Anza Trail Blog

Book Review -- The Forgotten Governor: Fernando de Rivera and the Opening of Alta California

by Rita Vega-Acevedo

Tagged as:   history

The Forgotten Governor

Should Fernando de Rivera be inducted into the major league cast of 18th century Spanish power brokers alongside Galvez, Portola, Anza and Father Serra? This combination of civilian, military, and religious leaders shaped early Alta California when it was a rugged and dangerous frontier. Failure was not an option for them. In his book, The Forgotten Governor: Fernando de Rivera and the Opening of Alta California (Langdon Street Press), author John Wills makes a case to include Rivera among the illustrious group.

Fernardo de Rivera (1724-1781) was a Spanish military commander, a de facto governor, first in Baja California and later in Alta California. Rivera’s resume is extensive. Yet, according to Wills, he was forgotten and only remembered for feuds with Father Serra and Anza and for minor flaws exaggerated by Serra and Anza proponents. Further, Rivera had no scholars leading the charge to include him in the history books for his major accomplishments -- until now.

Wills has written the first biography to correct misconceptions about Rivera. Rivera lived during exciting and monumental times. He worked with the Jesuits after they established 14 missions in Baja California. Rivera, along with Portola and Serra, led the first overland expedition to Alta California in 1769. He was one of the first Europeans to view the San Francisco peninsula and identify good locations for a presidio and settlement there. He witnessed the aftermath of the destruction on the first mission at San Diego and arrested the men responsible for the fires and deaths. He had encounters with Native Americans in Baja California, Alta California and along the Colorado River (the Yumas).

It’s an exciting story brilliantly told here. Additionally, Rivera traveled from Sonora across the Colorado River to lead a small group of colonists to establish the City of Los Angeles (1781). Others in the group were directed to build a presidio and mission at Santa Barbara. A summary of the Yuma Massacre is included.

For the first time, readers will read portions of Rivera’s diary and a rare personal letter written by Rivera to Lt. Moraga’s wife, offering to escort her to Alta California in 1781 so that she could reunite with her husband in San Francisco. She goes and arrives safely. We also learn of the existence of a two-volume book with documents about Rivera, including his diary and reports to superiors. Wills, the author, states that much of it remains untranslated and was compiled by a Jesuit scholar in Spain in 1967.

Regrettably, Rivera met a tragic fate at Yuma. Wills underscores that fact that Rivera did not cause the massacre but that the problems with the Spanish colonists had been brewing for some time before Rivera arrived on the scene.

We also learn that his widow and children failed to obtain his pension during their lifetime. This chapter is a gem and illustrates the failure of the bloated Spanish bureaucracy and highlights the poor communications of the era. The contributions of Rivera are too many to list here but Wills has succeeded in convincing me and others to add Fernando Rivera to the top tier list of important historical figures. 

Even today, we still celebrate and see many of the place names, rivers, cities, ports, missions, presidios and culture of the Spanish empire. It is not a perfect place, considering the toll on California Native tribes, but it is up to us to learn, rectify for past mistakes and celebrate the diversity of our great state.


Rita Vega-Acevedo is a member of the Anza Society, Inc., and an active volunteer with the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail.


The Forgotten Governor

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