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Anza’s 1779 Comanche Campaign

Review by Ed Quillen

Juan Bautista de Anza – December 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

Anza’s 1779 Comanche Campaign
by Ron Kessler
Second Edition
Published in 2001 by Adobe Village Press
ISBN 0-9644056-3-6

Decisive Battle – Anza and Cuerno Verde
by Wilfred O. Martinez
Published in 2001 by El Escritorio
ISBN 0962897493

JUAN BAUTISTA DE ANZA was one of the finest frontier commanders this continent ever produced, and he would be much more celebrated in American history if he had been born in Virginia or New York instead of Sonora, Mexico.

In most histories, he may be best known for founding the presidio that would become San Francisco, California, in the summer of 1776. But in our part of the world, at least in the pages of this magazine, Anza is celebrated for being the first person to write about the upper San Luis Valley, Poncha Pass, and the Salida area.

It happened in the late summer of 1779, after he had taken office as the governor of the Spanish colony of New Mexico and commander of its armed forces. Pueblos and farms along the upper Rio Grande had suffered from Comanche raiders who swept in from the Great Plains under their leader Cuerno Verde — “Green Horn” in English, because the chief’s head-dress featured two green bison horns.

If the raids continued, the province might have to be abandoned because it would starve. Or perhaps the Utes, who were allied with the Spanish and were supposed to get protection from the governor in Santa Fé, would change allegiance to the Comanche side — which would also mean that the Spanish might lose control of their northern province.

Previous governors had tried to retaliate against the Comanche by pursuing them after their raids as they fled eastward, from the Taos area across Palo Flechado Pass out to the Staked Plains. The Comanche were excellent horsemen who could outrun their Spanish pursuers, and the Spanish force also had to contend with a long and fragile supply line.

Anza came up with a better idea. When his scouts reported that the Comanche were approaching, he assembled an army of 600 mounted men. The idea wasn’t to chase the Comanche, but to bottle them up as they came out of the mountains on the eastern side after their raid. The Comanche would be blocked from their usual route to the Staked Plains of the Texas Panhandle, and if they retreated, they’d be driven back against pueblos prepared to resist them.

Thus Anza took a circuitous route when his army left Santa Fé on August 15, 1779: north into the San Luis Valley, across Poncha Pass then east to the Colorado Springs area, then southwest to confront and defeat Cuerno Verde on Sept. 3.

We know this story in such detail because Anza kept a journal, and now there’s a new and useful edition from Ron Kessler of Monte Vista. Kessler provides both the original Spanish version (surprisingly readable, according to my daughter Columbine, who is literate en español), as well as a new English translation.

Kessler includes photographs — he has retraced the entire route — along with maps both old and new, a biography and a military roster. Plus there’s a glossary, a good index, source notes, and the text of the treaty that resulted between the Spanish and the Jupe Comanche.

And there’s a chapter with Kessler’s best conjecture about Anza’s route, much of which remains speculation to this day, especially the stretch that skirted South Park between Salida and Pueblo. In the first edition, Kessler promoted Trout Creek Pass as the route; now he argues (correctly, in my view) that Anza’s force went into the Arkansas Hills after fording the river near what would someday be Salida.

If you’ve got any curiosity about the first recorded trip into Central Colorado, you’ll find this book fascinating and comprehensive. The only flaws are a few typographical errors.

Another geographical mystery of Anza’s 1779 campaign is the exact site of his battle with Cuerno Verde, and retired Pueblo educator Wilfred O. Martinez may have solved that one.

Decisive Battle is to some degree a personal account, since one inspiration for Martinez was a desire to trace his ancestry. Usually I find that annoying — why should I be interested in some stranger’s family tree? — but Martinez makes this into something of a detective story, and it’s an interesting tale.

Even more of a detective story is his effort to find the battle site, somewhere southwest of present-day Pueblo. There’s an historical marker for the battle in the park in Colorado City — but it’s been moved several times, and it doesn’t match the distances and descriptions in Anza’s journal.

So Martinez went to work with maps and rulers and Anza’s journal, first determining the route and the stops between Colorado Springs and Pueblo. Then he looked for the battle site, and found a much better match along the St. Charles River, only 18 miles from Pueblo — which fits Anza’s account of traveling six leagues before meeting the Comanche.

Martinez concedes that there’s no direct archæological evidence, in the form of musket balls or the like, to support his proposed battle site, but he makes a good argument that the spot deserves further research.

All in all, I liked this engaging book a lot more than I thought I would. I’m an “Anza buff,” not an “Anza fanatic,” and I didn’t have to turn into a fanatic to enjoy it. Decisive Battle is a fine addition to our regional lore. Beyond that, it’s an interesting story of research and discovery, well worth the time of anyone interested in the days when this was not the Western Frontier, but part of la Frontera del Norte.

— Ed Quillen