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Where to Trace the History of California’s Last Mexican Governor, Pío Pico

san gabriel mission
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Pío Pico is one of the most intriguing – and controversial – figures in California history.

Born just outside of Los Angeles while California was ruled by Spain, Pico became three different nationalities throughout his lifetime – without ever moving beyond present-day Southern California.

Over the course of his 93 years, his story was one of “rags-to-riches” – and back to rags – from establishing a cattle empire to holding the highest political office in California under Mexican rule and succeeding as one of the wealthiest men of his time.

He solidified his financial security by selling beef and cowhides to the Gold Rush miners – and then became a political revolutionary, seizing the office of governor of Alta California.

But as meteoric as his rise to the top was – thanks to a healthy dose of ambition and fearless risk-taking – Pico’s fall was just as dramatic. The Afro-Mexican politician, land baron, and entrepreneur died penniless in 1894.

His legacy, however, lives on throughout Southern California – and not just through the places that bear his name (like Pico Boulevard or Pico-Rivera).

Here are five of the best places to learn the fascinating story behind Pío Pico, California’s last Mexican governor.

San Gabriel Mission (1832) by Ferdinand Deppe  | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

1. Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, San Gabriel

Considered the birthplace of the L.A. region, Mission San Gabriel Arcángel is also where Pío Pico was born in 1801 to parents José María Pico and Maria Estaquilla Lopez – both mestizos (mixed race), as they were descendants of African, Native Indian, Italian and Spanish heritage. Along with 240 other colonists, they’d come to El Pueblo de Los Angeles from New Spain (a.k.a. Mexico) on the famous Anza expedition of 1775.

While working at the mission as a guard, Pico’s father, in a show of loyalty for the Spanish crown that ruled California at the time, had exposed and foiled a planned uprising of the Gabrieleño Indian tribe. Eventually, though, the elder Pico joined the Mexican cause and supported Mexican independence. And the younger Pico would continue his legacy long into his political career as a Californio.

Of course, the history of the San Gabriel Mission – the fourth of the California missions – is inextricably linked to the founding of California’s second pueblo, Nuestro Señora de Los Angeles.

To learn more about Pico’s history and early California, you can take a self-guided tour of the church (including its original altar), baptistery, gardens and graveyard for a small fee. The Mission Museum and Gift Shop are open every day except most Mondays.

mission san gabriel
San Gabriel Mission |  Eric Allix Rogers/Flickr/Creative Commons License 
Mission San Gabriel
San Gabriel Mission |  Ken Lund/Flickr/Creative Commons License 

2. Pío Pico State Historic Park, Whittier

The most accessible, historically preserved and culturally rich resource to learn about Pío Pico’s life is “El Ranchito,” his former ranch on a parcel of the former Rancho Paso de Bartolo Viejo, once part of San Gabriel Mission’s massive landholdings. Pico’s purchase of the property occurred in 1848, the year after the nearby Battle of Rio San Gabriel of the Mexican-American War. During Pico’s time, El Camino Real passed directly in front of the park – marked today by a reproduction bell.

Now known as Pío Pico State Historic Park, this is where you’ll find the country home where Pico escaped city life and government, in an adobe mansion he built in 1853. Rangers are on hand to walk you through restored and rebuilt rooms, some with unrestored sections to expose the handmade adobe bricks that were once whitewashed with limestone plaster. Hardwood floors have replaced the original packed dirt, but there are lots of other ways to examine the various layers of time from Pico’s era – including evidence of historical upgrades, layers of paint on top of original wallpaper, lowered floors, moved walls and even a “hidden” wall. Many original items owned by Pico and his family are displayed in glass cases.

On the grounds, you can walk through grapevines planted by Pico himself and the former “kitchen garden” and orchards – where you’ll still find prickly pear, quince and pomegranate ripe for the picking. Admire the preserved “horno” oven where bread was once baked and the dovecote where pigeons once roosted. These are just some of the artifacts that remain after Pico was evicted in 1892, the victim of loan sharks who took advantage of his English illiteracy and had him sign a deed of sale he thought was a loan agreement. Pico died 2 years later, a pauper.

"El Ranchito" narrowly escaped dismantling – its adobe bricks to be used as roadfill – when a preservation effort saved it and allowed it to be deeded to the State of California. In 1927, it became one of our first state historic parks. Although public access was limited due to damage from the 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake, it’s now open Thursday through Sunday until 3:00 p.m. on weekdays and 3:30 p.m. on weekends. Admission and parking are free.

Pío Pico State Historic Park
Pío Pico State Historic Park  |  Sandi Hemmerlein 
Pío Pico State Historic Park
Pío Pico State Historic Park  |  Sandi Hemmerlein 
Pío Pico State Historic Park
Pío Pico State Historic Park  |  Sandi Hemmerlein 

3. Pico House, El Pueblo de Los Angeles, Downtown L.A.

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.

In 1869, Pío Pico began construction on what should’ve been the crown jewel of El Pueblo de Los Angeles – a three-story, 82-bedroom luxury hotel to host all the important travelers arriving and staying in Los Angeles. Architect Ezra F. Kysor designed the Italianate-style Casa de Pico (or Pico House, as it’s still known), which became the first building with indoor plumbing (and bathtubs!) when it opened in 1870.

It wasn’t enough to offer the pinnacle of luxury in just downtown Los Angeles – because Pico always liked to gamble big for the biggest potential upside. So, he tried to make Pico House the most luxurious hotel in all of Southern California, with a fancy French restaurant and an exotic-bird aviary. But within the close of a decade, it became known as "Pico's Folly," as the former governor was land-rich but cash-poor and lost the hotel to bank foreclosure.

Its relatively recently restored ground floor lobby and courtyard are used for a variety of special events, exhibitions, and shoots, but much of its 26,000 square feet remain unused. Its deeper, darker corners – the Masonic Hall, theater, basement, etc. – are rarely open to the public and only occasionally explored by some brave paranormalists. To learn more about Pico House and El Pueblo, take a free walking tour offered by Las Angelitas del Pueblo Tuesdays through Saturdays. Walk-ins are welcome at the Las Angelitas Tour Office on the southeast corner of the Plaza.

Pico House
Pico House  |  Sandi Hemmerlein 

4. Mission San Luis Rey, Oceanside

Mission San Fernando
Mission San Fernando  |  Sandi Hemmerlein 

Pío Pico wasn’t just born at one of the California missions (as described in #1 above). Later in life, he led the secularization of them to comply with the Mexican Secularization Act of 1833.

And because he ordered the sale of them away from the padres, he also had the opportunity to buy a stake in several of them – including Mission San Fernando Rey de España. The purchase allowed the future California governor to own large swaths of the San Fernando Valley at one point, and lease the Mission San Fernando property to his friends and family (including, in 1845, his brother, Andrés Pico)

Additionaly, Pico had a family history with Mission San Luis Rey in North San Diego County, as his father José María Pico had become corporal of guard there in 1798 (the year it was dedicated) and, in 1805, rose to the rank of sergeant (which he held until retiring in 1818). For five years during the secular period of the California missions – from 1835 to 1840 – Pío Pico served as its majordomo (or civil administrator), surviving Luiseño tribe hostilities, refusal to work and attempts to remove him from his position of power.

In 1846, Governor Pico sold off the mission grounds and allowed them to be subdivided and occupied by U.S. military troops. Army soldiers from the Mexican-American War (1846-8) moved into barracks and washed their clothes in water channeled from the San Luis Rey River behind the Mission at the laundry or lavandería, which now stands in ruins. Along with the other missions, San Luis Rey was de-secularized in 1865 and returned to the Catholic Church. Mexican priests were permitted to return and restore the mission – which is why so much more of it remains than some of the other missions (though building materials were scavenged from it to build ranches nearby).

Once known as "King of the Missions" (named in honor of King Louis IX of France, a.k.a. St. Louis), Old Mission San Luis Rey still conducts masses, funerals, weddings and other sacraments – while also operating as a museum and offering docent-led behind the scenes tours. One of the main attractions is the Mission Church (completed in 1815), which is adorned with a wooden dome and cupola) and open every day of the year for people who want to pray or meditate. The cemetery is original to the mission, dating back to 1798 – making it the oldest burial ground in North San Diego County. You can also take a self-guided tour any day of the week before 4:30 p.m.

Mission San Luis Rey
Mission San Luis Rey  |  Sandi Hemmerlein 
Mission San Luis Rey
Mission San Luis Rey  |  Sandi Hemmerlein 

5. El Campo Santo, Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum, City of Industry

Pío Pico’s remains are forever interred at an 1850s-era private family cemetery located at the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum. You’ll find him resting in a crypt inside a neoclassical mausoleum at El Campo Santo ("sacred ground" in Spanish). Originally, Pico and his wife Maria Ygnacia had been buried at Old Calvary Cemetery near Chavez Ravine – but in 1921, it was going to be demolished and built over. Since Governor Pico had been a personal friend of his grandfather, English-born settler William Workman, Walter P. Temple moved the Picos to join his grandparents, parents, siblings and other relatives inside the mausoleum.

Deeply embroiled in California politics, Workman had conspired with Don Pico to unseat Manuel Micheltorena as Alta California’s Mexico City-appointed governor – an effort that came to a head and ultimately succeeded at the Second Battle of Cahuenga Pass (a.k.a. Battle of Providencia). Pico replaced Micheltorena – and, perhaps as a gesture of gratitude, the governor later granted Workman a portion of the former Rancho La Puente.

Like Pico, the Workmans were cattle ranchers that also had successful vineyards. Today, you can explore L.A. history between 1830 and 1930 on a fraction of the original property. Just 6 acres remain – but you can still see how the family took a simple, three-room adobe house built in the 1840s, and started adding on to it, by 1870 transforming it into a traditional American home of the time. This California State Historic Landmark hosts various special events throughout the year, though the historic homes may only be accessed by guided tour, offered Wednesday through Sunday. El Campo Santo is open to visitors to explore on a self-guided basis, open weekdays from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and weekends from 12:30 to 5:00 p.m.

El Campo Santo
El Campo Santo |  Sandi Hemmerlein 

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