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Lived: 1738-1781
Explored California in: 1771-1776
Exploring for: Spain
Explored: by land in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley

The search for a land route from the Sonora region of Mexico into California began in the mid-1500s. Father Kino had actually mapped the first part of such a trail in the early 1700s. Father Garcés was a part of the search for this route, which was completed by 1775.


Francisco Tomas Hermenegildo Garcés was born in 1738 in Morata del Conde, Spain. At the age of 15 he joined the Franciscan religious order. He was known as one who enjoyed being outdoors and walking through the countryside. As he traveled around, he earned the trust of the Indians who lived there. He lived for periods of time in Yuma Indian villages.


In 1768, Father Garcés left Spain for New Spain (Mexico), where he was assigned to the mission at San Xavier del Bac, just south of present-day Tucson in Arizona. This mission had been founded by Father Eusebio Kino, a Jesuit missionary, in 1700.

Father Kino had done a great deal of exploring in the California-Arizona border regions. He had been looking for an overland route from Mexico to California. Now, more than fifty years after Kino’s death, Father Garcés took up the exploration that Kino had begun.


Father Garcés made five journeys during the 13 years he lived at San Xavier del Bac. The first two trips were missionary journeys intended to convert the Indians to Christianity. On these trips he went only as far as the Gila River.

On the third trip made by Father Garcés, he was looking for places where new missions could be built. It was on this trip in 1771 that he first entered Alta (Upper) California. Again he went from San Xavier to the Gila River and then followed the Gila River downstream.

Garcés was looking for the Colorado River. However, rains had swollen the waters of the Gila so much that he did not realize when the Gila joined with the Colorado. Thinking he had missed the junction with the Colorado River, he crossed the river and started west across the desert. He was now in Alta California. His Indian guide soon left him and Garcés decided to turn back. He had, however, gotten far enough to see mountains to the west, and the passes through them.

In 1774 Captain Juan Bautista de Anza was given permission to try to find an overland route from Mexico to California. It was the report Garcés had made of his 1771 trip that convinced Anza that such a route was possible. Now he engaged Garcés to guide his expedition across the Colorado River and into the California desert.

Garcés took Anza as far as he himself had gone in 1771. With them also was Sebastián Tarabal, an Indian guide who helped Anza find a route on to Mission San Gabriel in the Los Angeles valley.

When Anza made his second trip in 1775 with a group of 240 settlers heading for Monterey and San Francisco, Garcés again went with him as far as the Colorado River. This time Garcés stayed near the Colorado River to do some more exploring on his own.

Early in 1776 Garcés set out northward once again from the Colorado River. He crossed the Mohave Desert and the San Bernardino Mountains, probably through what is now Cajon Pass, and reached Mission San Gabriel. This route was called the Mohave Trail. Then he kept going north over the Tehachapi Mountains into the San Joaquin Valley. His goal was to reach the mission at San Luis Obispo, close to the central California coast.

Just a few days walk short of the coast, Garcés decided to turn back. He again crossed the mountains, the desert, and the Colorado River, heading east this time, and went on into northern Arizona where the Hopi Indians lived. His plan was to go as far as the Zuni Indian villages in New Mexico, but the unfriendliness of the Hopis made him change his mind.


First, Father Garcés extended the overland route from Mexico to California, finding that there were passes through the mountains that made it possible to get to the California coast that way. His discovery is known as the entrada (opening), a breakthrough route. His explorations made Juan Bautista de Anza’s trips possible.

Second, Garcés showed that it was possible to travel between the northern California mission settlements (San Luis Obispo, Monterey, San Francisco) and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Other Franciscan padres had been looking for such a route, but had not found a pass through the mountains.


Though many men had searched for decades for an overland route from Mexico into California, when finally found it was used only briefly. Anza’s expedition in 1775 was the only large group that used this trail. It was soon too dangerous for travelers.

The Yuma Indians who lived along the Colorado River had asked for missionaries. Two mission-pueblos were established there. But the Yuma had wanted only missionaries, not soldiers or settlers. They revolted against the newcomers. The Spanish fled from the area, and the Sonora to California trail was not used again.

The Yuma chief, Salvador Palma, was a good friend of Father Garcés. Though Garcés had good relations with many of the Yuma in the past, he met his death at the hands of the Yuma of 1781.

The next attempt to establish a southern route into California was in 1825, when a Mexican, Romualdo Pacheco, went from Mexico to the Colorado River and then to the Pacific Coast via a route called the San Diego-Yuma trail.

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