The charmingly deceptive Baron de Bastrop

Monument to the Baron de Bastrop on the grounds of the courthouse in Bastrop, Texas.

Monument to the Baron de Bastrop on the grounds of the courthouse in Bastrop, Texas.

The Baron de Bastrop (Felipe Enrique Neri) was a prominent resident of Texas in the early 19th century. Charismatic and enterprising, Bastrop brought some pioneers into northern Louisiana and encouraged the Anglo-American colonization of Texas when it was part of Mexico. He also lied about his past and left a trail of litigation involving questionable land titles that lasted for over 20 years after his death.

Dutch beginnings

The Baron de Bastrop was born on November 23, 1759 as Philip Hendrik Nering Bögel in Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana (Suriname). His father, Conraed Laurens Nering Bögel, was a member of the Court of Justice in Paramaribo. Around 1764, the family – which included Philip’s older brother and younger sister – returned to Holland. Philip’s mother, Maria Jacoba Kraayvanger, died shortly after they arrived. Philip’s father, who remarried, died nine years later, when Philip was 13.

In 1779, Philip enlisted in a Dutch cavalry unit. It’s unlikely he saw any action, and he was probably discharged before marrying Georgine Wolffeline Françoise Lijcklama à Nyeholt in 1782. Philip and Georgine had five children: Susanna (born in 1783), Christina (1785), Coenraad (1786, died in 1788), Martha (1788) and Augustina (1790). They lived in Leeuwarden, where Philip served as a tax collector for the province of Friesland.

In May 1793, Philip suddenly disappeared from his job. He and his family left Leeuwarden, leaving behind substantial debts and the suggestion of embezzlement. A hasty audit of the tax funds found a shortfall of some 250,000 guilders. A reward of 1,000 gold ducats was offered for the capture of Philip Hendrik Nering Bögel.

From Bögel to Bastrop

On September 25, 1793, one Philip Hendrik Bastrop arrived in Philadelphia on a ship from Hamburg, accompanied by five female Bastrops named Georgine Wolfeline Françoise Lijcklama, Susana, Cristina, Marta and Augustina. (1)

By April 1795, Philip was in Louisiana, where he represented himself as a Dutch nobleman with the title of Baron de Bastrop. Claiming he had come to the United States to escape the French invasion of Holland, Bastrop became friends with the governor of Louisiana, Baron de Carondelet.

Carondelet was concerned about the advance of American settlers into Spanish-ruled Louisiana. He wanted to create a buffer against this. In 1796, Carondelet signed a colonization agreement with the Baron de Bastrop for the settlement of European immigrants in an area of approximately 850,000 acres along the Ouachita River in northeast Louisiana. Bastrop promised to recruit 500 families. They would each receive 400 acres of land on which to grow wheat. Bastrop would build grist mills for the colony at his own expense. Carondelet promised to cover the settlers’ transportation expenses, provide six months’ worth of provisions, and supply seeds for the initial crop. Bastrop also gained a monopoly on milling and selling the colonists’ wheat.

In 1797, Bastrop brought in 99 settlers, recruited from Kentucky. They began to clear and plant land. Bastrop built a mill and a warehouse, and traded with the Indians. However, the project foundered when a Spanish official declared the government could not afford to subsidize the colony. Financial aid to the settlers was cut off and Bastrop was ordered to stop bringing in colonists. In 1799, Bastrop sold the property, only to have it deeded back to him when the purchaser learned that Bastrop’s grant had never been officially approved by the Spanish King. Bastrop turned to other business ventures in Louisiana and Kentucky, but found himself facing a rising number of lawsuits. When the United States took possession of Louisiana in December 1803, there were various competing ownership claims attached to the Bastrop tract, including those of the settlers.

A French traveller who visited Louisiana at the time wrote:

During the approximately three years that this establishment lasted, the Dutch baron was occupied from start to finish with building a mill for the future races of Ouachita where, when the weather permitted, he employed twenty to twenty-five workers for one piaster a day payed from Delisle-Serpi’s [a New Orleans merchant’s] funds. At the same time, he took vigilant care to ensure that nothing harmful to his trading privilege was imported to the post. Extending his surveillance much too far, he caused the inhabitants to lack everything and to pay dearly for the smallest things. His blind cupidity prevented him from noticing that he was the biggest victim; because, if he had contributed to generously provisioning this canton, he would thus have convinced a large number of colonists to come and establish themselves on his concession….

Few men inspired, on the outside, so much confidence and interest: a handsome physique, a pleasant and calm face, simple and relaxed manners, agreeable, if not brilliant, conversation; he was affable, with no apparent pretensions, always obliging, and the best of masters in his own house; his defects were vices of the mind rather than of the heart. Always seductive, without much knowledge or ability, he had…without enriching himself, ruined all who joined in his projects; all his steps were marked with disaster. 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…. (2)

Part of the Bastrop tract was eventually leased by Aaron Burr. Litigation over ownership continued for nearly half a century. In December 1850, the US Supreme Court finally ruled that the agreement between Bastrop and the Spanish government did not give him title to the land. The following March, the US Congress enacted legislation so that all settlers who could prove they had occupied and cultivated land in the Bastrop grant for 20 years would receive legal title to their holdings.

Felipe Enrique Neri: The Baron de Bastrop in Texas

Leaving his Louisiana interests in the hands of an agent, Bastrop arrived in Nacogdoches, Texas in 1805 with three slaves and a French servant. (3) By this time Bastrop’s family had returned to Holland. They do not appear to have ever joined him in Louisiana. A Philip Bastrop family appears in the 1800 US census as living in Frederick County, Maryland. (4) By November 1803, Georgine was back in the Netherlands, where she died in 1816. All four daughters were married in Holland between 1810 and 1817.

In 1806, Bastrop settled in San Antonio de Béxar. A plan to establish a colony between San Antonio and the Trinity River came to nothing. He entered into mercantile partnerships and started a business that involved freighting goods by mule. He went by the name of Felipe Enrique Neri, Baron de Bastrop. Bastrop’s charm and his fluency in English, Spanish, French and Dutch helped him become a leading member of the community. In 1810, he was appointed second alcalde (deputy mayor) of the ayuntamiento (municipal council). That same year, he petitioned to become a Spanish citizen.

In 1820, when Connecticut businessman Moses Austin came to San Antonio and proposed to settle 300 families in Texas, the Baron de Bastrop helped persuade the Texas governor to support Austin’s plan. Stephen Austin wrote:

In crossing the public square, [my father] accidentally met the Baron de Bastrop. They had seen each other once before in the United States, having met at a tavern when travelling, many years previous. He invited my father to his room, where he lived in great poverty, but his influence with the government was considerable, and was very great with the inhabitants of Bexar who loved him for the benevolence of his disposition. He was a man of education, talents, and experience, and thoroughly initiated into all the mysteries of the government house. (5)

In 1822, the Baron de Bastrop acted as an interpreter for the agreement between the Cherokee Indians and Texas Governor José Félix Trespalacios. In Napoleon in America, Bastrop helps Trespalacios take a stand against Napoleon.

In 1823, the Baron de Bastrop was appointed commissioner of colonization for the Austin colony, with the authority to issue land titles. The settlers elected Bastrop to the provincial deputation at San Antonio, which, in 1824, chose him to represent Texas in the legislature of Coahuila and Texas of the Mexican republic. During his time in Saltillo, the Baron de Bastrop supported legislation favourable to immigration. He also helped pass an act to establish a port at Galveston.

In a letter written in May 1823, one of Austin’s colonists said he found  the Baron de Bastrop “intelligent good and much Service to this Province…” (6) However another of Austin’s correspondents hoped to dislodge Bastrop from his post of surveyor in Texas, “by several good reasons some of which are the following, that he is too old to give personal attention, that [he] probably knows nothing of the new mode of calculation by Lat. and depart. which is the only mode to do it correctly.” (7)

Another colonist offered the following recollection, which provides a hint of the myth Bastrop created about his past.

When the Baron first came to Austin colony D. thinks he was nearly eighty years of age, but very hale and active. He was, says Judge Duke, a native of Holland, but at an early age went into the service of Frederick the Great of Prussia. He soon distinguished himself and was ennobled by Frederick. At a later period he received from the King of Spain a large grant of land in Louisiana, but after the acquisition of that territory by the United States he could not sustain his claim. He thought that great injustice had been done him and always spoke in bitter terms of the United States government. He always signed his name ‘El Baron de Bastrop.’ Judge Duke never learned his family name. (8)

The Baron de Bastrop died on February 23, 1827 at the age of 67 in Saltillo, Mexico. There was not enough money in his estate to cover his burial expenses. Bastrop, Louisiana and Bastrop, Texas are named after him, as is Bastrop County in Texas.

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  1. William Henry Egle, ed., Names of Foreigners who took the Oath of Allegiance to the Province and State of Pennsylvania, 1727-1775, With the Foreign Arrivals, 1786-1808 (Harrisburg, PA, 1892), p. 541.
  2. Charles-César Robin, Voyages dans l’interieur de la Louisiane, de la Floride Occidentale, et dans les Isles de la Martinique et de Saint-Domingue, Vol. II (Paris, 1807), pp. 342-344.
  3. Charles A. Bacarisse, “Baron de Bastrop,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 3 (Jan. 1955), p. 330.
  4. http://us-census.org/pub/usgenweb/census/md/frederick/1800/pgs-148-to-161.txt (p. 157). Accessed December 27, 2015.
  5. Dudley G. Wooten, ed., A Comprehensive History of Texas 1685 to 1897, Vol. 1 (Dallas, 1898), pp. 442-443.
  6. Eugene C. Barker, ed., Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1919: Vol. II: The Austin Papers, Part 1 (Washington, 1924), p. 669.
  7. Ibid., p. 640.
  8. H. Kuykendall, “Reminiscences of Early Texans: A Collection from the Austin Papers,” The Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Jan. 1903), p. 248.

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Few men inspired, on the outside, so much confidence and interest: a handsome physique, a pleasant and calm face, simple and relaxed manners, agreeable, if not brilliant, conversation; he was affable, with no apparent pretensions, always obliging...his defects were vices of the mind rather than of the heart.

Charles-César Robin