n the north end of Continental Ranch where the tract homes of the Marana suburbs come to a halt, there's a small patch of desert where 228 years ago a group of weary travelers paused on a cool October night, a man was scourged, and a trail of history was left behind.
Standing in the midst of the Puerto del Azotado - The Mountain Pass of the Whipped Man - there's nothing now to indicate the historic human endeavor that passed from here north to Casa Grande and west all the way to San Francisco.
With the traffic hissing past on nearby Silverbell Road, it's difficult to imagine the hardships and dangers encountered during the journey of Juan Bautista de Anza and his 240 colonialists as they traveled by foot and horseback from present-day Mexico, to arrive here, in what is now modern-day Marana.
But that may soon change. Slowly and persistently, the story of the journey that followed the course of the nearby Santa Cruz River is being brought forward from the shadow of history.
Marana, Tucson, Pima County and a dedicated group of citizens who have labored more than a decade are working to commemorate the journey of the Spanish commander, who with his 198 emigrants, 1,000 head of cattle and flying squad of soldiers in polished armor, endured the trail to San Francisco in 1775.
Plans call for identifying and improving de Anza's 70 miles of trail and six camp sites that string along the Santa Cruz through the length of Pima County. The segments being developed will eventually link to the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail that stretches 1,250 miles from Nogales to San Francisco.
Some segments of the route in Southern Arizona, such as the portion between the 18th century mission at Tumacacori and presidio at Tubac, are completed and drawing visitors, while other portions remain a dream for supporters of the trail.
Locally, the dream is slowly becoming a reality. Pima County is currently working on developing the Canoa Ranch portion near Green Valley and Marana is developing its segment between Cortaro and Twin Peaks roads, said Roger Anyon, cultural resources coordinator for Pima County.
"The trail has tremendous significance as the first overland colonizing expedition for the Spanish empire in the Southwest," Anyon said. "It's a real cultural resource for the entire region and when it's completed, it will be a great recreational resource. Ideally, when it's done, people will be able to hike all the way from Nogales to San Francisco."
Anyon said there was no estimate available for when the trail would be continuous in Pima County, but he's confident the full trail will eventually be developed.
"We see this is a long term project, putting it together piece by piece, segment by segment," Anyon said.
Captain de Anza was commander of the Tubac presidio when he was charged by the colonial authorities with opening a land route to the fertile regions of Alta California. He enlisted most of his volunteers from Culiacan, Sinaloa and Horcasitas, the provincial capital of Sonora, where the poor of New Spain would more likely serve as willing emigrants.
The party moved north and marshaled at Tubac before setting off on its five and half month journey on Oct. 23, 1775.
The expedition, with its teams of pack mules loaded with an estimated six tons of beans, flour and other provisions, followed the Santa Cruz north to the Gila River and onward west to the Colorado. They crossed the burning deserts of southeastern California to San Gabriel before moving up the coast through Monterey and ultimately to San Francisco.
Historians today marvel at the fortitude of the colonialists. Passing through the lands of the Apaches and crossing the arid deserts posed a serious risk to the small party, but remarkably, only one member was lost - a woman who died in childbirth as the party approached La Canoa, a village south of Tucson.
Locations for most of the trail and campsites were identified by the diaries of de Anza and other members of the expedition. Friar Pedro Font, a Franciscan missionary, served as de Anza's chaplain and kept one of the livelier accounts. He recorded his impression of the group's brief sojourn in Marana on Oct. 27, 1775.
"From the pueblo of Tuquison a Pima Indian village located at the base of Sentinel Peak in Tucson, and the namesake of the city we set out at one o'clock in the afternoon and a little before six we halted at a plain in sight of a rugged and low sierra called by the Indians La Frente Negra 'The Black Front' referring to the black volcanic rock of the Tucson Mountains near the present day Rattlesnake Pass] just before entering the pass which we called the Puerto del Azotado, and which we threaded the next day ….
"Before setting out two muleteers hid intending to run away on foot. Immediately, the Indians of El Tuquison were informed, in order that they might pursue them, and at night eight Indians came with one of the fugitives under arrest, whom they had immediately found.
"The runaway was given 12 blows on the spot and imprisoned in the guardhouse, and for this reason they named the place the Puerto del Azotado," Font wrote.
The Puerto del Azotado is now a trash strewn parcel of desert west of the Santa Cruz, but plans by Marana and Pima County could make it a significant stop on the de Anza trail.
Marana expects to have its portion of the trail completed in the next year, said Ron Smith, the town's parks and recreation director.
"It's about a four-mile hard-surface trail through Continental Ranch for hiking and biking and there will also be a soft-surface trail for horseback riding and for people who prefer the less improved route. We're working with the county and other agencies to make it a reality and we're really excited about being part of the national trail," Smith said.
Other indications of life for the trail are also beginning to manifest in Marana. Small brown signs designating Silverbell and other nearby roads in the town as auto routes for the de Anza Trail were erected about three months ago along the roadsides.
Trail supporters are hoping voters approve a Pima County bond measure scheduled for May 18 that would allocate $3.7 million to further develop the trail. The money would be spent on securing needed rights of way, research, interpretive signage and actual trail construction, said G. Donald Kucera, a founding member of the Anza Trail Coalition of Arizona.
Kucera and the other 100 or so unpaid members of the coalition have devoted countless hours over the last 10 years to developing the trail through Arizona.
"The trail will bring forward a period of history that is important but not very well represented here in Arizona, unlike in New Mexico or California," Kucera said. "I think it also connects the different areas that relate to the Spanish colonial period. It links the history of Southern Arizona, the missions of Mexico and the colonies of California in a tangible way."
The route followed by de Anza was designated a National Historic Trail by Congress in 1990. In 1999 the de Anza trail was selected by the White House Millennium Council and the U.S. Department of Transportation as a National Millennium Trail.
Millennium Trails "are the roads, rivers and routes that best illustrate the Amer-ican story," according to the White House proclamation. The de Anza trail joined such luminary routes as the Appalachian National Scenic Trail and is one of only 16 Millennium Trails in the nation.
A plan for the Mexican government to develop 600 miles of the trail through Mexico from Culiacan, Sinaloa to Nogales could result in the de Anza Trail becoming the first international historic trail in the world.