Early European Explorers Part 1

By Jack Tracy

Juan Bautista de Anza on horseback Courtesy Photo

Juan Bautista de Anza on horseback
Courtesy Photo

Englishman Sir Francis Drake first discovered the California Coast in 1579, but his precise location was carefully guarded to keep it secret from the Spaniards.  Nearly two centuries later, in 1775, Lieutenant Don Juan Manuel de Ayala became the first European to discover what later became San Francisco Bay. That same year, another Spaniard -- Juan Bautista de Anza -- was charged with establishing a permanent presidio or military garrison here.  Jack Tracy tells the story in his seminal Sausalito history, Moments in Time:

De Anza had blazed a trail overland from Sonora across the desert to Mission San Gabriel near the pueblo of Los Angeles, in order to avoid the arduous sea passage north from Mexico against prevailing winds. He and his soldiers had safely brought to San Gabriel 240 colonists on this first of many planned journeys overland. From San Gabriel, he marched up the coast from mission to mission until he reached the bay.

According to Spanish plans, de Anza's route would open all of upper California to colonization and provide a reliable pathway for supplies to the new colony. But the once-cooperative Yuma Indians, over whose lands the trail passed, attacked and destroyed the isolated trail settlements along the way. Hence, Spain was forced to fall back on the ocean route to supply her northern colonies. Failure to establish an overland passage meant that what the Spanish called Alta California, supplied only by sea, would remain remote and under colonized for many years, a fact that would bear heavily on California's fate when, decades later, Americans began arriving in large numbers.

Life in the provinces of New Spain reflected few of the changes occurring in Europe. Outward change came slowly in the small pueblos and missions in California during the last two decades of the eighteenth century. Daily life there alternated between a difficult pastoral existence and an outright struggle against famine and disease. Captured or lured to the missions, the Native Americans, now universally called "Indians," became serfs on the land and forced converts into the Church. Soldiers of the Crown who had risked their lives with Portola and de Anza were rewarded with land grants, large tracts of real estate at first intended as little more than grazing rights. These later grew into a pivotal political issue for Californians.

Concerned by the growing vulnerability of her overseas colonies, Spain laid down rigid laws to protect her investments abroad. Instructions from the Crown, via Mexico City, to the governor of Alta California, were explicit: foreign ships and foreign visitors were not to enter Spanish territory. The less other nations saw of the miles of fertile land, fine harbors and rich forests (and the thin scattering of Spanish occupants), the better. However, the hundreds of miles of open coastline and the increasing number of fur trappers in Pacific waters made it inevitable that other Europeans would find their way into Spanish ports.

Next week Tracy tells the story of later European explorers and settlers.