• Anza, Horses, and “the Indian Problem”

    by  •  • LifeStuff • 2 Comments

    In the storehouse at the Mission San José de Tumacácori, AZ.

    In the storehouse at the Mission San José de Tumacácori, AZ.

    I’m not writing as much as I’d like to, certainly.

    Life right now feels like a season of wandering, within and without.

    But at least I am trying to read some more again.

    Returning from the Arizona trip, though, my interest in the Anza project has returned, although I find myself frequently wondering why I am locked in on that guy. There are tons of amazing, interesting people in the world, but I keep coming back to him, fascinated by him as a unique character in the taming of the Southwest. And, I suppose, that is a big part of it. He is a name in the history of the place I was born in and raised at.

    As a result of meeting Park Ranger Rick at Tubac, I have picked a few other books on Anza’s life or the period of time around it. My mind scintillates with curiosity at least. I am trying to assemble timelines and understand regions, geographies, cultures, contemporaneous events. Anything that might help me to better understand the routines and rhythms of his time.

    One of the books is a collection of letters sent to and from Anza during his 10-year governorship of New Mexico. In terms of raw materials for a writing project interested in just that period, you couldn’t ask for a better set of source materials from the period. Evidently the Spanish were superlative at keeping records. The Anza expeditions are well-chronicled by the priests who went on them with him, and were careful to fill their journals. In this collection of letters, though, we get a look into the daily life of the man trying to manage life in the northern frontier of New Spain.

    Anza ended up in northern New Mexico because Spain needed a military governor in the northern frontier to try and quell Indian activities which threatened Spanish settlements in today’s northern Mexico. New Mexico as a Spanish holding was over run with Apache incursions in the south, and increasing Comanche incursions in the north. Things had gotten so shaky that in 1776, Spain removed the northern frontier- roughly west Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona- as a responsibility of the Viceroy in Mexico City who was trying to manage New Spain for the crown, and put the region under a military-governor, whose main job was to help make the swath a defensible buffer against Indian raiders striking south into Mexico, and a line of resistance for other Europeans interested in entering the area. Anza had a pristine record as a soldier and as an explorer, and he seemed to fit the bill as a leader, an officer, a commander, and a governor.

    And so his governorship wasn’t your run of the mill term of balancing budgets and building programs. Anza was on the road a lot, horseback, dealing with Indian issues.

    As I mentioned, I received a few good referrals for some Anza-related books, items I found copies of which I bought. It was an excerpt that I read online by a guy writing about the Comanches that got me to find his book, though- “Empire of the Summer Moon”, a 2010 work by S.C. Gwynne, which is the book i wanted to read next.

    The Apaches and the Comanches figure largely in the story of colonial New Mexico, because both tribes took early to the use of horses that they acquired (often, illicitly) from the Spaniards, and through their use of horses, became pretty good at the disruption of settlements and lives. The Apache learned to use horses to get to, and to flee from, their missions of mischief and theft. The Comanches learned to use horses in their missions of mayhem and murder. The Apaches were semi-agrarian and while mean in their robberies, were not as horse-centric as the Comanche, and not capable of fighting on horseback- which explains why they feared the Comanche.

    Gwynne paints the Comanche in an interesting way, describing their sudden ascent as a ferocious nation with the acquisition of horses and horse skills. He says they were before, among the local tribes, like a dull kid in middle school who was bullied, until he grew humongous in high school, and had a long memory of those who hurt him in the past. The Apache were opportunists, but the Comanche were violent in vengeance, and with horses they could travel long and hard to dole out destruction and to steal stock.

    Anza spent most of his life dealing with the question of what to do with the Indians. His father, also a Spanish officer and presidio commander, was killed by an Indian raiding party in Sonora while he was out making rounds. Anza was about three at the time. Anza entered the military as a volunteer at 16, and resumed the rounds his father made before he himself was plucked as a leader and honored with ranks and commissions. Daily life living on the frontier in northern Mexico involved the regular coming and going of raiding parties of dissenting tribes. It’s no wonder he was asked to take the station in New Mexico and see if he could help find a way to install peace in the region. Anza was diplomatic, but he was also determined, and wuld do what he had to try and fulfill his objectives.

    Gwynne’s book is very interesting because it was actually written to cover a later period in American history, a period after the Comanche and European settlers first met at a compound in 1836 in a location near modern-day Dallas. That contact that day ended with the brutal killing of a number of members from the white family that foolishly moved from Illinois to live isolated out on the edge of Indian country, and a number of the white children were taken by the raiding party to be used as hostages, slaves, and trading chips. Out of that raid emerged an urgency in the U.S. military to deal with the Comanches once and for all as violators of western expansionism and of those who followed the idea towards the Pacific. And out of the raid also emerged a story that was remarkably stunning and made headlines around the world.

    Among the kidnapped children was a 9 year-old girl who ended up raised as a Comanche. In time, she was made a wife to a Comanche man, and she had three children with him. Some years down the road into adulthood, she was taken captive in a U.S. military action that ended up killing or capturing most of those she lived with. When recognized as a kidnapping victim from the 1836 Comanche raid, she was offered a chance to rejoin the civilized world.

    And she rejected it to return to “her” people.

    Gwynne will go on and talk about one of her kids, a half-breed son, who grows up to become “the last and greatest chief of the Comanches.”

    It’s a fascinating book, about times and places I know little about.

    But I am enjoying learning about them.

    I don’t know what I am going to do with the things I am learning. I still wish, or hope, that I can come up with a screenplay out of all of it. But right now, reading from a range of sources about a range of subjects to try and understand time, place, and a mix of cultures, is like trying to find all the right ingredients for a special stew. You hope you find all of the right ingredients, and that they are fresh and complimentary, so that when they are all blended together finally in a pot, you end up with something tantalizing, tasty, and filling as well.

    Print pagePDF pageEmail page


    A web programmer by day, I somehow still spend a lot of time thinking about relationships, God, and the significance of grace and love in daily events. I am old school in the sense that I believe in the reality of sin, and in the need of each human heart for deliverance to the Divine. I am one of those who believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that you can find most answers to life's pressing issues in Him and His Word, the Bible. I ain't perfect, and a lot of the time I ain't good, but by God's grace and kindness, I am forgiven and free.

    2 Responses to Anza, Horses, and “the Indian Problem”

    1. Glen Pummel
      April 11, 2018 at 7:36 pm

      Loved this article, this blog, Bruce.

      • Bruce
        April 11, 2018 at 10:29 pm

        Thannks, Glen! I appreciate it. I am really trying to learn a lot about the Spanish Colonial Southwest. Hoping to get a good script out of this study sometime in the next year or so. “Blood and Thunder” really sucked me in to these studies deeply, and I am riveted. I’ll try to stay a little more on this topic in the future.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *