Twelve Thousand Miles in the Saddle

Juan Bautista Valdez deserves to be remembered. Unfortunately we have only broad outlines and few details. He was a soldier in the army of La Nueva España when Gaspar de Portolá chose him to ride as courier with his 1769 expedition from San Diego, searching for Monterey Bay. The explorers left San Diego in July, two days before Father Junipero Serra founded the mission in the new land. They missed Monterey Bay in the coastal fog, but they continued north and discovered San Francisco Bay. Near starvation they had to eat a dozen mules before they got back to San Diego in January of 1770.

Soon Portolá marched north again, this time finding Monterey Bay and starting a mission and presidio there. In June 1770, he sent Valdez to Mexico City to report the founding of the two missions and the discovery of San Francisco Bay.

Viceroy Carlos de Croix sent Valdez back north with instructions to Pedro Fages, comandante of California, to explore San Francisco Bay for the purpose of establishing a presidio and a mission there. The courier left with that message on November 12, 1770, reaching Monterey six months later.

Valdez was back in Mexico City in the summer of 1773. In late Septenber he was sent north again on a 1500 mile ride to Tubac, south of the present Tucson.  This time he carried dispatches to Juan Baptista de Anza to search for an overland route betwenn Sonora and the California coast. Valdez reached Tubac in early November.

The next January Valdez guided Anza’s exploring expedition. He was selected for his knowledge of California roads and trails gained while riding as courier with Portolá.

Anza’s expedition looped down to Sonora and then back up to cross the Colorado River near present Yuma. They reached San Gabriel on March 22, 1774. On March 30 Anza sent a pack train of fifteen mules to San Diego for supplies.Valdez guided the train.

The pack train returned to San Gabriel on April 5. Two weeks later Anza sent the intrepid rider back to Mexico City with dispatches to the Viceroy. In his diary of the expedition, Anza called  Valdez the “extraordinary courier”. Two soldiers rode with Valdez to the Presidio of Altar and one continued with him to San Miguel de Horcasitas.  From there to Mexico City, almost a thousand miles, Valdez rode alone.

On all these trips Valdez rode through lands of hostile Indians who sometimes attacked intruders. Besides official dispatches to the viceroy, to local governors, and to other officials, Valdez carried the diaries kept in Anza’s expedition, plus other letters. From this priceless sources, we can extract most of what we know about the early exploration of California.

Valdez galloped into Mexico City on June 14, 1774, Viceroy Bucareli was jubilant about Anza’s success. He immediately ordered Valdez testimony to be taken under oath to preserve details about Upper California.

In his deposition, taken the day of his arrival in Mexico City, Valdez provided extensive information about the topography and geography of California, the vegetation and wild life, and his estimates of distances between major points.  It had been commonly thought that San Diego and San Gabriel were forty leagues apart and San Gabriel  and Monterey sixty. Valdez thought, based on his experiences in riding over the land, that these distances were more like sixty leagues and one hundred leagues. His estimates were remarkably close for the San Gabriel-Monterey distance and slightly exaggerated for the San Gabriel-San Diego distance.

Valdez had seen Father Junípero Serra in San Diego. He reported on the father’s health and the condition of his frigate, Nueva Galica. He also reported on Anza’s plan to continue his expedtion on to Monterey, and on the travels of Fathers Juan Diaz and Francisco Garcés, the two priests who accompanied Anza.

Valdez rode over three thousand miles with Portolá, including the reporting trip to Mexico City. He rode almost five thousand miles carrying the orders to Fages and returning to Mexico City. He rode almost four thousand miles with Anza, including the journey north from Mexico City and the return to report.

Herbert Bolton, leading historian of the Southwest, did not exaggerate when he said the extraordinary courier deserved to be remembered. It would be hard to put a price on what Juan Baptista Valdez twelve thousand miles in the saddle meant to the explorations and settlement of California.

Comments:  Alfred A. Knopf wrote this article in 1931 and as such reflects the tenor of the
early 1930’s. We now know that one of his statements is inaccurate or shall we say embellished. In his conclusion he spelled Juan’s middle name as Baptista whereas in his opening he spelled it in modern Spanish e.g., Bautista.

 Submitted by Phil Valdez, Jr.