles. They are greatly dreaded, because their similarity of appearance is most bewildering and the constantly shifting sand quickly obliterates any trail made through them. It was to avoid these that the detour to the southwest into Lower California was made.

The Indian, Sebastian, was of no help to Anza in his present need. Palma had accompanied them to Santa Olalla, but here he left them, saying he could go no further, for the expedition would now pass into the land of his enemies. He said that by the time Anza returned the Colorado would be in flood but he would be prepared with rafts and would take the Spaniards over in safety. With tears in his eyes he said good-bye (á Dios) to his friend, and the expedition plunged into the unknown desert.

Anza had induced some Cajuenches to go with him the first day's journey, and traveling seven leagues to the west-northwest, the Indians guided the party to an arroyo containing some thick and brackish water and a little carrizo (reed grass) which Anza named Los Pozos del Carrizal. The arroyo was the Alamo river and the place was one now known as Gardner's Lagoon. Two of the Cajuenches remained in the camp, the rest returning to Santa Olalla. Resuming his march the next morning, February 14th, Anza was accompanied a short league by the two Cajuenches who then left him, saying they dared go no further, but that the expedition could safely reach the next watering place (aguage) near the sierra to the west. In the same arroyo, near some carrizo, Anza dug for water and finding a little halted to rest the animals. These wells he called Los Pozos de en Médio (the Half-way Wells). The next morning he began his march in a westerly direction towards the sierra. After traveling a league he came to a pool of very brackish water, thence another league through sand-hills brought him to another pot hole containing very little water, but somewhat better than the last. Here the exhausted condition of the mules compelled him to leave half his baggage, and placing it in charge of a guard he pushed on. He was soon in the midst of thickly clustered sand-hills where the trail became entirely obliterated. Finding himself in a dangerous situation, Anza consulted the two priests and suggested that since the animals were too weak to carry through all the baggage, they return half of it and half of the troops to the rancheria of the Yumas, and with the other half, without encumbrance, make a rapid journey to Northern California. Father Diaz agreed to the plan but Garcés objected. He did not see the necessity for it and did not think it wise to divide the force. Realizing the danger Anza related to him the fate of previous expeditions in like circumstances, but Garcés remained of the same opinion and Anza, having a high opinion of Garcés' experience and skill as a traveler, resumed the march. For some time they held to the westerly course among the sand-hills and then came to one larger and higher, which neither the horses in their weakened condition nor the laden mules could surmount. Forced to abandon the route to the sierra in the west, which appeared to be about five leagues distant, [2] Anza turned to the south towards another sierra nearer than the first, close to which, Garcés said, was a large ranchería called San Jacome, where he had been two years before. Anza notified the leader of the pack-train, which was following, of the change of direction and with the advance guard pushed on for San Jacome. The sun had set when they reached the sierra and having passed it they found neither tracks, paths, nor other indications of habitation. Some of the soldiers were now on foot, their horses having given out, and Anza halted while the priests with two soldiers went in search of the stopping-place (paraje). Returning unsuccessful late in the night, Garcés begged for another chance, and Anza giving him the only soldiers whose horses could carry them sent him on his quest.

Garcés returned without having found San Jacome and Anza resolved to go back to the last aguage, realizing that if water and pasture were not found the next day the expedition would be exposed to total loss.

All through the night he waited for the pack-train, horse-herd, and cattle to come up, and at daybreak began his return. At sunrise he met the train and at two in the afternoon, worn out with hunger and thirst, and having lost a large number of animals, they reached the well where they had left the baggage. In memory of their sufferings and in the fear that this miscarriage would defeat the object of the expedition, Anza named the paraje La Poza de las Angustias—the Well of the Afflictions. Sending the cattle on to the Pozos de en Médio that they might find some carrizo to eat, Anza rested until noon of the following day. He realized how hopeless was the attempt to cross the desert with his animals in such condition and he determined to return to the river, give his men and animals a rest, entrust his baggage and useless animals to the care of Palma, and with his escort mounted on the strongest horses and taking only the most necessary supplies, make a dash for Monterey. With this intent and without consultation with the padres, Anza began his retreat.

Leaving the Poza de las Angustias after midday of February 17th, Anza took the trail to the Pozos de en Médio, the pack-mules carrying half loads. Most of the soldiers were now on foot but to the comandante's words of encouragement they responded that if all the horses failed they would make the whole journey on foot, could the object of the expedition be thus attained. Anza commended their faithfulness and promised to remember and reward them as far as was in his power for their concern for the king's service. [3]

On the morning of the nineteenth Anza reached the Laguna de Santa Olalla and the half laden pack-train arrived at eleven o'clock on the night of the twentieth, but it was not until the twenty-third that he got in all his baggage. He was received by Palma as one returned from the dead. The Yuma chief made known his grief at the hardships of his friend and the loss of his caballerías. [4] Garcés volunteered to visit the rancherías of the lower Colorado in hopes of obtaining some information regarding the route across the desert, and to this the comandante agreed, charging him to return within four or five days. Anza then proceeded to explore the mind of Palma to ascertain if he were worthy of confidence, and satisfied on this point, he communicated to the chief his intention of leaving with him a portion of his baggage and animals, and some of his people, to await the return of the expedition from Monterey which, Anza said, would be in a little more than a month. To this Palma heartily agreed, promising to keep all in safety until Anza's return, and that the mules might succeed in reaching the ranchería he offered to transport the baggage on the shoulders of his people. This, however, Anza would not permit. Having completed the arrangement with Palma, Anza communlcated it to the individuals of the expedition, and with one voice they approved of the plan. The soldiers repeated the statement that they were eager to undertake the journey and again declared their willingness, should all the horses be lost, to march on foot so long as their strength lasted.

Several days passed in rest and recreation. The Yuma, Cajuenche, and Quiquima Indians thronged the camp and were much entertained by the music of a violin played by one of the soldiers. The women learned to dance in the Spanish fashion, and both sexes learned to salute the Spaniards with "Ave Maria"; "viva Dios y el Rey"; pronouncing the Spanish words with fluency.

On the first of March Garcés returned without having learned anything concerning the route they must take, and the next day the expedition again essayed the passage of the desert, leaving behind the greater part of the baggage, three soldiers, three muleteers, and one of Anza's servants, with the surplus cattle and caballerías. They now kept down the plain of the Colorado to avoid the sand-hills and shorten the journey across the desert to the sierra. For two days they continued down the river among the rancherías of the Cajuenches, and then, on March 4th, turned to the west-northwest towards the Cocopa mountains, guided by a Cajuenche Indian. After a journey of six or seven leagues the guide proposed that they camp for the night, assuring the commander that they would reach the aguage by noon the following day. To this proposition Anza assented with reluctance as there was in the place neither water nor pasture. Starting at daybreak the next morning the march was continued in a direction varying between north and west to avoid the sand-hills, and after a journey of twelve and a half leagues (thirty-two and a half miles) they reached some pot holes containing a scanty supply of water and a little pasture. To these wells Anza gave the name San Eusebio. On the day's journey they came upon what appeared to be an arm of the sea (brazo del mar) which Anza thought must come from the Gulf of California, thirty leagues distant. He tasted the water and found it salty and he found stranded there a large quantity of fish of the kind that belong to the sea. The little water of the wells of San Eusebio was soon exhausted and one half of the beasts had none. To add to their misfortunes they discovered that the rascally guide had run off during the night leaving them to the peril of the desert without knowledge of the location of water. Suffering from thirst Anza sent a corporal and five men to search for the aguage, and at two in the afternoon moved the train over the track of the explorers. After three leagues of travel they met two of the soldiers who guided them to some springs in the hills where there was water but very little grass for the beasts. Anza named the wells Santo Tomás and here they remained the night of March 6th. I cannot locate this spring but it is in the Cocopa mountains about ten miles below the boundary line. On the seventh Anza again sent out the scouts, following on their trail in the afternoon, and camped for the night where there was some pasturage for the animals but no water. They were, however, cheered by information the scouts obtained from some Indians of the certainty of reaching the long-looked for aguage early the next day. Starting at seven in the morning, a march of one and a quarter leagues brought them to the wells which on being opened distilled an abundant supply of most beautiful water. To these wells Anza gave the name of Pozos de Santa Rosa de las Lajas (the Wells of Santa Rosa of the Flat Rocks). [5] Anza's native Californian and guide, Sebastian Tarabel, recognized in these wells one of the stopping places of his former journey, and they all rejoiced in the thought that now their expedition would not fail. This aguage, Anza says, was but eighteen leagues from Santa Olalla (it was twenty) and could have been made in two forced marches, though it had taken six days and thirty-five leagues of travel to reach it. At 2.30 in the afternoon Anza resumed his march and traveling almost due north made four leagues and camped for the night in the desert without water and with but little pasture for the animals. At daybreak the next morning they took their way again to the north across some dangerous sand-hills, with the men on foot leading their horses, and after traveling seven leagues, arrived at one in the afternoon at a large cienega or marsh—the sink of the San Felipe river—at the base of the San Jacinto mountains, the western wall of the desert. Anza gave to the aguage the name of San Sebastian del Peregrino. He had, in the face of great peril, without guides, and with much suffering, accomplished the passage of the Colorado desert.

1. Ranchería—an Indian village or town. [back]
2. Probably Signal mountain; about forty miles away. [back]
3. On October 1, 1786, Don Pedro Fages, governor of California, ordered that Juan Ignacio Valencia, a soldier of Anza's first expedition, be paid one escudo (about $2.00) per month additional pay from October 8, 1774, to June 10, 1788, for his services on that trip. (Spanish Archives of California, Provincial State Papers MSS. VIII, 142). [back]
4. Caballería, riding beast. Anza uses the expression to mean both riding and pack-animals. [back]
5. These wells are now known as the Yuha springs and are located in the northwest corner of section eight, township seventeen south, range eleven east, San Bernardino base and meridian, four miles north of the boundary line. The water is about two feet below the surface of a dry wash. [back]
Source: Eldredge, Zoeth Skinner. The Beginnings of San Francisco. 1912: San Francisco.

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