The land surrounding the Golden Gate was Ohlone and Miwok territory for thousands of years. On June 27, 1776, Spain laid claim to the San Francisco Bay through nearly 200 settlers, who had migrated migrated overland from their homes in what is now Mexico and Southern Arizona, to establish the Presidio of San Francisco and Mission San Francisco de Asis, or Mission Dolores. We commemorate this day each year as Pasados del Presidio. Learn more about early California history, including the founding of El Presidio, the Anza Expedition, and the – the path settlers took to the Presidio.
Painting: San Francisco Bay, by David Rickman, 2007.
The 1775-1776 Anza Expedition
The Spanish Empire wanted to establish a settlement at the mouth of San Francisco Bay and secure its position in Alta (Upper) California against the Russian and British Empires. In 1775, Lieutenant Colonel Juan Bautista de Anza, a Spanish army officer of Basque descent born in Sonora, Mexico, organized and led the colonizing expedition.
The year before, he’d successfully led a small expedition to explore a land route from Sonora to the Spanish settlements on the Pacific Coast of southern California. His knowledge of this route and his establishment of good relations with many of the Indian communities along the way, together with his frontier military experience, made him the ideal choice to command the expedition.
Many of the over thirty families Anza recruited were from the Sonora and Sinaloa regions of northwestern New Spain (Mexico), a mostly dry region very different from the San Francisco Bay Area. The area had suffered for decades from drought, floods, famine, and raids by Comcáac and Apache Indians. For the men and women who joined the expedition, it was a risky chance to escape poverty and start a new life in a strange land.
They were of many different racial and ethnic backgrounds. While most were classified by their superiors as mestizo – mixed Spanish and Native American ancestry – others had African ancestry, a few were from Spain, and at least one was Apache. Under Anza’s leadership, they worked together to survive the 1,200-mile journey, enduring deserts, mountains, snow, and uncertainty along the way.
To explore their journey online, several excellent resources have been created by the National Park Service’s Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail (Anza Trail) and its partners. Established in 1990, the Anza Trail commemorates, protects, marks, and interprets the route from Nogales, Arizona to the Presidio, and it’s administered through partnerships with other federal, state, county, and municipal parks and agencies, local volunteer groups, non-profit organizations, and private landowners.
Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail – Created by the Anza Trail and the Anza Trail Foundation, this site provides a detailed interactive map of the trail, indicating each campsite, and including excerpts from the diaries of Anza and Father Pedro Font, a Franciscan friar sent on the expedition to make maps and record observations. It is also a guide to contemporary trails, campsites, historic sites, and other outdoor recreation sites along the way.
Places to Go: Interactive Trail Map – This National Park Service site is an interactive web mapping application that allows viewers to explore and interact with geographic data relating to the Anza Trail. Here you can plan a visit, or learn more about the expedition.
Anza Trail in the Presidio
On March 10, the expedition arrived at Monterey, where the Spanish Empire had established a small settlement in 1770. While the colonists rested there for the final leg of the journey, Lieutenant Colonel Anza explored the San Francisco Peninsula with Father Pedro Font and several soldiers in order to select sites for the Presidio and Mission. The trail follows the route they took from where they camped near Mountain Lake on March 27 to another location near the Golden Gate. On the cliff that used to be where Fort Point is now, they placed a cross to signify Spain’s claim to the land.
Anza and Font returned to New Spain, and Lieutenant José Joaquín Moraga led the migrants to their destination, arriving June 27, 1776 near what is today Mission Dolores. They began construction of El Presidio a few months later at the site selected by Moraga. While their original construction lasted only a few years, the more permanent adobe walls of El Presidio, built on the same site originally constructed by the settlers and their descendants using the labor of California Indians, can be seen in the Presidio Officers’ Club today and nearby at Pershing Square in the Presidio.
The Presidio Trust’s archaeology team continues to work to uncover other parts of El Presidio’s walls. Each Friday and Saturday, 11 am to 2 pm, a docent is available to answer questions at the dig site near Pershing Square. Drop by and take a peek.