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Dirt (Part 2)

The Spaniards—a mixture of Spanish, Basque and Indians—were the first Europeans to settle here in the Santa Clara Valley. Captain Juan de Anza, a Basque, led what I believe is the greatest migration in local history. He left the garrison town of Tabac, in what is now southern Arizona, in the dead of winter 1775-76, with 241 men, women and children. They were to arrive in California with 242; one woman died during childbirth and two were born on the harrowing, three month, overland journey. Because water was so scarce in the Sonoran and Mojave deserts that the party had to cross, de Anza split the party into two divisions so that the limited waterholes would have a chance to recharge.

Why were the Spaniards in California? The answer is twofold. In 1496, Pope Alexander IV divided the world into two parts because of conflict between Spain and Portugal who were trying to get to the riches of China and the Orient. With dominion over the Philippines, Spanish galleons sailed from Manila loaded with silks, spices and treasures by the Great Circle Route, eventually coming down the west coast on the Humboldt Current to Acapulco. The goods were then transported across Mexico and shipped onward to Spain.

It was a dangerous journey. The sailors often suffered from scurvy, and pirates, like Sir Francis Drake, tried to intercept the galleons off the west coast. The Spanish administration proposed that the Manila galleons put in at California ports to restock with fresh vegetables, but usually the captains preferred to continue, being so close to their destination. Another threat was the Russians who came down from Alaska and established Fort Ross in northern California.

In order to reduce the threats, the Spanish colonized lower and central California. Catholic priests were sent to convert the local Indians, attempting to educate them to become Mexican citizens and eventually take ownership over the lands. Unfortunately, the task proved too difficult as the Indians had no concept of land “ownership” and didn’t want it.

Before the Spanish came, the Indians were living quite well on acorn mush, acorns being plentiful in the Llano de Robles, plain of the oaks. There were fish in the streams—salmon, trout and steelhead—and lots of small and large frogs and birds. The streams ran year round and the weather was mild, so the Indians didn’t need to build permanent shelters, like their counterparts in the northwest and southwest.

In order to put their plan for the Indians in place, the mission system was introduced by the Spanish, bringing the concepts of permanent settlement and agriculture to the Native Americans. Next week, I’ll tell how the dirt under our feet became the foundation of this new agricultural economy.