Casa Real de Bucay
1st Capital of Abra
6. Provincial consolidation effort:
the Tajonera expeditions

Until the end of the 19th Century the only way to reach the Cagayan Valley was by boat to Aparri or by blazing a trail by mule through the Caravallo mountains. The latter was not a solution. It was an extremely inconvenient and dangerous way to do it and was minimally acceptable only for personal travel not for transport of merchandise and other cargo. The former was not the best solution as it took the best of a week to complete the over 400 nautical-mile trip by sea just to Aparri in the north of Cagayan Valley, and several weeks of raft and trail travel to reach the southern end of the valley towards Santa Fe in Nueva Vizcaya, some 285 kms as the crow flies.

The beginnings of efficient communication by road with the Cagayan Valley had to wait till Fr. Villaverde opened the 74-km Camino de San Nicolas (San Nicolas Trail, now called Villaverde Trail), a horse trail finished in 1890, well paved, from San Nicolas, Pangasinan, to Santa Fe and Aritao, Nueva Vizcaya on the southern confines of Cagayan Valley. His intention was to build it wide enough to accommodate wheeled traffic but the Government failed to provide the necessary support for the project and the good Father died before he could see his dream fulfilled..35

Communications between Ilocos and Isabela in the Cagayan Valley were the stuff of an old dream, as old as the first third of the 19th Century, so difficult in execution that they remain extremely difficult to our days. To the northwest of Camino de San Nicolas and forty years earlier, Governor Tajonera undertook at least three military expeditions from Bucay to the Cagayan Valley between 1849 and 1851 while being the Governor of Abra.

Tajonera’s expeditions to Cagayan Valley were not the first. But what set them apart probably was the macropolitical context in which they were undertaken. Already in 1829, Tomas Cortes postulated “comfortable, safe and all-weather roadways from the center of the kingdom to all its ends, and from provincial capitals to all towns” as the most effective way to “turn all individuals of a Nation into members of a single family, to ensure easy traffic of goods from cities and countryside, and to multiply the frequency and speed of travel so that ideas can spread and contribute to growth accelerating the civilizing process and increasing wealth.”36

The main objective of these expeditions is mentioned several times during the processing of Tajonera’s request for reimbursement of funds spent in the incursions “to reduce to the Government of His Majesty the races in the heathen territory traversed by them (military columns under his command.)”37  Several functionaries in charge of processing Tajonera’s request also talk in the same terms and one adds that the captain was “ordered to undertake these incursions into the mountains in order to attract the heathens by means of persuasion as well as the force of arms.”38  These objectives show that the expeditions undertaking sought no more than a completion of the objectives for which Abra was made into a province in the first place.39

Details from the expedition of 1849 related here (see transcript at end of the Appendix to the study) are taken from the private papers of Ex-Ambassador Rosario Cariño. The author recommends reading them with the caveats expressed in the last two paragraphs of the Foreword to this study.

The Cariño papers place these expeditions within the context of an ambitious Plan de Ocupación del Norte de Luzon, an occupation plan for Northern Luzon. The plan was one of several to achieve the effective dominion of the Crown of Spain over vast territories not yet under the control of the Government, neither covered until then by the evangelization activities of the Catholic Church. In the process, towns would be organized to concentrate population, communications established and used for commerce and security and economic activity such as tobacco planting would be encouraged. This formed part of the reaction of the Spanish Government to the loss of the American Colonies, an effort to do things “better” and do them from a prevailing liberal attitude towards the colonized. To execute this plan in Northern Luzon, the Province of Abra was created, a governor at the same time  political and military was chosen, and an operational base was established by founding Bucay, the Capital of Abra, in the site of a mere rancheria near an important military installation (Fuerte General Martinez) and on a strategic promontory overlooking the river which marked the boundary between the government-controlled area and the unexplored territory of Tinguians, Igorots, Gaddans and other minorities or tribes as they were customarily called in the 19th Century. The expeditions blazed trails over a vast territory with nuclei of very hostile populations and from the point of view of the Spanish, unexplored and of extremely difficult terrain. Nothing short of a formidable challenge.

The main result of these expeditions was the incorporation into the Spanish Crown of more than 200 villages and settlements with some sort of communication between them and between the main towns and the newly incorporated towns.

Another important consequence of the expeditions was the expansion of agriculture to new areas, particularly the cultivation of tobacco, and the consequent opening of trails for trade. In the letter of request previously noted, Tajonera comments that his expeditions brought political advantages to the Government as well as economical in favor of the Treasury and Revenue offices, the latter from the expansion of the cultivation of tobacco to the new territories under control. This was an endeavor close to his heart, the Governor worked very hard to expand the cultivation of tobacco in the whole province in an effort to develop its economy as mentioned elsewhere in this study.

Of comparatively less importance but nevertheless a primary necessary tool for the management of the acquired territory was the drafting of the first geodetic maps of Northern Luzon, drawn to scale, made as a result of the expeditions. Copies of some of these maps, including a tentative map of the town of Bucay dated 1848 like the map Tajonera submitted to the Manila authorities, are displayed in the Map Room of the Cariño Museum in Tayum, Abra. Tajonera obviously had a very able team of geodetic engineers under his command. 

The Cariño Papers describe the route taken by the 1849 expedition. To imagine better the epic journey one must visualize the geography traversed by the expedition. Abra is separated from Kalinga and Nueva Vizcaya by the central divide of crests of the Northern Cordillera, a system extending a few hundred km north to south with peaks reaching easily 2000 m above sea level and higher. From this system of crests, east and west run deep forested valleys carved by fast rivers. Rivers flowing west empty into the big Abra River, such are the Bucloc and Ikmin mentioned below. Rivers flowing east, like the Saltan and Pasil also mentioned below, empty into the Chico and Cagayan Rivers. Thick tropical forest vegetation and abrupt slopes conjure to make the zone practically impassable even today.

Into such vastness, the expedition led by Tajonera ventured one April 25, 1849. Commanded by Governor Tajonera himself, it was composed of  a Captain of the Corps of Engineers, five other officers, 150 troops and 310 polistas cargadores or civilian load bearers. The efforts of the latter would be credited against their personal tax dues. The group proceeded up the Abra River to the south till the crossing of Manabo where it veered east up the Bucloc River valley. They crossed with a lot of difficulties, at times fighting, the Cordillera divider crests at the head of the river to the village of Ynalagan and the headwaters of the Saltan River, and moving down the river valley they passed Camarugan or Kamalugan towards the Cagayan Valley. After crossing the Chico and Cagayan Rivers the column reached Anao near Cabagan on May 13, where they were received by the Governor of Nueva Vizcaya. Both towns, Anao and Cabagan, belong now to the province of Isabela, created later in the century.

A week-long period of rest ensued that Tajonera used to discuss with his hosts, the Governors of Nueva Vizcaya and Cagayan, an easier route between the two provinces and decided to return going up the Pasil River, another tributary of the Chico a few km south of the Saltan. Past the Cordillera divide, they most probably descended to Bucay through the Ikmin River, a little south of the Bucloc but emptying into the Abra River also in the vicinity of Manabo. Bucay received the expeditionary forces on May 31 with bells pealing amidst festivities. The map in Plate # 16 summarizes the expedition itinerary and geography.

The expedition lasted thirty-seven days and resulted in twenty-seven casualties: three soldiers dead and nine wounded, and five dead and ten wounded among the civilian polistas. Sixty villages and smaller settlements recognized the government of the Kingdom of Spain but five opted for resistance and had to bear the brunt of Spanish force. One, Ynalagan, was torched..

The opening of good communications between Ilocos and Isabela remained little more than a dream for the duration of the Spanish presence in the islands and it remains not much more than that at the beginning of the XXI century. As late as 1880, a Royal Order related to the creation of tobacco plantations as a basis for new towns in Isabela mentions how important it is for the development of the tobacco industry in the North to depend on good transportation facilities “between Abra and Isabela.”40 Without such transportation facilities, tobacco had to be shipped by raft down river to Aparri and from there by ship south to Manila while a road from Cabagan in Cagayan Valley to Abra and then to Vigan would have cut drastically the transportation time. It is interesting to note the continuing awareness in the minds of both monarchs and government officers of the importance of the link between transportation facilities and tobacco. Overall, the dream, the perception of the need and the awareness of the benefits at official levels have not been enough for the past two hundred years to generate the imagination and the political will to surmount the difficulties posed by the twin walls of geography and economy.