The 36 Remarkable Women of the Anza Expedition

Women’s History post: The year is 1775. You are traveling to Spanish California, riding horseback 1200 miles, mostly on desert trails. Now imagine those three months bouncing on a mare while expecting a child! In 1775, eight out of 36 women on the Second Anza Expedition were pregnant on the journey.

The Second Anza Expedition brought 36 Spanish, Catholic families northwest to settle in California. The ethnicities were a mix of Spanish, African and Indigenous people. The group of 240 set out in late October of 1775 from Tubac, New Spain (Mexico), in order to travel the Sonora Desert during the winter. Almost half were children; 115 of them. Capitán Juan Bautista de Anza received all the recognition for the group reaching California with only one person losing their life. Perhaps the women of the expedition deserve a bit of credit as well.

This week I had the impulse to write fiction about the Second Anza Expedition. Historically, three men wrote about these travels. My writings are based on their diaries. I imagined the journey from a female point of view:

María’s Story

In 1775, Capitán Anza made my husband a Sergeant and invited our family to travel with him to California to build and populate the Misión San Francisco. That’s wonderful, but I am sad to leave Sonora. My father’s family has lived here for one hundred years. My mother’s family has lived here for more than 20 generations. The Capitán is depending on us in his expedition. We don’t want to disappoint him. Capitán Anza generously provided each family with horses, blankets, tents, clothes, shoes and food for the journey, presents from the King. The travel will be hard, but we will have enough to eat and good, new clothes on our backs and shoes that fit. My husband says our family will be a cornerstone in a new land. This is a blessing. We are fortunate. Yet, I will miss my ancestors’ land.

We are preparing for the expedition. Our fourth child, María Evangélica was born this summer. She will ride with me in my rebozo (baby sling), slung over my shoulders resting near my belly so I can keep her fed. My comadre who is godmother to my children, Manuela Piñuelas, is close to her time. I pray her bebé will be delivered an evening before we depart. Three compañeras (women friends) lost the child within them en route to Horcasitas. I petition the Saints for my comadre’s safe delivery of her little one. Her family and ours and one more will share a tent at night. I will help her however I can.

Heaven help my comadre Manuela’s soul. The first ride out was 10 miles and her waters broke as she rode. Capitán Anza was merciful and stopped our party to make camp. My husband took over our brood, except for tiny María, and I held my comadre’s hand as she sweated and groaned. Praise the miracle of new life blessing our journey. But, my dear friend… Her labor would not end. The life ebbed from her as her tiny son, José Antonio, cried for milk. She was still forever, and he was frantic to eat. I was left with two infants to feed. Her son and my daughter became milk brother and sister that night.

One day later, we were back on our horses. My comadre unforgotten, as I rode her Josecito sought nourishment on one side, my María on the other. I slung two creatures to my chest for each day’s ride. I “cried” milk for her son rather than salt for my dearest friend. My husband worries for me, that I cannot feed two, that our little María will suffer. I tell him not to fret, women survive twins and twins prosper. But when our tent mate offers to give sustenance to Josecito at night when she feeds her own son, I accept. Bless her.

Day after beginning day brought many silent tears to the wives of the soldiers. The unspoken complaints were not about the squirming little children sharing the horse with their mothers (or their fathers). It was the pregnant women who tried not to faint as the motion of the horse shook their loose bones. Like flies, the sand in our hair, our eyelashes, our rebozos, that we do not have enough water to wash away plagues us. As we cooked in the late afternoon, I consoled them saying, “We are together, we are well fed, we will get to California.” Small smiles. I told them to rest and I served the food.

We stand tall as military wives. The discipline of up at dawn, a hearty but quick meal, and break camp is part of our nature. After a week, our thighs were no longer sore at the end of the day. When the mornings find them ill, two pregnant women still lean over their horses and aim their lost breakfast away from the children sitting in front of them. Two others are getting quite far along. When will their hour arrive? Little José’s mother, my comadre, was a warning what could befall them. So, we do not speak of it, not even in our tents. I could not bear if giving birth were these compañeras’ last act of sacrifice as well. I pray every day we ride that they become stronger.

Three weeks and the birthing pains come to another mother. But the evening is not joyful, for the child slipped away. We are thankful that the mother lived. Blessings to Capitán Anza, he understood the wisdom of staying in place several days as she rested. All of us understand her sadness. Early evening, we send our children to play with hers, so she can rest. We set them loose in the brush saying all but serpents, scorpions and saguaros are fair game in amusing themselves, as long as they return the precise moment we call them for dinner. They are hungry from the day’s ride clutching their mother or father’s sides and obey.

The people of the land we passed through are kind. Capitán Anza called them heathens. Father Font called them souls. I call them brothers and sisters of my mother’s people. They treated us like visitors in their land. We spoke no language in common, but through signs the women told us they would provide us herbs. Sympathetic to the greenish faces of the mothers whose labor came before its time, they gave us remedies to help the women heal and more for a rainy day. To me and fourteen other nursing mothers they gave us milk thistle to increase our flow.

Three days after the latest 7 hour ride, Anna María de Osuna gave birth to a baby boy, Diego Pascual. All of us are rejoicing for the mother and her family. Alleluia! Both are well. Three days rest, well earned. Our Capitán is generous. Then, the next mother was not so fortunate. After that abrupt end to her growing joy, her eyes looked ever at the ground. We had to press her to eat each night and take her remedy. However, joy again, on Christmas Eve, our blessed event mirrored that of our Lady. Salvador Ignacio was born to Señora Gertrudis Linares and to us early on Christmas morn. For his and his mother’s’ sake, we spent one day of rest. Would that the miracle would warrant more. But the Capitán knows best. Heaven helped us through those high hills the next day. Two days later, we stopped again for Gertrudis’ sake…

Eighty-eight days on horseback, twelve hundred miles. Through the thirsty desert we passed. Then we wept to see snow for the first time, on mountain peaks. Despite our troubles of torrential rains, riding for hours again and again, fording rivers, feeling icy in snowstorms, freezing cold, and trembling through earthquakes, we are safe. Soon our journey north will bless us with a new land to live. We know our good fortune of having reached San Gabriel in early 1776 with no more than one woman and five little angels lost. With praise to our Lady, as dictated to my confessor, Father Font. Signed X.


The Second Anza Expedition was an important in the founding of Spanish California. It brought the Pico family grandparents to their new home! For a really cool look at the geography covered and the diary entries for this historic trip, check out the Anza Trail Explorer.

Have you ridden a horse all day? How did you feel afterwards? ¡Olé! –Rebecca

Sonora Desert Photo: gailhampshire

Rebecca Cuningham

44 thoughts on “The 36 Remarkable Women of the Anza Expedition

      1. Haha! We are on a roll this morning.
        My historical education, or better said, education pertaining to history 😉 has many gaps, so I appreciate you taking the time research and share. Your piece mentions Tubac. Have you been? If not, it is a fun destination. Small, but interesting. San Xavier Mission is also another nearby worthwhile visit.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hee hee. Did the women ride side saddle? I don’t have the Anza! I guess they didn’t : ) The research is very fun, I enjoy it. I haven’t been to Tubac or San Xavier Mission, thanks for the recommendation. -R

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Fascinating. I knew nothing of this. I have an Anglo-centric knowledge of America’s history beginning with the Pilgrim Fathers, leavened with a big dose of Little House on the Prairie, and finishing by knowing how the Irish came over in their thousands. Your story brings to life the tremendous courage and suffering of so many peoples who came to call America home.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rebecca thanks so much for sharing that amazing story of the 1775 Anza Expedition. Your account from Maria’s viewpoint is heartfelt, making real the difficulties that women faced in those days when traveling on horseback over great distances.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I like this story, you make it real, the daily ordeal those expeditions were, specially for the women and children, as a child in Mexico before TV used to hear the old folks talking about the old people our ancestors, way back to the French Invasion of Mexico, and listen to many anecdotes of the sufferings of traveling during those days, and since I have read quite a few books about the early missions in Sonora, Baja, and California, and since i have lived at different times on those places, I got first hand knowledge of many places, South, and North from the border, plus many ties to the land by generations of family members spread out from Jalisco, Nayarit, Sinaloa, Sonora, Baja California, and California, and will be a surprise to many, but in certain remote places of Mexico that way of life it’s common.
    [RC: video includes scenes of Mexican cowboys processing hides, and good shots of landscape]

    Liked by 1 person

  4. An arduous journey, indeed! Reading stories about such people in history (especially women) really makes you step back and reflect on the fortunes and opportunities had, thanks to your ancestors who braved the hardships in order for you to have a good life. Never take it for granted, that’s for sure!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Rebecca for your viewpoint. I think it’s difficult for us to imagine the modes of transportation, personal care and communications of 170 years ago. It’s easy for us to take our modern comforts and ancestors difficulties for granted. Excellent point!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. More great history in a differrnt “voice”. The names in your posts all have more meaning to me know, after living in CA for 20 yrs. Before they were just street names, park names and recteation areas. Since I am not a native Californian, I didn’t study its history…now a lot of it means alot more knowing the history. Thanks a bunch.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comments, Larry. I enjoy the research and bringing the stories to the forefront that have lain in shadows so long. I learn so much and can reimagine the history of our country.


  6. I really enjoyed this post, Rebecca! Thank you for sending me the link. I look forward to following your blog. The story in this post was completely new for me. I love how you wrote a fictionalized version from a woman’s point-of-view.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for visiting and commenting, Janet. I appreciate the compliments. It was my first foray into historical fiction in a decade. I enjoyed finding out as much as I could about these courageous women and spinning their stories. Welcome to Fake Flamenco! Thanks for your support.


  7. Què interesante y llena de vida la narración de este evento. Al leer me sentí dentro del viaje con las mujeres y sus padecimientos. Me imaginé la incomodidad que sintieron antes y después de los partos. Me pareció genial y…ole! 💃 Sugerencia pq no convocas a escribir un cuento corto sería un buen ejercicio.😶

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This is a great story, Rebecca. I can’t imagine any of what they went through. What a tough, tough life they led. Talk about challenges! You brought them to life so well. Thanks for sharing your posts. You are so talented. )

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Marsha, thank you for your lovely reply. It means a lot to me that you felt the challenges of the brave women on the expedition. They were such a historical side note and I thought they deserved more. I appreciate the compliment. Have an excellent new year!

      Liked by 1 person

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