Juan Bautista de Anza: A New Mexico Frontiersman

Certainly one of the most intrepid soldiers on New Mexico’s Spanish frontier was Juan Bautista de Anza (1735-1788) who served as colonial Governor from 1778 to 1788.
He was born at Fronteras, Sonora, into a family with at least two generations of military experience, and he carried on that tradition by entering the army in 1752. He advanced through the ranks rapidly. He was promoted to Lieutenant in 1755 and Captain by 1760. He spent most of his early career in fighting Apaches in the Gila River region of what is now Arizona; experience that would serve him well when he was obliged to fight the Comanche some years later. He opened a road from Sonora to California and is also credited with the founding of San Francisco, California (March 27, 1776).
Anza was a Lieutenant Colonel by 1788 when he was appointed Governor of New Mexico. He arrived in Santa Fe late that year. His first priority was to deal with the hostile Indian tribes that had long plagued the Spanish settlements. So severe was the problem that Spanish General Teodoro de Croix, military commander of the region, believed that the nomadic tribes were potentially in a position to rule the northern frontier. One Indian leader is said to have boasted that the only reasons the Spanish were not wiped out was so they could raise horses for the Indians. Croix’s plan was to take on the tribes one at a time and thus to destroy any unity that might exist among them. It was a daring plan, but Anza was the man for the job.
The first tribe to receive Anza’s attention was the Comanche. Under the leadership of Chief Cuerno Verde (Green Horn), they were frequent raiders, and extremely violent. Cuerno Verde, Anza later wrote, “exterminated many towns, killing hundreds and making as many prisoners whom he afterwards sacrificed in cold blood.” The Chief hated the Spanish because they had killed his father in an earlier battle.
During the summer of 1779, Anza made ready to march on the Comanche. His tactic was to invade their home territory in what is now southeastern Colorado. He had a large force of Spanish soldiers, which was augmented by colonial militiamen and Pueblo Indian volunteers; in all about 600 men (one source says 800).
Earlier military excursions against the Comanche had traveled east through the mountain passes to the plains where they turned north and into the Indian’s home territory. The problem was that Cuerno Verde had his own network of spies and so he always had advanced warning and time to prepare for any attack as the Spanish approached. Anza went the other way. He marched his troops north along the western slope of the Rockies until he reached a point directly west of Comanche camps east of the mountains.
He then marched east and emerged from the mountains somewhere near Pike’s Peak and immediately set upon some Comanche camps. He captured a number of warriors and large quantities of spoils. The bad news was that he could not find Cuerno Verde. The good news was that he learned that the Chief was off raiding in New Mexico, but he was expected to return very soon. That gave Anza the opportunity he needed to prepare a greeting for the Chief and he marched south and crossed the Arkansas River.
When Cuerno Verde saw the Spaniards advancing, he attacked by charging forward. Nothing could have worked better for Anza’s troops. The trap closed around the Indians, and by the time the Chief realized what had happened, it was too late for him to extricate himself. The Comanche, for once outnumbered by the Spanish, fought on, but it was only a matter of time. When the smoke cleared away, Cuerno Verde was dead, as were his son and four of his sub chiefs along with a significant medicine man.
Some historians make little of this victory. One indicates that the Comanche simply moved on to Oklahoma and Texas after the defeat. Another says that Anza “attempted to settle some of the Comanches in a Pueblo-like community on the Arkansas River.” Yet another reports that the Comanches joined with the Spanish to fight the Apaches to the south.
The importance of Cuerno Verde’s defeat was two-fold. For one thing, the raiding stopped. For another, peace between the Comanche and the Spanish was established. Anza is credited with making that so. He refused to enter into peace talks with the Indians immediately but insisted that they wait until the tribe agreed on a single chief who would represent them in negotiations. That person was Chief Ecueracapa, and the peace was agreed upon in 1786. Part of that agreement called for the Comanche, Ute and the Spanish to form a united front against the Apache. The peace lasted into the 19th century.
Anza left office in New Mexico in 1787 and died the following year in Sonora. Marc Simmons wrote, “His career as a frontiersman easily rivaled that of a Boone or a Crockett or a Carson. But unlike those national heroes whose names today are household words, Juan Bautista de Anza and his story remain unknown to most Americans.”
Many historians give Anza only mention in passing, if they mention him at all.
Don Bullis’ latest book, A New Mexico Historical Encyclopedia, is scheduled for publication later this year.