Saturday, May 18, 2024

1776: How North America looked then and what was happening in the West

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The West in 1776

As we get ready to celebrate our nation’s birthday with the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia in 1776, let’s look at what was happening on the other side of North America.

On a mission

In 1774, Spain had established several military and religious outposts in Alta California. The priests and soldiers were very isolated, and sailing around Point Conception was particularly dangerous.

Spanish officer Juan Bautista de Anza wanted to pursue his father’s dream of finding an overland route from mainland Mexico to coastal California.

Sebastián Tarabal, a Native guide, helped Anza identify a desert crossing on an exploratory expedition in 1774. Once a route was established, Spain tasked Anza to lead settlers, livestock and supplies to Alta California and create a colony at a place they called el río de San Francisco.

In Massachusetts in April 1775, the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired at Lexington and Concord, while across the continent Anza was busy persuading nearly 300 people to take the overland route with him. They were a culturally diverse mix including 30 families of American Indian, European and Afro-Latino ancestry. The settlers, their military escorts and the 1,000 head of livestock included in the expedition traveled about 1,200 miles to forts and missions and across rugged wilderness for about 5½ months. It was what some call a wandering town.

On June 27, 1776, the expedition families arrived at what is now San Francisco. The expedition suffered one fatality as one of eight pregnant women on the journey died during childbirth.

The settlers built the beginnings of the Presidio of San Francisco and the Mission San Francisco de Asis. The site of the Presidio of San Francisco is now part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

The trail was used for about 40 years before the Quechan Indians closed it in 1781.

It was made a national historic trail in 1990. In 2005, Caltrans began posting signs on roads that overlap the trail route so California drivers could follow it.

The Russians are coming

Spain had laid claim to territory in what would become California, Arizona and New Mexico in the 1520s. The Sebastian Vizcaino expedition in 1602 was ordered to find safe harbors in Alta California for Spanish ships returning from the Philippines. The Vizcaino expedition along the California coast gave many places the names they have today, including San Diego, Monterey and Santa Barbara. The Spanish did not pay much attention to Alta California until they heard the Russians were making settlements in the Pacific Northwest starting in the 1730s.

Several Spanish exploration missions encountered Russians in Alaska during the mid-1700s. King Charles II of Spain ordered that Spanish settlements be established near the harbors mapped by Vizcaino in San Diego and Monterey. Spanish soldier Gaspar de Portola volunteered to lead the mission.

By 1812, the Russians established Fort Ross, in what is now Sonoma County, as their southernmost settlement in North America. The fortress flew the Russian flag until 1842.

Fort Ross is a national historic landmark and 6,000-acre state historic park. It’s the only place the Russian and Spanish empires were adjacent.

Sources: National Park Service,,

Photos from Wikimedia Commons, SCNG and The Associated Press

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