On the trail of Juan Bautista de Anza

Article by Phil Carson

Local history – August 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

It is a fine summer day as Ron Kessler and I drive up Ute Creek just northeast of Salida, examining a possible route of the 18th-century Spaniard, Juan Bautista de Anza. Ahead of us in another vehicle, kicking up dust (it’s his job) is Ed Quillen, an editor of a small Colorado monthly magazine. Together we are seeking documentary clues in Anza’s 1779 journal of his decisive Comanche campaign and comparing them to the terrain on the southern end of the Mosquito Range, a/k/a the Arkansas Hills.

The easy part is understanding Anza’s reason for passing through this area 215 years ago, and placing him in the context of other Spanish colonial expedition leaders of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The hard part, endemic to historic trail reconstruction: Which way did he go?

In 1779, as governor of the Spanish colony of New Mexico, Anza was mounting a surprise attack on the leader of the Jupe band of Comanche, Cuerno Verde (Green Horn), who made Colorado’s high plains his home when not raiding New Mexico.

Anza’s predecessors had failed to stop Cuerno Verde’s depredations upon New Mexico settlements because they had always taken predictable Spanish routes from the territorial capital of Santa Fé to the high plains: either east from Taos over the Sangre de Cristos, then north over Raton Mesa, or due north from Taos to Sangre de Cristo Pass (just west of North La Veta Pass) and down the Huerfano River to the Arkansas.

These counterattacks failed because Comanche scouts, knowing the Spaniards’ routines, could spot the latter’s dust clouds from a distance, and the Jupe band would retreat lo fight another day.

After his appointment as New Mexico governor, Anza decided to surprise the Comanche by attacking from another direction. This meant following an ancient Ute trail up the western margin of the San Luis Valley, moving by night, and crossing Poncha Pass to the vicinity of Poncha Springs.

From the confluence of Poncha Creek and the South Arkansas, Anza would cross the Arkansas and then the lower Mosquitoes to traverse South Park, descend Ute Pass north of Pike’s Peak, and attack the Comanche without mercy. Anza knew he had to kill Cuerno Verde to stop the Comanche, and eventually he did, at a location south of Pueblo near Rye (under Green Horn Peak, named for the loser of the battle).

Ron Kessler of Monte Vista has written a book, Anza’s 1779 Comanche Campaign, which reprints Anza’s journal together with Kessler’s interpretations and reconstructions of the Spanish route.

In most places, Kessler’s interpretation jibes amazingly well with the terrain. But problems arise inn certain places, like northeast of Salida, because the journal occasionally provides questionable or vague details. Also, information given in the journal is sometimes at odds with the actual terrain that the journal suggests that Anza covered.

While Kessler has been studying this for decades, Quillen pondered the matter in 1979 when he and some Salida friends attempted to ferret out the Anza route to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Spanish governor’s passage.

I’ve spent nearly a decade documenting Spanish explorations beyond the northern frontier of colonial New Mexico between 1598 and 1821. Thus, it’s a high-powered group in low gear on Anza’s trail today.

As we drive up the Ute Creek road, we review the evidence in Anza’s journal and attempt to square it with the land around us.

Anza’s entry for Aug. 28, 1779, notes that the expedition set out early in the morning. crossed the Rio Napestle (Arkansas River), and traveled one league (2.6 to 3.0 miles) northeast before “we began to cross another medium-sized sierra, which occupied two more leagues.”

Quillen tells us that locals have figured this to mean Anza ascended Ute Creek, topped these mountains, and entered South Park from the southwest. Before this trip, Kessler had believed that Anza’s 800 men and 2,400 horses would have to use a more moderate route like Trout Creek Pass, 20 miles (or about 7-8 leagues) to the north. That interpretation doesn’t jibe well with the Anza journal’s distances and directions, but it fits with the terrain.

THIS TYPE OF CONUNDRUM — the distances fit with one route, but the topography with another — is common, according to Marc Simmons, an eminent historian of the Southwest. After all, Simmons says, Anza’s journal is subject to error: his scribe may have written the wrong distance and direction, the scribe’s florid 18th-century script may have been transcribed incorrectly, or his Spanish may have been mistranslated.

As we ascend Ute Creek, we descend into uncertainty.

“Anyone who has questions on this expedition should sit down with the journal and topographic maps and then go over the terrain,” suggests Kessler, who’s the first to admit that “it doesn’t all fit.”

At first Ute Creek follows a gentle course with wide bottoms, flanked by ponderosa and piñon and certainly passable by a large pack train. However, the creek bottlenecks severely, narrowing to a rocky defile. Passage for such a large army here looks very unlikely.

“I want to fly over this in an airplane,~ Kessler says. “You get a different perspective from the air than by doing all this ‘Frémonting’ around.” (“Frémonting” as in “blundering.”)

“There are a lot of puzzles to this,” Kessler adds. “What did they mean by ‘medium sized sierra’? Why would Anza mention his difficulties traversing Poncha Pass, and not mention the rocky bottleneck on this route?”

For one thing, we decide, although Anza may have relied on Ute scouts to lead him over their favorite trail in this area, the modern name, “Ute Creek,” doesn’t necessarily reflect the precise route of the former Indian trail. The actual Ute trail may have ascended any of the adjacent draws — Dead Goat Gulch, Dead Horse Creek, or Cottonwood Creek for example. On the other hand — because we see that Ute Creek’s bottleneck opens again into hospitable terrain — perhaps Anza’s guides simply circumvented the roughest part of this ascent by gaining a ridgeline.

“This route’s not impassable. It’s possible,” announces Kessler, who’s ready to re-examine the question after settling on the Trout Creek Pass route last year. “We need to obtain the manuscript journal and check the original.”

The original reposes at the Archivo General de Indias at Seville, Spain; it was translated into English in the late 1920s by scholar Alfred B. Thomas.

Obtaining a copy of the original journal from Seville and renting an airplane will not be easy, simple, quick, or inexpensive. But then, neither is any genuine love affair.

Phil Carson is a free-lance writer, history buff, and Jimi Hendrix connoisseur in Pueblo.