The first commandant of Santa Cruz de Terrenate was Captain Francisco Tovar. He spent
fewer than eight months at the post before being killed in the line of duty. He and 25 men
died in an ambush at a place called Las Mesitas. The engagement took place on July 7,
1776. We know of this event because of period documents written during the aftermath of
the battle. The in-depth description of this battle against "los Indios Barbaros" who were
also referred to as "Las Apaches", provided on September 24, 1776 by Viceroy Bucareli,
provides many useful details. While the account written by Viceroy Bucareli is clearly
biased and is attempting to condemn Tovar, much valuable information is included.
This battle is important because the story surrounding it is routinely repeated, by historians
and site docents alike. The details of this battle have been retold many times, often
presented with inaccuracies and misinformation relating to the number killed and the
location of the battle. Questions have also been raised as to why Tovar ordered in troopers
to dismount at the ford. New research on this issue provides corrections for these errors and
clarification for a number of questions. An original letter from Bucarelli written after the
event has been transcribed and translated anew. In addition, new insights into details of
the battle prompted field investigations far up and downriver from the presidio in an effort
to locate the river crossing and the battlefield location itself. These field efforts provide
valuable perspectives into the battle and the actions taken on that day.
CAPTAIN FRANCISCO TOVAR'S 1776 BATTLE OF LAS MESITAS--A REVISED PERSPECTIVE
(Sometimes referred to as Tovar's Last Stand
or the first battle of Santa Cruz de Terrenate)*
Previous researchers have described this battle using secondary sources or incomplete translations of the primary document and
consequently inaccurate details have been conveyed about the event. Some state that "Tovar and 29 of his troopers lay dead" (BLM
1992; Santiago ; also cited in Collins 1997), whereas others state a total of 25 were killed (Williams 2002:5:29). An inscription on a
memorial at the presidio reads: "Real Presidio de Santa Cruz de Terrenate, 1776-1780. Muerto en Batalla: 7 July 1776, Capt. Francisco
Tovar, 29 Soldados... In fact, the original document states that Tovar and 25 soldiers were killed.
to be continued
THE MATERIAL ON THIS PAGE IS COPYRIGHTED AND SHOULD BE APPROPRIATELY CITED (C) 2013, Deni Seymour
Other sources report this battle as an attack on the presidio itself: "As late as 1775, two attacks on Terrenate took the lives of
two presidial captains, Francisco Tovar and Francisco Ignacio Trespalacios, and the majority of the presidial troops"
(emphasis added; McCarty 1976:78). "When on July 7, 1776 a large group of Apaches appeared before the presidio, Captain
Tovar decided to teach them a lesson" (emphasis added; Collins 1997). Williams (2002:5:27) describes the battle as occurring
within sight of the presidio and sentinel hill on the east side of the river: "the post sentinel shouted from the opposite side of
the river. Gazing downstream, he had seen a large force of Apaches pass on foot through the river ford from the east." He
continues "When they reached the base (e.g., the presidio), they discovered that no one was willing to form any kind of relief
force" (Williams 2002:5:29). This has prompted others to state that the same. And archaeological effort has focused on finding
the battle site in the vicinity downstream of the presidio based on these secondary accounts (Thiel 2006). Sole reliance on
documentary sources has prompted questions as to why no one else in the presidio would come to the ambushed soldiers
rescue when they could see the carnage and hear the screams from behind the presidio walls. Tovar must have been
upopular indeed. Instead, careful examination of the original letter clarifies that the battle took place many leagues from the
presidio. Moreover, while there is a ford near the presidio, it is located upstream from the presidio, not downstream, but still
it is not the location of this event.
Al día y medio de haber salido a Campaña...
A day and a half after setting out on campaign...
*Some modern sources refer to this presidio as Terrenate but the original presidio to the south was Terrenate, often referred to as
Terrenate Viejo to avoid confusion. The presidio near Fairbank was called simply Santa Cruz or Santa Cruz de Terrenate.
An important characteristic of the San Pedro River, especially in this area, and which is known even today is that safe crossings can
occur only in certain areas when the stream is running because of quicksand. Consequently the Spanish sought out fords that
provided a stable substrate. Usually this meant they were gravelly or rocky. One immediately south or upstream from Santa Cruz de
Terrenate is clearly evident as a gravel and cobble bar. Elsewhere the river channel lacks these attributes.
Importanly, four years after this batte, in 1780, Geronimo de la Rocha y Figuroa campaigned up this river, making a map and a
diary. They recorded leagues traveled and river crossings. Fords are specifically noted on the maps as is the trail taken, with
indications each time they crossed the river. This is relevant because it is reasonable to assume that just four years later the river's
characteristics would be similar. Fortunately, using Rocha's map and journal we can determine the approximate distance that
would likely have been traveled in a day and a half and the modern distances between known locations, such as the presidio and
Tres Alamos. The league distances and mileage can then be plotted relative to Rocha's map and also to modern river channel
Using this approach there are two possible crossings on Rocha's map that fall within the appropriate league distances of a day and
a half of travel (Rocha's journal indicates he traveled anywhere from 8 to 12 leagues a day along the lower and middle San Pedro)
and that therefore could be the crossing used by Tovar in 1776.
Los muertos en esta desgraciado lanzo fueron 25 hombres y el Capitan Tobar.
The dead from this unfortunate undertaking were 25 and Captain Tovar.
Crossing south of (up river from) Santa Cruz de Terrenate presidio shown on Geronimo de la Rocha's map
CROSSINGS ON THE SAN PEDRO
Most sources also suggest: "Inexplicably, he [Tovar] ordered his troopers to dismoun (sic) and fight on foot" (Santiago ; also cited
in Collins 1997). "Tovar may have also been convinced that given the broken terrain, the mud, and the rain, the men were better
off on foot...Tovar gave the order that the men were to leave their horses behind [at the presidio], and attack the Apaches at the
ford" (Williams 2002:5:27-28). Characteristics of the crossings identified on the lower San Pedro, downstream from the presidio,
indicate that this was a wise decision.
Geronimo de la Rocha's map shows crossings in relation to Santa Cruz de Terrenate
presidio and his journal states the league distances traveled between points. The two
crossings shown here were both candidates for the Tovar ambush crossing at Las
Mesitas. The task was then to choose between them based on field characteristics.
DISGRACEFUL AND INCOMPETENT ACT OR SOUND STRATEGY?
THE CROSSING AT LAS MESITAS
to be continued