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The Last Laugh of "The Last Don"

On a sunny afternoon near downtown Los Angeles in 1893, the 92-year-old once-governor of Mexican California gazed out over a dusty plaza. He was broke, and he had just declined a large sum of money to attend the the Chicago World’s Fair. Despite his pennilessness, he gave a slight wave of his hand and a man showed up to help him into a buggy. Silently, Pío Pico rolled away into the warm evening. 

Portrait of a 90-year-old Pio Pico in 1891 (small)
Portrait of a 90-year-old Pio Pico in 1891. Photo courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.

Half a century earlier, in perhaps that same plaza in Los Angeles, Pico had received news of the Bear Flag Revolt – the opening salvo of the U.S. invasion of California in the Mexican-American War. Then, as governor of Mexican California, he had declared that "the North American nation can never be our friend," accusing America of "the most unjust aggression of late centuries," stealing Mexican land “without the slightest mark of shame." He traveled south to request military assistance and soon after his return was placed under a three-week house arrest. A United States official at the time remarked that if the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo has not been ratified, Pico “would have been sent to Oregon or some other foreign country.” 

After the war, some newly arrived white Angelenos saw Pico as a suspicious nationalist, an ex-governor who might lead a coup against the American government at any moment. Favors Pico bestowed on his fellow Californios were inconvenient for the U.S. government’s takeover, and officials soon disparaged the man as "illiterate." One San Francisco land-claim lawyer even described the ex-governor as "corrupt, non-English speaking, negroid, dwarfish." California's first state legislature elected under American rule passed a law stating that citizens with more than one-eighth black heritage, which included Pico, could not testify against whites. Despite the Anglo offensive waged against him, Pico sustained a position as California powerbroker throughout the latter half of the century. He owned vast swaths of Southern California. He opened the region’s first luxury hotel.

Pico also took part in a good deal of gambling. This habit amplified problems arising from his legal fees and loans to his fellow Californios, and by the 1880s Pico was in debt, his finances flailing. More lawsuits poured in from competing businessmen, and even from members of his family. The newly established Los Angeles Times commented on these trials, calling Pico’s efforts admirable, but not cautious – adding, with a touch of casual bigotry, that they were an "indiscretion peculiar to his race." Those indiscretions consisted of being "too trustworthy, kind, and hospitable." The trials and retrials continued. Then, in an 1891 ruling, the court found that "endless litigation, in which nothing was ever finally determined, would be worse than occasional miscarriages of justice." 

The California building at the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition
The California building at the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition.

Pico was left with nothing. California historian Kevin Starr summarizes the plight of Pico and his compatriots in Inventing the Dream: 

Just after the war, Pico had given a speech before the new California State Assembly in which he opined:

Now, in 1893, the notorious Southern California promoters Charles Fletcher Lummis and Harrison Gray Otis had procured for Pico an invitation to the Chicago World’s Fair as a delegate of the Old West. He was to represent the now-American state as the “last of the California dons.” The sum of money offered to appear at the fair was enormous. The Times published Pico’s reply to the Fair:

The next year, Pico died. The Times journalist who reported Pico’s reply to the World’s Fair wrote that after he had taken down Pico’s words, "the old man called one of his amigos to assist him in his buggy and drove off with an air that plainly said, 'If I do not own this town I used to.'" 

Los Angeles Plaza, circa 1890-95
The Los Angeles Plaza, circa 1890-95, looking northeast from the Brunswig Building toward the Lugo House. Photo courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.

Works Cited

Salomon, Carlos Manuel. Pío Pico: The Last Governor of Mexican California. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010.

Starr, Kevin. Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

“DON PIO PICO: Why the old governor did not visit the world's fair.” The Los Angeles Times. July 5, 1893, 4. 

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