In Other Words
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