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Felipe de Neve, First Governor of California and Founder of the City of Los Ángeles

Posted: March 25th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: History | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Felipe de Neve, First Governor of California and Founder of the City of Los Ángeles

In 1774 Felipe de Neve, a native of Bailén -a little Andalusian town in Spain- was named Governor of the Californias, the first person with the full title to be directly charged with the administration of the new northern area. Seven years later -September 4th, 1781- Felipe de Neve founded the city of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula, later known as simply Los Ángeles.

When a person is born in Bailén, it seems the only historical event s/he must feels proud of in relation to her/his town is the Battle of Bailén in 1808: the worst military disaster of the Peninsular War for the French, and the first major defeat of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. Nonetheless, little is mentioned about the Battle of Baécula in 208 b.C. -during the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthago, and nothing at all is said about the most likely distinguished inhabitant of this little town: Felipe de Neve. I do know this paradox since I was born there.

The best book written about this important and forgotten character and his amazing labor in the Spanish conquest of North America is that of Edwin A. Beilharz titled Felipe de Neve, First Governor of California. Almost all the information exposed in this post derives from his impressive research together with some additional information obtained from the book Banderas lejanas by Fernando Martínez Laínez and Carlos Canales Torres.

Felipe de Neve was born in 1727 at Bailén, Spain. It is possible to place the date of this birth between August and December of 1727. The church records in Bailén, which would have given the exact, date were destroyed during the Spanish Civil War. His father was Felipe de Neve Noguera Castro y Figueroa, a Sevillian by birth. His mother was María Padilla y Castilla. Scion of one of the oldest and most distinguished families of Andalusia, Neve enjoyed a gentleman’s education. He married María Nicolassa Pereira y Soria, a resident of Seville. There were no children.

After a long and brilliant military career in the Spanish army in Europe, he was in charge, during seven years -from 1767 to 1774, of administering the Jesuit properties in Zacatecas, Mexico, after the suppression of this religious order.  His handling of the trust must have impressed the viceroy since that same year, 1774, he was entrusted with an administrative post of much greater importance: the governorship of the Californias. 

As Beilharz affirms, Neve’s effect on the colony was to be profound. When Felipe de Neve took possession of his position, he found the colony in a precarious state: only a few coastal point had been occupied and the links between them had not yet been forged. The Spaniards were living almost literally from hand to mouth, in dependence on the food ships from San Blas. The troops were few -just 146 men to monitor more than 900 kilometers of coast, lacking in equipment, and disaffected by the high prices they were charged in the commissary. When Neve left, all these problems were either solved of on their way to solution, and the future of California was secure.

He improved as well the Indians’ conditions. He prohibited any mistreatment of the natives and punished soldiers who dared to disobey his stringent orders, bringing in the offended indians to give them the satisfaction of witnessing the punishment. One of his practices was picturesque: he made it a rule to give a present to every Indian he met on his tours -this at his own personal expense. Neve’s policy of kindness and conciliation was in complete accord with the professed purposes of the Spanish state in so far as it was altruistic and humane, stated Beilharz. His effort to train mission Indians for citizenship followed the clear intent of the Laws of Indies.

Neve was expected to perform almost all the functions of the state in person. He was even urged to reconstruct the entire system of fundamental law by which California was governed. On October 24th, 1781 the Neve Reglamento became effective. This Reglamento was into force for the following forty years that the Spanish flag was fluttering in California. The three main items with which the Reglamento dealt with were the following:

  • Financial problems: the objective was to make it possible to maintain an adequate military force at a tolerable cost.
  • Finding ways to promote the internal development of the province: reforms would promote the growth and consolidation of the province -establishing towns in California, peopled with settlers from Mexico.
  • The missions: it involved a reform of the mission system itself, increasing the element of state control, reducing the independence of the missionary order, shaping mission policy with a view to safeguarding the Indian neophytes, and expediting the preparations for secularizing the missions altogether.

The main problem that Neve had to face was the traditional lack of ability of the Spanish colonies to have an efficient economic system. One of the reasons behind the founding of the towns was to improve the food supply of the new colony. The idea was to build up an agricultural production by trained farmers from Mexico. These, established in fertile areas of the new land, could make it possible for California to supply its own food from within. This meant bringing in a civilian population, and establishing towns. It is because of this that Neve founded San José de Guadalupe -the first town of California- on November 29th, 1777; and on September 4th, 1781 El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula, later known as simply Los Ángeles.

Finally it must be mentioned the discord between Neve and father Junípero Serra. According to Beilharz, the early years of Spanish California were filled with almost continual bickering between the civil and religious heads of the colony. Nonetheless, before assigning responsability for these quarrels, it is well to remember that both Serra and Neve were men under authority. In Neve’s case, the law prescribed the supervision of the missions by the governor and the ultimate secularization of the mission themselves. The same situation was applicable to Serra. He was a Franciscan and hence he had to render obedience to his religious superiors. The latter may have disliked the caesaro-papism of Carlos III, but they should at least have made prudent efforts to avoid unnecessary collisions with it.

On February 15th, 1783 Neve left his position as Governor of the Californias and was ascended to the position of Commandant General of the Interior Provinces. He had previously been promoted to the military rank of brigadier, and was awarded the Cross of Carlos III in acknowledgment of his merit.

On June 17th 1784, during a journey from Arispe to Chihuahua, he became very ill. He was extremely weak, exhausted by a dysentery from which he had suffered for six months, and with tumors in his left shoulder and stomach. Nothing could be done for him. He died on Saturday afternoon, August 21st 1784. Seven days later, father Junípero Serra died as well. As Beilharz rightly states in his book: “The two men who more than any others had created and shaped California”.

My humble contribution to the memory of this distinguished inhabitant of my hometown.

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