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The Life and Times of Pío Pico, Last Governor of Mexican California

Pico and his family
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American history has long been told as a triumphant march westward from the Atlantic coast, but in southern California, our history stretches back further in time. This episode explores the interconnected lives of three people who lived through California's transition from native land to Spanish colony and from to Mexican province to American state. Featuring the stories of native teacher Toypurina, who led the revolt against the San Gabriel Mission, Spanish soldier Jose Marco Pico, who served at the mission, and his son Pio Pico, who became the last Mexican Governor of California.
S2 E1: Borderlands

Pío Pico was the last governor of California under Mexican rule, serving from 1845-46, just before the U.S. military occupation. Today, the name Pico is a familiar place name. Driving or walking throughout Southern California one will encounter busy Pico Boulevard; the City of Pico Rivera; two Pío Pico elementary schools; the Pico-Union district near downtown L.A.; Pico Park; the Pío Pico Koreatown Library; the three-story Pico House building; natural landmarks such as Pico Canyon north of Los Angeles and Pico Creek near Oceanside; and Pío Pico State Historic Park in the City of Whittier, just to name a few. His name has been commercialized in several businesses from corner grocery stores, shopping malls and fast food restaurants. And yet, despite the veneration in the popular mind, much of what we know about Pío Pico remains clouded in myth. His significance as an historical figure, as well as his connection to the contemporary Latino and African-American communities, is worth remembering.

Despite the veneration in the popular mind, much of what we know about Pío Pico remains clouded in myth.

Pío de Jesus Pico was born on May 5, 1801, to José María Pico and María Eustaquia Gutierrez at Mission San Gabriel Archangel where his father served as corporal of the guard. His life spanned almost the entire 19th century under the flags of Spain, Mexico, and the United States, a century in which he played a major role in shaping. Pío’s grandparents, Santiago de la Cruz Pico, a mestizo and his wife, María Jacinta Bastida, a mulata and their seven children were the first Picos to settle in California. They were among the settlers from the northwest Mexican provinces of Sonora and Sinaloa who journeyed in 1776 with Captain Juan Bautista de Anza on a new land route from Sonora.

Pico’s racial background as reflected in the few existing portraits and family census records has been the subject of much interest. Scholars have correctly described Governor Pico as an Afro-Mexican, and for good reason. The basic social and cultural patterns of Mexican society that his grandparents and other settlers brought to California had been developed in Sonora and Sinaloa during the previous two hundred years. Africans had begun to enter these provinces, many as slaves, in the 17th century, and their descendants were racially mixed by the time of the colonization of California in the 18th century. Indios, mulatos, mestizos, and other persons of mixed race were not a rarity in Sonora and Sinaloa but were actually the majority population. This understanding of the Pico family offers further documentation of the African presence in Mexican history. It is also important to note that of the original 44 founders or pobladores of Los Angeles, where Pío Pico spent most of his life, 26 were of African descent.

Pío Pico spent his childhood years in San Diego, where his father continued to serve in the military. The family briefly moved back to San Gabriel Mission in 1818 where José María Pico would die the following year. After his father’s death, the Picos moved back to San Diego and young Pío would assume responsibility for much of the support of his family.

The 1820s would prove to be a time of great change for the Picos and for the people of California as a whole. After a long struggle that began in 1810, Mexico won its Independence from Spain in 1821. For Pío Pico and other young Californios, independence spurred a growing sense of national pride and optimism for the future. He began his career in business by opening a small general store in San Diego where he sold providions, liquor, furniture, shoes, and mules. Pico’s business activity offered opportunities for him to travel throughout Alta California where he encountered many of the leading Californio families. These experiences contributed to his growing prosperity and interest in politics. In 1826 he was elected to the diputación, the newly formed legislature that served as an advisory body to the goveronor of Alta California. He began to amass his fortune in property. In 1829 he received his first land grant of 8,922 acres new San Diego. He was reelected several times to the diputación and also served as interim governor in 1832 after leading a successful revolt against an unpopular governor sent from Mexico City to rule over California.

The 1830s witnessed several events in Pío Pico’s life that identified him as a wealthy and influential leader in Californio society. In 1834, the Mexican government took steps to secularize the California missions. And as the chief advocate of secularization, Pico played a central role in the transfer of enormous land holdings previously under the control of the Franciscan missionaries to the private ownership of his fellow rancheros and political allies. That same year, the wedding of Pío Pico and María Ignacia Alvarado in Los Angeles was among the most memorable social events of the entire Mexican era and an expression of his influence. Governor José Figueroa served as best man and hundreds of guests from throughout Alta California participated in the three-day fiesta. From 1835 to 1840 he served as mayordomo or administrator of Mission San Luis Rey, located near present-day Oceanside.

Pío de Jesus Pico and his wife, María Ignacia Alvarado Pico, in 1852, with two of their nieces, María Anita Alvarado (far left) and Trinidad Ortega (far right).
Pío de Jesus Pico and his wife, María Ignacia Alvarado Pico, in 1852, with two of their nieces, María Anita Alvarado (far left) and Trinidad Ortega (far right). Courtesy of the Seaver Center for Western History Research, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

The 1840s saw increased prosperity within Californio society, a society which included several American and European settlers, as well as a growing awareness of American desire for territorial expansion. In 1841, Pío and his younger brother Andrés Pico acquired a colossal land grant of 133,331 acres, the Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores in San Diego County, the present-day site of Camp Pendleton. After leading a revolt in February 1845 against another abusive governor, Manuel Micheltorena, a non-Californio, Pío Pico was declared governor in March of that year. Pico moved the governor’s office from Monterey to Los Angeles where he ran the government from his spacious adobe located at the Plaza. For Pío Pico and other Californios, the Texas revolt of 1836 against Mexico, continuing Texas aggression, and the United States’ attempts to purchase Mexican territory only heightened their fear of military conflict. After failed diplomatic negotiations and a series of armed encounters along the Rio Grande, war between the United States and Mexico was declared on May 13, 1846. U.S. troops under Robert F. Stockton and John C. Frémont marched into California. Most of the armed encounters occurred between Los Angeles and San Diego, with victories and defeats on both sides. Governor Pico fled to Baja California in an attempt to seek military reinforcements from the Mexican government and to protect the governor’s authority. However, after U.S. forces attacked the port cities of Guaymas and Mazatlán, reinforcements could not be spared for California. Governor Pico was ordered to remain in Sonora for the duration of the war. His younger brother, General Andrés Pico, was placed in command of Mexican forces for the defense of California. Ultimately, the Californios were overwhelmed by U.S. military forces. On Jan. 13, 1847, Frémont and Andrés Pico signed the Treaty of Cahuenga in present-day Studio City.

The war came to a final end with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848. The last phase of Mexican rule in California coincided with the return of Pío Pico that same year. He arrived in Los Angeles with a claim to the governor’s office, a claim that he believed was justified as the Treaty of Cahuenga allowed that Mexican civil officials would continue to function. However, Pico was only allowed to return as a private citizen. Upon his arrival he was placed under house arrest for three weeks and was later released. As a private citizen, Pico was still a very wealthy Californio. He continued to maintain and acquire large land holdings well into the American period. The 1849 Gold Rush sparked a population explosion in northern California, resulting in a demand for beef cattle from the rancheros in southern California. Pico and fellow rancheros made huge profits during this cattle boom. The 1850s was also a time of personal tragedy. In 1854, his wife of twenty years, María Ignacia Alvarado died in Santa Barbara at age 44.

With this new influx came new racial attitudes that were openly hostile to an African-American, Mexican, and Chinese  presence in the city, attitudes which Pico vehemently rejected and was personally confronted with as an Afro-Mexican.

During the American Civil War of 1860-65, the population of Los Angeles was bitterly divided over the issues of slavery and secession. Although California was admitted into the Union as a free state, the majority of Angelenos were sympathetic to the proslavery wing of the Democratic Party. However, Pío Pico’s beliefs remained consistent in the American era and were rooted in the liberal philosophy that grew out of Mexican independence and his early years in Southern California. Pico was a staunch republican and defender of the Mexican constitution. He was strongly anti-slavery and was a longtime admirer of Abraham Lincoln. In post-Civil War Los Angeles he witnessed the settlement of African-Americans from the American South – some of whom were former slaves – which added a new dimension to the longtime black presence in the city dating back to the pobladores. And with this new influx came new racial attitudes that were openly hostile to an African-American, Mexican, and Chinese  presence in the city, attitudes which Pico vehemently rejected and was personally confronted with as an Afro-Mexican.

The Pico House Hotel, ca. 1870. Courtesy of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument.
The Pico House hotel, ca. 1870. Courtesy of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument.

Despite this social atmosphere, Pío Pico remained optimistic about the future of California, and Los Angeles in particular. As a U.S. citizen he influenced the economic growth of the city by investing in the Los Angeles Petroleum Refining Company, the city’s first commercial oil company. Throughout the 1860s and 1870s he continued to invest in property. Between 1869 and 1870 he constructed the Pico House hotel on the southwest corner of the old Plaza in Downtown. Building the Pico House at a cost of $85,000—the first three-story building in Los Angeles—for a brief time helped Pico to regain his social standing among the civic elite of Los Angeles. However, despite persistent attempts to improve his financial status, his fortunes began a steady decline. In addition to poor business decisions, he spent money lavishly, was overgenerous with his friends, and he had a passion for high stakes gambling.

From the 1860s to the 1890s, Pico was in constant litigation, mainly over property disputes. By 1880 he could not pay his creditors. When he was unable to pay the interest or the principal on his loan from the San Francisco Savings and Loan Company, he lost the Pico House through foreclosure. It sold at auction for $16,000 to the new owner, San Francisco Savings and Loan. Other property disputes and financial losses followed. In 1892 he was evicted from his 8,891-acre Rancho Paso de Bartolo Viejo, located between the Río Hondo and San Gabriel Rivers ­– site of today’s Pío Pico State Historic Park in the City of Whittier, CA. Affectionately known as El Ranchito or “little ranch,” it was intended to be the retirement home for Pico and his late wife. He spent the last two years of his life in virtual poverty and living off the charity of his close friends. Despite his financial demise, his pride and commanding presence remained intact.

Pío Pico died in Los Angeles on Sept. 11, 1894, at the home of his adopted daughter, Joaquina Moreno. He was laid to rest next to his wife at the old Calvary Cemetery located on North Broadway. By the turn of the century the old cemetery was in a state of ruin. In 1921, Walter Temple, son of John “Don Juan” Temple, a former wealthy ranchero and close friend of Don Pío Pico had their remains exhumed and moved to the mausoleum of the pioneer Workman and Temple families – today the site of the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum, located in the City of Industry, CA.

This article was originally published on Oct. 27, 2016.

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