The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1972, Volume 18, Number 3
James E Moss, Editor

Book Review

David J. Weber, Book Review Editor

Anza Conquers the Desert: The Anza Expeditions from Mexico to California and the Founding of San Francisco: 1774-1776. By Richard Pourade. San Diego: Copley Books, 1971. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. 216 pages. $12.50.

Reviewed by Sidney B. Brinckerhoff, Director of the Arizona Historical Society, co-author of Lancers for the King (1966) and Spanish Colonial Military Weapons (1971) as well as numerous articles and monographs on Southwestern subjects. He received his degrees at Princeton University and the University of Arizona and is a Fellow of the Company of Military Historians. He is currently working on a biography and a graphic history of the U.S. Army in the Southwest.

No matter how many times one reads about the Anza-Garcés expeditions from Sonora to California in the 1770’s, the excitement and drama of these epic accomplishments continue to come through vividly. However, it is surprising that many individuals, serious historians and casual students have never read the story, or in some areas of the country, have never even heard of Anza or the priests who accompanied him. With the publication of this volume, that lack may be remedied.

This is not just a story for Californians, or for those who love the history of the Southwest and northern Mexico. It is an important part of the fabric of American history. Although the diaries of the two expeditions of 1774-1776 have been translated and published before, no one volume has ever so beautifully told the story of the second expedition which led to the founding of San Francisco, Alta California.

Readers have by now become accustomed to the fine books commissioned by James S. Copley and written by Richard F. Pourade, most recently The Call to California, but this new volume exceeds them all. Really three books in one, Pourade weaves his highly literate and graphic prose through excerpts of the diaries and letters of Captain Anza and fathers Garcés and Font, placing in one volume the best from all these sources. As in his previous works, the author uses not only contemporary maps and other early graphics, but superb color and black and white photographs of locations along the route as they appear today. These views were taken by Harry Crosby and Ed Neil. Crosby traveled the entire route of both Anza expeditions in Baja California, Sinaloa, Sonora, Arizona and in the southern California deserts and mountains. Three paintings by Lloyd Harting commissioned for the volume, treat historic events of the expeditions. Generally accurate in detail, they help bring the period alive.

The first book of the volume treats with the early knowledge of a land route from Sonora to California, the plan developed by Captain Anza and Father Garcés to explore this route, and the experiences of the first expedition which ended after seventy-four days from Tubac at San Gabriel. The second book tells of the great second expedition in which Anza organized and led 242 men, women and children over the new route, through rough mountains and snow covered high deserts to San Gabriel and Monterey. Under Lt. Morago the settlers were taken to found San Francisco, which is recounted in book three. This section completes the story by including an analysis of the results of Anza’s efforts, the Spanish use of the trail, Mexican and American attempts to reopen and use the route, and the subsequent careers of Anza and Garcés. Carefully intertwined in the narrative of the Spanish Southwest are numerous glimpses of what was going on in the English colonies to the east. Such an approach to broader themes often fails to heighten the impact of the story, but in this case, it effectively places the Anza experience in the main stream of American history.

For the serious student of the West, the author has also provided some new insights into aspects of the story, including the part played by Engineer Miguel Costansó in confirming to the Viceroy of New Spain the value of Anza’s plans. Also of interest is the reason Anza changed his original plans to go directly to Monterey on the second expedition rather than stopping at San Gabriel to the south. Snow and cold weather, a not uncommon problem in the desert and lower mountains, had weakened the settlers and animals so that Anza feared they could not withstand more of the same in the higher mountains without serious harm.

This volume is recommended highly, not only as a first-rate treatment of an important subject, but as a beautifully designed and illustrated book which brings the past to the present in all its excitement and color. This reasonably priced work should be owned by all Americans interested in their colonial past.