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A loss to our heritage

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Ed Quillen | Dec 14, 2010 12:00 AM

As a history buff, I enjoyed reading the HCN article about the preservation of old missions in Arizona -- until I got to the end, where I read that Don Garate had died on Sept. 21. 

I knew Don, though not well, thanks to our shared interest in Juan Bautista de Anza, a Spanish soldier and colonial administrator who established a settlement on San Francisco Bay in 1776.

In 1779, as governor of New Mexico, Anza led a campaign against the Comanche who had been raiding Taos-area settlements. Anza's journal  of that campaign is the first written account of the northern San Luis Valley and the upper Arkansas valley -- my part of the world.

In honor of Anza's visit in August of 1779, in many years I've helped organize "Anza Day" in Poncha Springs, inviting a historian to speak as we gathered at the spot where Anza's army camped. 

On two occasions -- in 1997 and 2004 -- we had the good fortune to get Don Garate here. His impersonation  of Anza brought to life an oft-forgotten aspect of our local heritage, and the audience loved him. People would ask me when we'd get him back, and I was hoping we'd manage it in 2011. 

Alas, that is not to be. Don had written a biography of Anza's father (also a soldier named Juan Bautista de Anza) and was working on a three-volume biography of Governor Anza. I haven't been able to find out whether he finished it, but I sure hope to read it someday. 

Anza is an important figure in the history of the American southwest. When he became governor of New Mexico in 1878, the Pueblos, Utes, and Hispanic settlers in the Taos area suffered from Comanche raids. Previous governors' efforts -- pursuing the Comanche east into their own domain, the Staked Plains -- had been ineffective. 

Anza hit on a different plan: March north through the San Luis Valley, then east to the Plains and south to meet the raiders as they emerged from the mountains. He defeated the Comanche, and more importantly, made a lasting peace with them. He agreed to trade with them, and they agreed to quit raiding New Mexico.

In a wonderful book  I read this fall (Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History) author S.C. Gwynne points out that Anza was the only Spanish territorial governor to succeed in dealing with the Comanche, who continued to raid Texas well into the 19th century.

If there had been on Anza, the Comanche might well have pushed the Spanish frontier south clear to El Paso, and the Santa Fe we know today would be a very different place.

And if it hadn't been for Don Garate, we'd know much less about this important, if neglected, portion of our region's history. And as I've been learning , that's only a part  of Garate's career. He was generous with his knowledge and his talents, and had a great roaring sense of humor. The West is a poorer place without him. 

Ed Quillen is a freelance writer in Salida, Colorado.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.


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