Joe Myers is not your average history buff.

A chance encounter in a bookstore decades ago put the retired chemist on the trail of an 18th-century Spanish Empire explorer, and now he’s meticulously retracing the explorer’s steps through a combination of computer programs and diaries of the expedition.

“My goal is to use modern technology and pinpoint where the campsites were at,” the Oro Valley resident said.

In 1775, Juan Bautista de Anza set out from Tubac through Marana to San Francisco with 300 colonists and 1,000 head of cattle, making them the first modern settlers of the Bay Area.

More than 230 years later, cars whizzed by Myers, who stood beside Interstate 10. He explained that 1700s New Spain and modern Arizona were not all that different.

“I think in Anza’s time, this was kind of like an interstate,” Myers said, noting that many of today’s roads likely grew from Indian trails.

Prior to the 1960s, relatively little was known about Anza. He moved back into contemporary consciousness when he was reburied in Arizpe, Mexico, in 1963 and later during the bicentennial celebration, when people in the Southwest wanted to celebrate someone a little more close to home than George Washington.

While American colonists were making a stand at Bunker Hill, Anza was headed for the opposite coast to help establish what would one day become one of the largest cities.

Don Garate knows better than most what Anza was like.

As an interpretive guide at Tumacacori National Historical Park, Garate is Anza, dressing up like the explorer in Novo-Spanish garb and providing a first-person interpretation of what it was like in the mid-1700s Southwest.

Garate, who has penned several books on Anza’s life, is drawn to his story because he was essentially a local guy who knew the area well and was selected to lead an important trek.

“I took the job in Tumacacori in 1990, and that’s the same year that they created the trail,” said Garate, who recently spoke, in character, at the dedication of the Marana Heritage Park.

The park will feature the most ambitious component of Anza’s legacy: a re-creation of Anza’s path through the Marana area.

When the National Park Service created the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail 18 years ago, the goal was to identify the historic trail, mark a driving route on nearby highways and create a running and biking path that stretches along the 1,200-mile path.

So far, the auto route is marked through most of California and part of Arizona, said Stanley Bond, the trail’s superintendent at the National Park Service.

The walking path is another story. Four of the five counties the Anza Trail passes through have the path in their general parks plans.

Thanks to a good relationship between the parks service and Pima and Santa Cruz counties, 17 miles of the path currently exist in Pima County, and Santa Cruz County should have the complete 40 miles paved by 2012, Bond said.

But it’s the search for Anza’s exact footsteps that drives Joe Myers.

By following the journals of Anza and a Franciscan priest who also made the journey, he is able to plot the expedition on modern computer mapping software to get an estimate on which route the party took. At camp number 19, Myers pulls out a three-ring binder, a “kind of Bible” he calls it, loaded with maps and descriptions.

Site 19 is now a housing development and park near Silverbell Road and Coachline Boulevard. In Anza’s day, it was known as Puerto del Azotado, port of the whipped, after the method of punishment for two would-be deserters.

“This is my favorite campsite, it’s easy to get a feel for it,” he said.

Due to the mountainous pass that Silverbell cuts through, it’s easy to imagine away the parks and houses to see the land as the Spanish settlers saw it.

That vision first captured Myers’ imagination when he was a student purchasing an Arizona history book in Scottsdale. The clerk recommended a bookstore in the Twin Cities, where Myers was from. It was there that Myers found a five-volume set on Anza’s expedition.

Surprised at how little was written about Anza, Myers decided to research the explorer further.

“They give more coverage to groundhogs,” he said of encyclopedias.

The various first-person and academic accounts of the trip are fairly thorough, but they differ slightly.

“This is probably one of the best-documented trails in my opinion, and it’s probably the one we know the least about,” Myers said.

The recent resurfacing of one of the original diaries in the Vatican will better help Myers find the trail. A new translation of the diary was sent to Myers by an eighth-generation descendant of Anza’s courier.

His research points out that there are several differences between the planned recreational path and the actual route Anza took. The buildings in the way make it impossible for a re-creation of the exact trail. And for many, that’s OK.

“Most people could care less if he was on that side or this side of the river,” Myers admitted.


The Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza was born to Basque parents in 1736 in present-day northern Mexico.

While not credited with discovering San Francisco Bay, Anza was instrumental in founding the city. In 1776, he led a group of colonists to the area and selected the site for what would become the Presidio of San Francisco.  

After his forays into Alta California, Anza was appointed governor of New Mexico and, later, commander of the Presidio of Tucson. He died in 1788 before taking office.

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