Pío Pico: Who He Is, What He Did & His Place in L.A. History

Pio Pico in 1860. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

On June 30, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a budget cutting $22 million from the state's Department of Parks and Recreation. The cuts have resulted in the planned closure of seventy state parks, including one in Whittier that honors the memory of one of Brown's predecessors: the last governor of Mexican Alta California, Pío de Jesus Pico.

Perched above the east bank of the San Gabriel River in Whittier, Pío Pico State Historic Park includes the historic adobe where the former governor and land baron once held court. It is scheduled to close on July 1, 2012.

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The son of a Spanish artillery sergeant, Pico was born on May 5, 1801 at Mission San Gabriel. His 93 year life spanned several distinct periods of Southern California history, from Spanish colonialism to Mexican rule and from American conquest to L.A.'s late-nineteenth-century growth spurt.

Over the course of his life, Pico accumulated great wealth and land-holdings. For many years he and his brother Andres, another leading figure of Mexican California, owned Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores, an immense tract in northern San Diego County that today is Camp Pendleton. Pico also individually owned large estates near Whittier and in the San Fernando Valley.

Map of Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores. Courtesy of the The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

Pico served twice as governor of California; great upheaval marked both of his terms, and in each case Pico succeeded an ousted governor.

In 1831, a dispute over California's mission lands escalated into an open revolt against the rule of Governor Manuel Victoria, who refused to secularize the missions. Victoria and the rebels, led by wealthy landowners, met on a plain near Cahuenga Pass on December 5, 1831. The ensuing Battle of Cahuenga Pass was mostly bloodless, but in a bizarre sequence of events Victoria was seriously injured. He fled, leaving his office vacant. As the senior member of the territorial legislature, Pico became governor by default. Victoria's hand-picked successor disputed Pico's claim to the office, however, and his tenure lasted only twenty days. But Pico had established himself as a leading political figure in California and, within a year and a half, the process of secularizing the missions had begun.

Thirteen years later, Pico succeeded another deposed governor. Appointed by the authorities in Mexico City, Governor Manuel Micheltorena found himself facing open rebellion by Californios who wanted a native-born resident to hold the office. Again, the governor's forces met the rebels in battle near Cahuenga Pass, and again a relatively bloodless battle, the Battle of La Providencia, forced the governor's ouster in 1845. Pico became acting governor and was duly appointed as Micheltorena's permanent successor in April 1846.

Manuel Micheltorena, whose ouster in 1845 made Pico the last governor of Mexican California. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

By then the dark clouds of war hung over California. With designs on California and other northern territories of Mexico, the United States declared war on May 13. When news of the war reached California, the fall of Mexican California was swift. The American captured Monterey on July 15, prompting Pico to issue this proclamation:

Pío Pico, Constitutional Governor of the Department of California, hereby makes known to its inhabitants that the country is threatened by the United States by land and by sea, that it now occupies Monterey, Sonoma, San Francisco, and other frontier points to the north of this department, where the Stars and Stripes now wave with further threatenings to occupy more ports and towns and to subdue them to its laws; therefore, this government, having stood firmly resolved to do its utmost to oppose the most unjust aggression committed during late centuries, caused by a nation possessed with extraordinary ambitions, purposely authorizing a cleverly disguised robbery, exercising power over us during a period of political weakness.

It was one of his last acts as governor. As American forces advanced on Southern California, Pico fled to Baja California in a futile attempt to raise a resistance force. In the end, Los Angeles fell to the invading troops, and the American capture of Mexico City in September 1847 sealed California's fate: it became a permanent American possession.

Reluctantly accepting the outcome of the war, Pico returned to Southern California after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo established peace between the United States and Mexico. Although Pico would never learn English, relying instead on an interpreter, he remained one of Southern California's leading citizens through much of the nineteenth century.

Exterior of the Pico Adobe in Whittier. 1904 watercolor by Eva Scott Fenyes courtesy of the Braun Research Library Collection, Autry National Center. FEN.173.

Interior of the Pico Adobe in Whittier. 1904 watercolor by Eva Scott Fenyes courtesy of the Braun Research Library Collection, Autry National Center. FEN_174.

In 1850, Pico bought Rancho Paso de Barolo, an 8,991-acre tract situated some twelve miles southeast of Los Angeles. Pico added a chapel, saloon, and other improvements and called his new home "El Ranchito," but to Yankees the ranch was "Picoville."

Whatever its name, for decades the rancho preserved the old Californio way of life. A gracious host, Pico welcomed many visitors and hosted dances, cockfights, and horse races. The land was also a working ranch; demand for beef surged with the Gold Rush, and vaqueros tended to Pico's large herds of cattle and horses. Most of the ranch has since been subdivided into the cities of Whittier, Montebello, and Pico Rivera, but Pico's homestead on the San Gabriel River survives as Pío Pico State Historic Park.

In the late 1860s, Yankees continued to trickle in to the former capital of Mexican California. Pico saw a profit to be made, and in 1870 he sold his land holdings in the San Fernando Valley to finance construction of the Pico House, a three-story hotel on L.A.'s central plaza that would cater to wealthy out-of-town visitors. The Pico House stands to this day, now part of the Los Angeles Plaza Historic District.

The Pico House and the Los Angeles Plaza circa 1870. Courtesy of the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument Photo Collection.

A streetcar and buggies in front of the Pico House in 1870. Courtesy of the Watson Family Photo Archive.

1940 drawing of the Pico House by Bacilio Olivarez. Courtesy of the Watson Family Photo Archive.

Pico's later years saw Don Pío, as he was fondly called, fall into penury. Bad investments and unscrupulous companions forced him to sell the Pico House. He lost the future Camp Pendleton to his brother in law, and El Ranchito to a real estate scam--Pico mortgaged the property, but when he tried to repay the loan his creditor refused and seized the land instead. In both cases, the former governor sought relief from the courts--in the latter case, appealing all the way to the California Supreme Court--but lost.

Pico died on September 11, 1894, just as newcomers from the Midwest and East Coast were transforming Los Angeles into a thoroughly Yankee city. Although Pio Pico Historic State Park's future is uncertain, the legacy of Mexican California's final governor is permanently enshrined in place names across Southern California: drivers cross Los Angeles every day along Pico Boulevard, and a portion of the don's former ranchito honors his memory today as the City of Pico Rivera.

Portrait of Pico and  a copy of his book, 'Manual de la Conversación.' Courtesy of the Autry National Center, Griffith Park. 94.121.1.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here will provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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Come support Pio Pico on November 5th at his house in Whittier!
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M6act1hYyjA

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PS Great article!

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Many thanks for this. The fact this all was part of Mexico often seems lost on the vast of majority of CA residents.

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Luis Antonio Arguello, first Mexican governor of Alta California is buried in the Mission Dolores cemetery in San Francisco. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luis_Antonio_Arg%C3%BCello

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hello everyone im the great great great great grandgaughter of the late pio pico i fing it very disturbing that a part of my family's history is going to be tooking away from the state i feel the state historic park NEEDS TO REMAIN OPEN!!!!!!!

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At the outbreak of the U.S.-Mexican War, Pio Pico advocated for Britain, rather than the U.S., to acquire Mexico's Alta California and contacted British envoys to spur practical action to that end. Though I haven't seen any historian address this idea, I wonder whether part of his motivation was the fact of his own mixed (part-African) ethnic heritage and possible concern over his legal status under American law. And at the time the Pico House was built, modest Los Angeles, pop. about 8,000, was still a relatively "sleepy town."