Fernando Rivera y Moncada

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Fernando Rivera y Moncada
Royal Banner of the Crown of Castille (Habsburg Style)-Variant.svg 3rd Governor of Alta California
In office
Preceded by Pedro Fages
Succeeded by Felipe de Neve
Personal details
Born c. 1725
near Compostela, Mexico
Died July 18, 1781
lower Colorado River
Profession Soldier and governor
Religion Roman Catholic
Military service
Allegiance Spain
Service/branch Emblem of the Spanish Army.svg Army of Spain
Rank Oficial3.png Captain

Fernando Javier Rivera y Moncada (c. 1725 – July 18, 1781) was a soldier who served in the Baja California peninsula and Alta California, participating in several early overland explorations. Fernando Rivera y Moncada served as third Governor of Alta California from 1774-1777.[1][2]



Rivera was born near Compostela, New Spain (Mexico). His father, Don Cristóbal de Rivera, was locally prominent and a local office holder. Rivera was born of Don Cristóbal's second wife, Josefa Ramón de Moncada. Rivera had a total of 10 siblings and half-siblings; he was ninth in birth order.

Rivera entered military service in 1742, serving in Loreto, Baja California, at a time when that peninsula was almost totally under the control of Jesuit missionaries. In 1751 Rivera was elevated over several older and higher ranking soldiers to the command of that presidio. He participated in the important reconnaissances of the northern peninsula together with the Jesuit missionary-explorers Ferdinand Konščak and Wenceslaus Linck.

In 1755 Rivera married Doña María Teresa Dávalos; a marriage probably arranged by their parents. The couple had four children; three boys and a girl. Rivera's tenure as military commander of Baja California was generally successful and he was highly thought of by the Jesuits, though he was also embroiled in conflicts with local ranchers and miners who were in conflict with the Jesuits.[3]

Rivera's situation changed in 1768 when the Jesuits were expelled and replaced in Baja California by the Franciscans and by the civil authorities of New Spain. The story of the Jesuit expulsion from is related to European power struggles of the time, but it had the effect of bringing to Baja California two important individuals who otherwise would not have been there: Gaspar de Portolá, a Spanish soldier from a noble family, and Junípero Serra, the head of the Franciscan missions. Portolá, Serra, and Fernando de Rivera were thus together in remote Baja California at the moment when King Carlos III of Spain, concerned about Russians trespassing on Spain's claims in Western North America, ordered an expedition north to settle Alta California.

Captain Fernando Rivera y Moncada violated ecclesiastical asylum at Mission San Diego de Alcalá on March 26, 1776 when he forcibly removed a neophyte in direct defiance of the padres. Missionary Father Pedro Font later described the scene: "...Rivera entered the chapel with drawn sword...con la espada desnuda en la mano." Rivera y Moncada was summarily excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church for his actions.[4]

Alta California[edit]

First overland expedition

Rivera played a critical role in the Portola expedition, provisioning the entire expedition. In 1769, traveling in advance of expedition leader Gaspar de Portolá, Rivera was second in command and led the first overland party of the Portolá expedition, reaching San Diego in upper Las Californias Province, together with Juan Crespí and road-building-engineer José Cañizares. Portolá and missionary president Junípero Serra, arrived a few weeks later.[5]

After the several land and sea groups reassembled at San Diego (where there was much suffering and death among the sea-borne legs, from scurvy), Rivera continued north with Portolá in the (at first unsuccessful) search for Monterey Bay. (A second foray, a few months later, located the bay.) After journeying south to resupply San Diego, Rivera retired to the Mexican mainland around 1772, but he was soon recalled to service.

Military Governor of Alta California[edit]

Serra and the Franciscans had quarreled with California's military governor, Pedro Fages, and Rivera took over as Fages' replacement in 1774. The results were not happy. Rivera himself was soon in conflict with Serra and the Franciscans and with Juan Bautista de Anza. The conflict with Serra was because Serra wanted to found as many new missions as possible, while Rivera, with only about 60 soldiers to police a strip of land 450 miles long, wanted to wait for more reinforcements. The conflict with Anza arose out of insults (unintentionally) given by Rivera, combined with a strong dose of ego strength on the part of Anza.[6]

Rivera ultimately acceded to settling a mission and presidio at San Francisco. Missions Santa Clara and San Juan Capistrano were also founded under Rivera's watch. (The first civilian town in Alta California, San José, was founded a few weeks after Rivera departed.)

When several Kumeyaay Indian communities joined together to sack the mission at San Diego in 1775, Rivera had the responsibility of suppressing the revolt. For forcibly removing one of the rebels from a temporary church building at the mission, Rivera was excommunicated by leaders of the Alta California Franciscans, including Junípero Serra, Pedro Font (who had quarreled with Rivera) and Fermín Lasuén.[7] Lasuén had been Rivera's only close personal friend during his period in Alta California. Rivera was a religiously observant man and the excommunication clearly troubled him greatly. The excommunication was subsequently overturned when he returned the Indian to the church, then turned around and formally requested that the Indian be handed over to him (which did in fact occur). Even during the events, there was disagreement among the Franciscans over whether excommunication had in fact been warranted.[8]

Post-Alta California duties[edit]

Following his tenure as governor, in 1777 Rivera was reassigned as military commander (and vice-governor of the two Californias) at Loreto. His final assignment was to recruit settlers for the new town of Los Ángeles, and transport them to Alta California via the overland route from northern Mexico. Although the settlers made it safely to southern California, Rivera and many of his soldiers were killed along with the local missionaries including Francisco Garcés, at Mission San Pedro y San Pablo de Bicuñer on the lower Colorado River during the civil resistance uprising and revolt of the Quechan Indians in 1781. The Indian revolt of 1781 in Arizona was a critical event, because the Indians were able to shut down overland transportation between northern Mexico and Alta California for the next 50 years, ensuring that Spain / Mexico would never be able to populate Alta California sufficiently to stave of the swarm of immigrants from eastern North America who would arrive in the 1840s and ultimately seize Alta California.

Rivera's family had to wait 19 years before the Spanish government finally paid out to them the substantial sums that Rivera was owed for back pay. The delay was mostly due to the fact that most records of what Rivera had been advanced, as well as the actual sums that he had been advanced, had been either destroyed or captured by the Yuma Indians in the 1781 uprising. By the time the payments were finally made, Rivera's widow and three of his four children were already dead (though there were also grandchildren, who had suffered in poverty during the interim).[9]

Rivera's reputation

Rivera has often been viewed somewhat negatively in the historical literature. He is accused of having been uncooperative with Father Serra, too timid about founding new missions, and insufficiently supportive of founding a settlement at San Francisco. Against these positions it is worth pointing our that Rivera had only a handful -- never more than 100 -- soldiers to police 450 miles of California, in which lived tens of thousands of potentially hostile Indians; and also that three missions were established under Rivera, while only a single mission would be founded in the ten years after he departed. No one has ever alleged that Rivera was in any way self-serving; it is possible that he was in just slightly over his head in trying to manage the settlement of Alta California, a difficult assignment. But despite his many accomplishments -- escorting to California a large share of the early settlers, almost all of the livestock (there were no cattle or horses in California before Rivera), and sustaining the settlements at San Diego and Monterey -- Rivera is little-remembered today, outside of historians of California. It seems an oversight.[10]


  1. ^ "Spanish Governors". missiontour.org. Retrieved 2010-05-15. 
  2. ^ "Spanish Governors of Alta California". mchsmuseum.com. 2009. Retrieved 2010-05-13. 
  3. ^ Wills, John (2015). The Forgotten Governor: Fernando de Rivera and the Opening of Alta California. Minneapolis, MN: Langdon Street Press. pp. 37–48. ISBN 978-1-63413-727-0. 
  4. ^ Engelhardt 1920, p. 76
  5. ^ Wilson Engstrand, Iris (Spring 1975). "Pedro Fages and Miguel Costansó Two Early Letters From San Diego in 1769". The Journal of San Diego History. San Diego History Center and the University of San Diego. 21 (2). Retrieved 1 November 2010. 
  6. ^ The Forgotten Governor. pp. 247–269. 
  7. ^ Zephyrin Engelhardt (1912). The Missions and Missionaries of California, Volume II: Upper California. p. 185. 
  8. ^ The Forgotten Governor. pp. 231–240. 
  9. ^ The Forgotten Governor. pp. 299–303. 
  10. ^ The Forgotten Governor. pp. 305–311. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Engelhardt, Zephyrin, O.F.M. (1920). San Diego Mission. San Francisco, California: James H. Barry Company. 
  • Ives, Ronald L (1984). Bill Shakespeare, ed. José Velásquez: Saga of a Borderland Soldier (Northwestern New Spain in the 18th Century) (Seventh ed.). Tucson: Southwestern Mission Research Center. ISBN 0-915076-10-1. 
  • Rivera y Moncada, Fernando de (1967). Ernest J. Burrus, ed. Diario del capitán comandante Fernando de Rivera y Moncada (in Spanish) (Colección "Chimalistac" de libros y documentos acerca de la Nueva España, 24-25 ed.). Madrid: Ediciones J. Porrúa Turanzas. OCLC 2882621.