Felipe Enrique Neri, Baron de Bastrop
Felipe Enrique Neri, although deceptive about his own lineage, nevertheless played an important role in the settlement of the Ouachita Valley in northeast Louisiana.
In the years just prior to the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, Felipe Enrique Neri was a deceptive character who played an important role in the settlement of the Ouachita Valley in northeast Louisiana. In 1796 he procured one of the first Spanish land grants in the region and devised a plan to entice large numbers of settlers to benefit the colony. His scheme was partially successful and resulted in a moderate influx of pioneers, but his legacy also includes copious litigation involving questionable land titles that lasted for decades after his death. Neri left Louisiana in despair and relocated to Texas, where his career as a diplomat and legislator is considered more productive. Only in recent years have researchers in the Netherlands mined the truth about the man with the self-proclaimed title of Baron de Bastrop.
Early Life and Career
Most of Neri’s claimed biography dealing with the period of his life before he arrived in North America was, in fact, a ruse. Neri was not of noble lineage, much less a baron. He asserted that his name was Felipe Enrique Neri when he was actually born Philip Hendrik Nering Bögel. He was the son of Conraed Laurens Nering and Maria Jacoba (Kraayvanger) Bögel, not Conrado Lorenzo Neri, Baron de Bastrop, and Susana Maria Bray Banguin, as he stated in his last will and testament. He professed to be born in Holland but was really born in Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana (now Suriname), on November 23, 1759.
At a young age, Neri moved to Holland with his parents. In 1779 he was enlisted in a Dutch cavalry unit; three years later, on April 28, 1782, he married Georgine Wolffeline Françoise Lijcklama à Nyeholt in Oldeboorn, Holland. They had five children over the next few years. By this time the family had moved to the provincial capital of Leeuwarden, where Neri had procured a position as collector general of taxes for the province of Friesland.
Neri’s life of charades apparently began with an alleged mishandling of public coffers. In 1793 he was accused of tax fund embezzlement, and the Court of Justice of Leeuwarden offered a reward of 1,000 gold ducats for his capture. With a bounty on his head, he soon abandoned his wife and children, assumed a new identity, and fled to Spanish Louisiana.
The Louisiana Years
Neri’s route to Louisiana is unclear, but he likely arrived on the East Coast and traveled westward down the Ohio Valley to the Mississippi River. It has been reported that on his way he befriended Moses Austin in Missouri, an encounter that would later prove important in the Anglo-American settlement of Texas. In 1795 he arrived in Louisiana and within months had charmed Governor Francisco Luis Héctor de Carondelet with his claim of nobility and received from him concessions potentially worth a fortune. Neri decided to focus his endeavors on the Ouachita Valley in what is now the northeastern part of the state. At the time, it was sparsely inhabited, and the Post of Ouachita at present-day Monroe was the main settlement. Commandant Jean Baptiste “Don Juan” Filhiol was the local official in charge of the region.
In June 1796 Neri wrote Carondelet to request twelve square leagues (over 620,000 acres) for the purpose of colonizing along both sides of the Ouachita River near the Post of Ouachita. He offered to recruit families of settlers, each to receive four hundred acres, and build local grist mills at his own expense. He asked the government to provide transport expenses for the settlers from New Madrid (a Spanish settlement on the Mississippi River in southeastern Missouri) to the Ouachita as well as seeds and a six-month supply of provisions for their initial support. He also asked for a monopoly on the commerce of wheat ground in his mills. Neri had a charismatic personality, and Carondelet had good reasons to support the proposal. In the pending Treaty of San Lorenzo, Spain relinquished claim to all lands east of the Mississippi River and guaranteed the United States navigation rights on the river. Already, aggressive Americans were flocking into settlements east of the river. Spain needed an inhabited buffer zone between them and valuable resources to the west. Additionally, a reliable source of wheat within Spanish territory was required to prevent money from leaving the colony through trade with Americans.
Carondelet issued a decree approving the proposal. In it he agreed with Neri’s conditions and permitted him to bring in five hundred families on the twelve square leagues. As to the purpose of the colony, Carondelet stated, “It is for the cultivation of wheat alone.” When the original location of the proposed grant was found to harbor a large expanse of swamplands unsuitable for agriculture, it was moved eastward to include acreage along Bayous Desiard and Bartholomew, tributaries of the Ouachita River. Don Carlos Trudeau, Surveyor Royal, delineated the boundaries of the tract. In a second series of correspondence Neri requested and obtained approval from Carondelet to dam up the bayous in order to operate his mills and, at the same time, prohibit others from doing the same. In essence, he obtained total control of a vast area of land in north Louisiana that even reached into Arkansas. Only one issue foreshadowed the success of the project: Carondelet, intentionally or otherwise, did not bother to secure approval of the concession from King Charles IV.
Soon after obtaining the colonization decree of June 21, 1796, Neri set out on the first of two trips to the northwestern region of the United States, likely Pennsylvania and Kentucky, to recruit settlers for his new enterprise. The emigrants eventually gathered in New Madrid, where Neri expected to meet a government boat for their transport. The boat never arrived, and after a month Neri bought a barge locally for the journey. The first group of sixty-four people arrived at the Post of Ouachita on April 19, 1797. A second contingent of thirty-five disembarked on May 7, 1797. Filhiol compiled a list of the settlers by name and age when they arrived at the fort. There is no evidence that Neri brought more than these ninety-nine settlers to the colony.
The Plan Collapses
In the meantime, Don Juan Ventura Morales, the Spanish Intendant of Louisiana, had become disgruntled with the project and considered it a waste of the Crown’s assets. When Carondelet presented him with Neri’s bill for transportation of the settlers, which included the cost of the barge, Morales balked. The political maneuvering that ensued resulted in a decision to pay for expenses up to that point but no more—and an order to desist from further importation of colonists. Neri’s appeals were ineffective, as those petitioned always cited that the concession had never received the official approval of the King.
A frustrated Neri continued on under the assumption that he held an absolute grant of the twelve-league tract and sold the property to Abraham Morhouse of Kentucky on May 23, 1799. When Morhouse learned that some Spanish authorities considered Neri’s grant void, he deeded it back to him on September 13, 1800. The tale of titles twists again when the land became part of the United States as a result of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Both parties apparently felt the title more secure then because on January 25, 1804, Neri deeded Morhouse an undivided two-thirds interest in the property. All of these transfers included various types of compensation and—along with those titles issued by Neri to the settlers—resulted in a complex web of claims that burdened Louisiana courts until the mid-nineteenth century. For his part, Neri washed his hands of the matter and headed to the Spanish colony of Texas in 1805.
As to Neri’s ability to deceive officials with his scheme, C. C. Robin, who traveled through the Ouachita country at the time, wrote of him:
“Few men on the surface ever seemed so interested and trustworthy. A sturdy figure, a calm and pleasant face, simple and relaxed in manner, a style of conversation affable, if not brilliant, always obliging, and the best of masters in his own household, his defects were rather vices of the mind than of the heart. Fatally attractive, without much knowledge or ability, he had ruined all who joined him. . . . In Louisiana, all of the Governors and men of substance were captivated by him. He left the Ouachita without having earned a cent and having done more damage than the wickedest of men.”
In Texas, Neri’s ventures were more successful. He assisted his old friend Moses Austin with his efforts to settle Anglo-Americans in the area and served Stephen F. Austin as an intermediary with the Mexican government. The towns of Bastrop in Texas and Louisiana, along with Bastrop County, Texas, were named in his honor. Still, he died in Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico, on February 23, 1827, unable to pay for his own funeral.