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J uan Bautista de Anza: The King’s Gover­nor in New Mex­ico by Car­los R. Her­rera and The Jaguar’s Chil­dren by John Vail­lant

by Car­los R. Her­rera, Uni­ver­sity of Ok­la­homa Press, 320 pages

New Mex­i­cans have al­ways had an in­de­pen­dent streak, born of their desert iso­la­tion and its ad­ver­si­ties. Dur­ing Span­ish King Car­los III’s 1759-1788 reign, how­ever, they lived in an era when “en­light­ened despo­tism” and cen­tral­ized power across an em­pire were the doc­trines of the Bour­bon court. The gover­nor of New Spain’s north­ern edges thus had to be both a def­er­en­tial rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the court and a res­o­lute leader on the fron­tier. Juan Bautista de Anza, New Mex­ico’s gover­nor dur­ing the last decade of rule by King Car­los, was just such a man.

As enu­mer­ated by Car­los R. Her­rera in his new bi­og­ra­phy, Juan Bautista de Anza: The King’s Gover­nor in New Mex­ico , de Anza’s cre­den­tials for th­ese dual roles were con­sid­er­able. He was from a prom­i­nent Basque fam­ily in Sonora, Mex­ico. He was am­bi­tious, join­ing the army at the age of six­teen. He was driven, per­haps by a com­bi­na­tion of courage and vengeance (when de Anza was four years old, his fa­ther was killed by Apaches). He gained no­to­ri­ety for two mo­men­tous ex­pe­di­tions he led along the Pa­cific coast­line dur­ing the 1770s from Sonora to Alta, Cal­i­for­nia — an at­tempt to es­tab­lish a land route at a time when other Euro­pean pow­ers were also in the em­pire-ex­pand­ing busi­ness.

Most im­por­tant, even though he did not grow up in New Mex­ico, he well un­der­stood its “en­vi­ron­ment of want” and its “com­pet­ing and evolv­ing eth­nic spa­ces.” He demon­strated an as­tute sense of its chaotic ter­rains — not just those in­volv­ing geog­ra­phy, but re­li­gious, eco­nomic, and so­cial ones as well.

In­deed, Her­rera — an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of his­tory at San Diego State Uni­ver­sity-Im­pe­rial Val­ley who re­ceived his doc­tor­ate from UNM — fo­cuses on de Anza’s skills for meet­ing the in­ter­per­sonal chal­lenges of his job. There were plenty of them. For one, un­cer­tainty about the dy­nam­ics be­tween His­panos and Na­tive Amer­i­cans had hardly less­ened with greater in­ter­ac­tion. Tak­ing a tack that was con­tro­ver­sial for his era, de Anza ad­vo­cated “a free mar­ket where Spa­niard and In­dian in­ter­acted on an equal ba­sis.” In ac­cor­dance with his “peace by pur­chase” ap­proach, In­di­ans who helped de­fend the Span­ish ter­ri­tory re­ceived goods and priv­i­leges. It was “cheaper than war,” although blood­shed was never out of the ques­tion, par­tic­u­larly for any­one who main­tained a hos­tile at­ti­tude.

That mes­sage was made clear when de Anza killed the Co­manche war chief Cuerno Verde in 1779, a year into his gov­er­nor­ship. De Anza was a re­former who val­ued en­light­ened ideals, but he was, above all else, a sol­dier. In Cuerno Verde, who had long con­ducted re­tribu­tive raids against the Span­ish, de Anza found a foe as sto­ried as he was. The gover­nor ap­plied both Euro­pean and In­dian tac­tics in his fight for supremacy. Although de Anza was obliged to bend to lo­cal con­di­tions, his hand was al­ways steady and his sword was al­ways sharp.

His true dis­po­si­tion, on the other hand, has re­mained some­what shad­owy. Per­haps such an enig­matic qual­ity served his need for diplo­macy and its req­ui­site show of im­pen­e­tra­ble strength. New Mex­i­cans did not al­ways think of him in a char­i­ta­ble light, but whether they were jus­ti­fied in their ac­cu­sa­tions that he was a “tyran­ni­cal and despotic ruler” is, like his per­son­al­ity, ob­scure. His poli­cies earned him his fair share of crit­ics, among them the Fran­cis­cans, whose power he stripped away, and the cit­i­zens who may have felt he was trans­form­ing their land into a “mil­i­ta­rized buf­fer zone.” Her­rera is in­clined to fa­vor his sub­ject: De Anza “de­liv­ered to all New Mex­i­cans a re­newed hope for peace,” he writes, whereas the gover­nor’s de­trac­tors were “per­haps blinded by an in­tense de­sire to be masters of their own des­tinies.”

Her­rera’s re­search is ex­haus­tive, and his work is an ad­mirable ad­di­tion to schol­ar­ship on New Mex­ico his­tory. Juan Bautista de Anza is com­pre­hen­sive in its cov­er­age of each facet of the gover­nor’s 10 years in of­fice, from the ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal to the postal. His per­sonal life is fea­tured less promi­nently; the fo­cus is on his gov­er­nance. De Anza’s mil­i­tary and fron­tier ex­ploits are de­picted, but, again, they do not re­ceive much at­ten­tion — Her­rera is more in­ter­ested in what de Anza ac­com­plished as a bu­reau­cratic leader.

This raises the ques­tion of what he ac­tu­ally ac­com­plished. The peace he sought to es­tab­lish did not last, and he had lit­tle ef­fect on New Mex­ico’s ju­di­cial or ad­min­is­tra­tive sys­tems. Yet, he con­sol­i­dated the mission sys­tem, im­proved com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tems across the re­gion’s vast ex­panses, and main­tained in­flu­ence over New Mex­ico’s de­fense sys­tem — some­thing that was cru­cial to Spain’s con­tin­ued pres­ence in North Amer­ica. (Of course, his de­fen­sive achieve­ments ul­ti­mately weren’t great enough to keep the re­gion un­der Span­ish rule.)

De Anza’s gov­er­nor­ship at­tests to the great dif­fi­culty of be­ing ef­fec­tive amid clash­ing fac­tions and en­vi­ron­men­tal ex­trem­i­ties. That may be the key les­son of de Anza’s place in his­tory. As Her­rera writes, “The per­se­ver­ance of hu­man life . . . de­pended on the will­ing­ness of all its in­hab­i­tants to ex­tend a hand of co­op­er­a­tion across the desert land­scape.”

— Grace La­batt

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