Francisco Garcés – Explorer, Discoverer, Missionary & Martyr

By Mark Gutglueck and Ruth Musser Lopez
One of the truly towering figures of San Bernardino County history is Francisco Hermenegildo Tomás Garcés, a Spanish Franciscan friar who was among a secondary wave of early European explorers of the Southwest.
As a missionary and explorer in the colonial Viceroyalty of New Spain in the 18th Century, he gave the Colorado River its name. His travels covered a significant portion of North America, including present day Sonora and Baja California in Mexico, and the U.S. states of Arizona and Southern California. His death, along with those of his companion friars, by a group of Native Americans he was seeking to convert, led to his being declared a martyr by the Catholic Church, and he is at present a candidate for sainthood.
Born April 12, 1738, in Morata de Jalón, Aragon, north-central Spain. Garcés entered the Franciscan Order about 1758 and was ordained a priest in 1763 in Spain.
Garcés was dispatched by the Church to New Spain, present day Mexico, where he served at the Franciscan college of Santa Cruz in Querétaro. In an effort to exert greater control of his dominions, the Spanish king in 1768 expelled the Jesuits from their extensive mission system in northwestern New Spain, which included present-day Baja California, northwestern Mexico, and the southwestern United States, replacing them with Franciscans. Garcés, who was among the Franciscan replacements, was assigned to Mission San Xavier del Bac in the Sonoran Desert, near present-day Tucson, Arizona.
The expulsion and departure of the Jesuits by the King of Spain had a dynamic and far-reaching effect on the existing missions and prompted an even more energetic mission outreach effort The missions in the Sonoran Desert in the present-day Mexican state of Sonora and those in the current day U.S. state of Arizona fell at once under the authority of the Franciscans from the college of Santa Cruz in Querétaro. More significantly, the exchange of authority over the Spanish New World mission system resulted in the ascendancy of Father Junipero Serra, who was among the Franciscans from the college of San Fernando in Mexico City assigned to replace the Jesuits in the Baja California missions of the lower Las Californias Province.
Serra’s energetic presence and leadership of the Baja California Franciscans had a dramatic effect in the expansion of Spanish and Catholic influence northward as he took seriously the assignment, given in 1769, to increase Spanish presence in the unsettled upper Las Californias Province, otherwise referred to as Alta California, i.e., present day California. In 1773, control of the Baja California missions was transferred to the Dominican friars, while the creation of new missions was entrusted to the Franciscans. The Viceroy of New Spain and local Franciscans recognized the importance of establishing an overland connection between upper Las Californias and central New Spain – for defense, trade, and travel – through the Sonoran Desert, crossing the lower Colorado River and the Colorado Desert, and through the peninsular ranges to the Alta California missions and presidios (forts) in the new coast region.
Garcés became a key player in this effort, conducting extensive explorations in the Sonoran, Colorado, and Mojave Deserts, the Gila River, and the Colorado River from the Gulf of California and Lower Colorado River Valley to the Grand Canyon.
In 1768, he explored the Gila and Colorado River Valleys, both down the Colorado to the Gulf of California and up it to the Grand Canyon and overland to several Hopi villages.
Garcés provided a wealth of information for later historians, anthropologists and archeologists as he made copious recordings of his encounters with Native American tribes, among them the Quechan, Mojave, Hopi, and Havasupai, in their desert and riparian valley homelands. Throughout this, he remained true to the overarching mission of establishing and maintaining cordial relations for the Spanish Crown.
Many journeys he took were explorations on his own initiative and peril into the vast desert regions.
He accompanied soldier-explorer Juan Bautista de Anza part way in both his large overland expeditions: the 1774 De Anza Expedition – first to reach Alta California’s Pacific coast from the east; and the 1775-76 Anza Colonizing Expedition, which traveled as far north as San Francisco Bay. The route Garcés took from the Colorado River across the Mojave Desert is known to four-wheel-drive adventurers today as the Mojave Road.
The 1774 De Anza Expedition made its way through what is present day San Bernardino County.
Here follows a passage, translated by Brigadier General (USMC Retired) Maurice G. Holmes, from Father Garcés’ diary:
“In continuation of the reports which Lieutenant Colonel Don Juan Bautista de Anza has sent you, it has occurred to me (improving the occasion of sending for wine in order to say Mass) to inform you how I have come down this river passing through the tribes, Cajuenches, Tallicuamais or Quiguimas, and Cucarpa. I came to the ocean where I observed and tasted the water besides noting the flood and ebb of the tides as I told you in my diary.”
The passage continues, “The Indians of the sierra gave me accounts of the priests in both Californias, Upper and Lower. The three nations or groups of people who inhabit this river line down to the sea have received me as I had not expected, showing me all the courtesies they possibly could, although the Cucapa [sic] were at war and very sad on account of their great losses. These had been inflicted upon them by the Yumas, Cajuenches, and Tallicuamais but, thank God, the joy of peace has been attained. This very day, Palma tells me that some Indians will come in here who formerly were enemies.”
“All the four nations aforesaid, and the Pimas and the Cocomaricopas from the Gila River, are awaiting with pleasure and great eagerness the coming of the priests and the Spaniards to their country, as they have told me repeatedly,” The diary passage continues. “Their land is well-suited to the production of every sort of grain. In the greater portion, especially along the Colorado, it is adapted to raising cattle and horses. Although with respect to the location of towns, this Colorado terrain does not offer the greatest advantages due to widespread overflowing of the river, yet, some tablelands adaptable for town locations are not lacking. So it is, that in some areas, plantings will have to be made on the other side of the stream.”
The passage concludes, “I hope that God our Lord may grant me the same felicity among the nations upstream to which, God willing, I intend to start out soon.”
In 1775, Garcés, became the first European to meet the native inhabitants of eastern San Bernardino County, the Mojave Indians.
On his pioneering missionary journey up the Colorado River in 1776 Garcés christened the Mojave (Aha Macav) rancherias and farming community there “Santa Isabel.” More than a century later, in the 1880s railroad officials renamed the area Needles in reference to the sharp prominent peaks to the south.
According to Garces’ diary, farming communities had been established well prior to European contact with the Americas, and this has been verified by other archaelogical evidence, including radio carbon dating of the remains of preserved corn kernels to indicate maize was being cultivated via incipient farming technology in San Bernardino County for over 2,000 years.
Two members of the Mojave tribe accompanied Garcés on his journey to the coast. Garcés’s route took him through lands occupied by the seasonally migratory Chemehuevi. He documented in his diary in considerable detail his encounters with the Chemehuevi, and described the route now known as the Mojave Road.
In 1779 Garcés and Juan Diaz established two mission churches on the lower Colorado River at Yuma Crossing, as part of a new pueblo), in the homeland of the Quechan peoples, known also as the Yuma or Kwítsaín. Garcés endeavored to keep peace between all parties. The formerly peaceful rapport with the Quechan was lost due to Spanish settlers violating the treaty with the native peoples, such as seizing their crops and farmlands.
On July 17, 1781, Diaz and Padre Juan de Barreneche were killed during the first day of hostilities involved in a civil resistance uprising at the Mission San Pedro y San Pablo de Bicuñer, known as the Yuma Uprising and Yuma Revolt. Two days later,on July 19, 1781, Garcés and José Moreno were killed in the latter part of the same uprising.
Garcés’ body was later reinterred at Mission San Pedro y San Pablo del Tubutama. He and the other friars killed at those missions are considered martyrs by the Catholic Church.

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