Anza Who?!

by Tracie Cofer, Staff Assistant

On a recent trip to Mexico I was fortunate enough to travel along a major portion of the Ruta Rio Sonora, a 250-mile stretch of the Sonoran River which runs from Cananea in northern Mexico’s state of Sonora, down to the metropolis that is Hermosillo. The deeply established communities along this route date back to the early 1600s. Seen throughout this region is a juxtaposition of “Old World Mexico” keeping its culture and traditions alive, coexisting alongside our modern world and many of its conveniences. The historical relevance here finds a connection to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (ABDSP). Have you heard of the Anza Colonizing Expedition of 1775-1776? Beginning farther south in Mexico this historical journey traveled a northerly route not far from here, passing through the deserts and mountains of Tucson, Yuma, ABDSP and southern California. The ultimate goal was to reach San Francisco.

On my radar for this trip was the town of Arizpe, founded in 1646 and later the capital of Sonora. Arizpe continues to be a thriving yet small and close-knit community of ranchers and farmers who depend heavily on the river it borders.  Navigating through valleys and along narrow stretches of dated roads we headed towards this compact mountain town. The last corner was turned and immediately visible was the, Nuestra Señora de la Asunción Temple.

This historic church dominated the landscape. Its pinkish hue and grand bell tower mesmerized me. As we worked our way closer through the well-worn streets of brick and earth locals greeted us with curiosity, smiles and waves. They must have been asking themselves, “Who are these people driving a car with California plates?”  We passed children making their way home from school stopping to buy cold and fruity paletas and raspados (frozen fruit treats), their laughter adding to the ease which is obvious in this community.  Then in full view and majesty we humbly faced the cathedral. Standing strong and distinguished, dated by over 350 years, this building endures as the mainstay and center of communion among the resident population.

Now you may be asking yourself if there is a deeper connection between this historical tour of ours and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The answer is yes! The leader of the aforementioned expedition, Juan Bautista de Anza lay entombed in a marble memorial mausoleum within this church. Unfortunately we were unable to tour the inside of the church because it was under renovation. I was, however, able to obtain lots of interesting facts and photos to complete this blog. After visiting and speaking with some locals, including the Padre of the church, we ventured on to see what else we could discover along this beautiful and peaceful river valley.

The odd convergence of sights during our explorations kept my head constantly turning in curiosity. One of note was during our search for natural hot springs down an unmarked dirt road. We came to a fork and not knowing which way to turn, we stopped and pondered. A colt pranced past, paying us no mind, then a donkey who made it clear we were in his space. A cow appeared, and another, and another…… Ultimately along came an old Mexican man with no shoes, tattered jeans, carrying a big stick. He was herding his stock down to the river like he had for decades; on foot, old style. I was snapped back to modern times when a cell phone rang. My husband and I looked at our phones, which had no service since we got there, not us. We realized that it was the cowboy as we heard him answer with a joyful, “como esta primo?” (How are you cousin?). Hilarity ensued… I was in tears, literally!

Now for some history…

Juan Bautista de Anza was born into a military family in 1736. Fronteras, Sonora, which is near Arizpe, was his birthplace on the northern frontier of New Spain. Following in his father’s footsteps by enlisting in the army at a young age, Anza quickly rose through the ranks establishing his reputation in combat and exploration. As Spain was struggling to keep their outposts in Alta California secure from Russian and English exploration and colonization, the King granted Anza permission to carry out a colonizing expedition of their own in 1775. The goal was to deliver settlers safely via an overland route and establish the first colony in what is now known as San Francisco. With about 300 people, families mostly, this mixture of ethnically diverse adventurers set off for a new life. Taking with them a herd of livestock numbering over 1,000 and all the supplies they could carry, the 1800-mile, five-month journey departed from Tubac, Mexico on Oct. 23, 1775.

Among the travelers was the Franciscan priest Father Pedro Font, the name sake of the Park’s Font’s Point.  Not only did Father Font lead daily prayer and provide religious leadership, he kept a meticulous journal recording the details of the expedition.  Font was an expert navigator who did not always see eye to eye with Anza. However, despite their conflicts, without the differing journals of both Anza and Father Font the particulars of this epic journey may never have been known. Fortunately, Father Font had to preside over the giving of final prayers to only one person during the entire crossing. Complications from child birth took the life of a young mother on the very first night of travel.

As the march continued, months passed with varying degrees of difficulty and strain to both the humans and animals. Encountering desert heat, freezing weather, bad water sources and often a lack of any water at all, many of the livestock began to perish. Exhaustion and starvation ultimately took its toll on the herds. Still the determined convoy ventured forward with their waning spirits and weary bodies. Much of the success during this journey was due to the alliances Anza formed with some of the Native American communities they encountered along the way. They received assistance with difficult passages, food, water and encouragement. Without this added support, the expedition would have undoubtedly suffered much greater loss.

A historical moment for us here in Borrego Springs and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park includes the time this mobile community took to pass through our neighborhood. For a short period around Christmas time, camp was set up in what we currently refer to as Coyote Canyon. There was water, vegetation for the animals, some shelter from the winter weather and celebratory spirits. They were getting closer to their destination and, more importantly, coming closer to lands that provided water and sustenance and a kinder climate. Back to the spirits. A celebration was in order, so as any good commander would do, Anza broke out a barrel of brandy. In spite of Father Font’s objections, a party ensued. Just as other desert dwellers who followed over the centuries, they howled at the moon and rejoiced! Topping off the festivities of these few days, pardon the pun, a child was born. Named the “Christmas Babe” a monument now stands at this location honoring the occasion. Our central community park in Borrego Springs is called “Christmas Circle” in reference to this event.

Making their way toward San Diego and then north through San Gabriel, San Luis Obispo and up the coast the expedition was coming to a close. The hard part was over. One death, four births, and a long arduous hike! But they made it and new adventures were on the horizon. Hope, prosperity, a vision of a better life…isn’t that what we all want?

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