Celebrating annual commemoration of 1776 Anza Expedition in Calabasas

Mayor of Calabasas Dennis Washburn plays the Viceroy of New Spain in the annual reenactment, which took place at the Soka University campus on Sunday.

By Carla Fischer / Special to The Malibu Times

Two hundred twenty one years ago, in 1776, a group of 240 colonists, more than half whom were children, traveled 1,600 miles from northern Mexico to San Francisco Bay in what was then the largest expedition ever attempted on the North American continent. The Juan Bautista de Anza Expedition, which was commissioned by the viceroy of New Spain to carry the charter for San Francisco, encamped in Calabasas on the 22nd of February.

“The pioneers, all their cattle, horses and mules formed such a large group that some of them, it is believed, spread out into the area where the City Hall of Calabasas now stands,” wrote the late Juliana Townsend Gensley, professor emeritus of California State University, Long Beach.

Gensley wrote and produced the “Juan Bautista de Anza en Calabasas Pageant” in 1982. It is based on the diaries of de Anza and Father Pedro Font and has been performed annually since 1985.

In 1996, Calabasas dedicated the Juan Bautista De Anza Park on Lost Hills Road. Since then, small celebrations of the 1776 journey have been held at Malibu Creek State Park. This past Sunday, the Soka University of America hosted the annual event with participation of volunteers who reenacted the main characters from the expedition.


The program on Sunday began with the Chumash style purification blessing of “smudging of white sage” in an abalone shell, the Pledge of Allegiance led by Girl Scouts Troop 434 and Annie Reznik, who sang the “Star Spangled Banner. Highlights of the day’s events were Native American dancers led by Alex Little Bow in full costume along with other members of the Inter-Tribal Native American Dance Group “Tribal Winds;” Mayor of Calabasas, Dennis Washburn, played Antonio Maria Bucareli y Ursua, the viceroy of New Spain.

Robin Gensley Mitchell, daughter of Juliana Townsend Gensley, is the president of the Calabasas Anza Heritage Association and director of the reenactment at Calabasas.

Juan Bautista de Anza was born in Sonora, Mexico where he grew up with an interest in exploring the regions where he lived, getting acquainted with the natives and their languages, Mitchell explained.

“Anza wrote petitions to the government of New Spain for several years and finally received the commission from Viceroy Bucareli of New Spain to find an inland route from Sonora, Mexico to Alta, California (it was believed that Alta, California was an island), and to carry the charter for the pueblos, making what is now called San Francisco, an official Spanish pueblo,” Mitchell said. “He was to build a presidio in the San Francisco Bay area. The reason his expedition was so important was because, although the Spanish had ships going in and out of the bay, the English and the French did too. The Russians had come down below the San Francisco Bay and Spain was very concerned about all these other countries using that bay. They tried to beat the Russians and French in building a fort.”

The expedition was first was assembled in San Miguel de Horcasitas and an exploratory overland trip was taken in 1774-1775. In 1776, Anza had gathered the 240 colonists and started off with 1,000 head of livestock. (Only one person, a newborn baby, was lost during the entire trip, and two more babies were born on the trail.)

“It’s not just the encampment in Calabasas that we’re celebrating but also, there was an 11-year-old boy, Jose Bartholome Tapia, called Bartolo (played by Nolan Burkholder on Sunday),” Mitchell explained.

Legend has it that Bartolo proclaimed he would come to that area and ask the King of Spain for the right to graze his cattle. In 1802, Don Jose de Tapia did come back to the area, was given rights to land of approximately 39 square miles that extended from the ocean in Malibu up to the hills of Simi Valley-Chumash land. In the Anza and Font diaries, they both record the fact that “the Chumash were very friendly and would bring them things like fish.” Father Font, played by Don Mitchell at Sunday’s event, kept a detailed diary of all the people he saw. He tended to be critical of the Native American people he saw living in California. He didn’t like that they bathed or wore few clothes. And he was critical of Anza, reporting that, “Anza drinks brandy to excess, doesn’t offer me any and he ignores vulgar behavior among the colonists and even encourages that widowed women to organize fandangos [a fast Spanish dance] in the evening. Dancing is the Devil’s diversion.”

Anza (played by Ira Taborn) kept a diary, but it was more a chronicle of the daily activities. They would travel about 20 miles a day on a trail that Anza had traveled during the exploratory expedition the year before.

The National Park Service is working to revitalize that trail.

On March 28, 1776, the expedition arrived at the mouth of San Francisco Bay, where Anza left the colonists to establish their new home.

Previous article
Next article
The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

Related Articles





Latest Articles


%d bloggers like this: