Californians and the Military
Phelipe de Neve
First Governor of the Californias, 1777-1782, Founder of Los Angeles
By Michael R. Hardwick

When Phelipe de Neve arrived at Monterey in 1777, the Spanish held only 8 toeholds along a 600-mile coast. Most buildings in California were basketwork frames of interlaced poles plastered with clay. These and a few adobe structures were roofed with thatch and easily set on fire. Settlements were not walled and defenseless.

Nowhere else in the northern frontier did New Spain face such a concentrated Indian population as in California. The Indians were far from submissive. San Diego and San Luis Obispo missions had recently been burned, and San Juan Capistrano abandoned. There were only 146 soldiers in California lacking in horses, arms, and equipment. Soldiers were resentful of the conditions of service, the shortness of rations, and the exorbitant prices in the commissary. Evasion of duty and desertion were serious problems.

In five years, 1777-1782, Colonel Neve transformed Alta California. He rewrote the fundamental law under which California was governed with his Reglamento of 1781. He founded the pueblos of San José and Los Angeles, and brought experienced farmers from Mexico, thereby relieving the dependence upon food ships from San Blas in Baja California. Neve reformed finances, introducing order in the commissaries, bringing down prices, and at the same time increasing real pay of the military. He walled in the presidios, built up the army both in numbers and efficiency. Colonel Neve personally directed the construction of a new presidio at Santa Bárbara in 1782, and planned a string of 3 new missions along the Channel Coast. New missions were to be San Buenavetura (1782), Santa Bárbara (1786), and La Purísima Concepción (1787).

Phelipe de Neve was awarded the Cross of Carlos III in 1783 for meritorious service and advanced to the rank of brigadier. In 1783 he was also named Captain General of the Interior Provinces, a position second only to the viceroy of Mexico. Neve died in 1784 at the age of 57.

The Cross of Carlos III


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About the author: Michael Hardwick is a Historical Interpreter and a member of Los Soldados del Real Presidio de Santa Barbara. Email:
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Updated 8 February 2016