During Hispanic Heritage Month we honor the true history of this region. This year marks the 239th anniversary of an event that occurred in what is now downtown Colorado Springs. In 1779, don Juan Bautista de Anza, the Spanish colonial governor of New Mexico, came down Ute Pass with 800 soldiers, militia, and Ute and Apache Indian allies. They were in search of the feared Comanche chief, Cuerno Verde, so called because he wore a buffalo headdress with the horns colored green. Cuerno Verde had been terrorizing the isolated colony of New Mexico on the northern frontier of New Spain. So deadly were his raids and so ineffective the response from the decaying Spanish empire that New Mexico was in mortal danger. But then Anza was appointed governor. His task was to destroy the Comanche menace and restore peace to the colony.
Anza was not a Spaniard, but a Creole, born in Sonora. Creoles ranked second in the social hierarchy of New Spain. Above them were peninsular Spaniards, who were the general officers. Below the Creoles were the mestizos, those who were a mixture of Indian and European. Further down were full-blooded Indians and Africans. In this racial caste system, Anza was considered “white” but he could not ascend into the higher ranks of the Army in spite of his proven ability as a soldier. “Los gachupines,” the Spaniards, kept him forever a lieutenant colonel. But they needed him. In 1776 he led an expedition from Sonora across the Mojave Desert and up the California coast and founded San Francisco. This was the first time that Spaniards and Mexicans had crossed the waterless desert into California. Anza did it in record time, with a large party that included women and children, and without loss of life.
To understand Anza we need to know some history. The Spanish frontier was unlike the Anglo American frontier. It was a static frontier that did not advance, like the Anglo frontier. Native Americans lost their lands on the Anglo frontier. On the Hispanic frontier Indians and Mexicans lived side by side. On August 15, 1779, Anza left Santa Fe with an army made up of Spaniards, Creoles, mestizos, Indians, and Africans, people now known as Mexicans, and marched northward into what is now Colorado. He wanted to go up the San Luis Valley, through South Park, down Ute Pass, and catch the Comanches in their usual hunting grounds, the plains east of the Front Range. The New Mexican “vecinos,” the settlers, were familiar with this vast area. They had been hunting and grazing sheep here for generations. “Los vecinos” guided the expedition down Ute Pass, and on August 31, 1779, Anza and his troops attacked a Comanche camp at the confluence of Fountain and Monument Creeks. They had surprised the Comanches, just as Anza intended. They chased the Indians for miles, down through what is now Pueblo, all the way to the foothills of Greenhorn Peak. It was near this mountain, named after the Comanche Chief, that on September 3, 1779, Anza met and defeated Cuerno Verde. It was a huge victory. Anza had saved New Mexico and perpetuated the eternal presence of Indo-Hispano people in this region.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.