José Antonio Bernardo Pico

By Amy Renee Gavello

José Antonio Bernardo Pico, a soldier and landowner, was a member of California's prominent Pico family. José Antonio’s grandfather, Santiago de la Cruz, established the Pico family in California after traveling from Sinaloa in 1775. Santiago, a mestizo (mixed indigenous and European ancestry), married María Jacinta Bastida, who was listed in the 1790 census as mulata (mixed African and European ancestry). José Antonio was therefore of mixed African, indigenous and European descent in a society that placed this mixed ancestry near the bottom of its caste system.

José Antonio was the first-born child of José María Pico (1765-1819) and María Eustaquia López, who married five years before his birth. He was the eldest of eleven children: His brothers were prominent figures in California history, Pío and Andrés, and his sisters were María Concepcion, María Tomasa, María Estefana, María Casimira, María Jacinta, Ysidora, Feliciana and Anita Gale. His small stature earned him the nickname “Picito,” though he was sometimes referred to as “Antonito.” He would later in life be described as “sympathetic and kindly.”

Early Life

José Antonio was born on May 21, 1794 at the presidio of San Diego and baptized at Mission San Diego de Alcalá. In 1798, one year after the birth of José Antonio’s first sister, his father José María was promoted to corporal of the guard and sent to establish the new mission at San Luis Rey. José’s second sister was born in 1799, and the family of five moved to new quarters at Mission San Gabriel upon his father’s transfer in 1800. Pío Pico, the family’s second son, was born the next year. Pío would remark later in life that the family was living in a “shack made of branches” upon his birth, speaking to the family’s impoverished situation in José Antonio’s early life. José Antonio saw the birth of two more sisters before his father was recalled back to San Diego in 1805, and thus the family again then relocated. The movement of José Antonio, his siblings and the family’s household goods was done by carreta, or camping along the way. The family moved back to the presidio by 1808.

The Church maintained a heavy presence in San Diego, and Mission San Juan Capistrano dominated the economy. During this time, José Antonio and his brother Pío received schooling from the wife of José María’s fellow sergeant, Matilde Carillo de Arce, who taught the boys to read and write. José Antonio’s third brother, Andrés Pico, was born in 1810.

In 1815, José María moved his family north to San Gabriel to await his discharge. It was at this time that José Antonio, at the age of at least 20 years, departed his family and chose to remain in San Diego and enlist in the company. His enlistment was not out of the ordinary for young men in San Diego who found that few options for work existed outside of the military and the Church. José Antonio was serving in northern California at the time of his father’s death in 1819, and his widowed mother and younger siblings, landless and impoverished, moved back to the familiar San Diego presidio.

Mission Administration and Military Career

In 1833, Mexico ordered a controversial decree to secularize the missions with the hopes of reducing the Church’s power over the economy. With the support of José Antonio’s brother Pío, “The Jewel of the Missions,” Mission San Juan Capistrano, was among the first to be secularized. In 1834, José Antonio was one of the four commissioners appointed to make an inventory of the mission's assets. For some time, he worked at the mission as a civil administrator with Francisco Sepulveda until 1837. At the same time, he also held the rank of company alférez (sublieutenant) from around 1834 and reached the rank of teniente (lieutenant) in 1838.

Possibly because of his brother Pío’s political influence, José Antonio was promoted to comandante general of the troops at San Luis Rey in 1839. This occurred in a period of financial and political strife for his brothers, so José Antonio tried to assist them in regaining their once thriving cattle empire by commanding the military and watching out for indigenous uprisings amongst the mission’s indigenous population known as Luiseños.

Nevertheless, the indigenous yearned for liberty from the missions, and consequently, uprisings were a continuous threat. In July 1839, José Antonio wrote to General Vallejo and begged him to convince Governor Alvarado to apprehend the “bandits” that endangered San Diego. He noted malhechores (evildoers) set fire to ranchos and killed gente de razón (Christians), inciting fear in southern Californians. With little financial resources, José Antonio’s troops lacked food, uniforms, and ammunition. Furthermore, their lack of resources hindered recruitment. José Antonio therefore desperately appealed to the governor for assistance. In an attempt to alleviate this dire situation at San Luis Rey, Pío sought to raise money by selling the family home in San Diego. He urged José Antonio to utilize his influence with General Vallejo and Governor Alvarado with the hopes of selling the Pico family home to the military. However, Pío, unpopular with the Luiseños, who they accused of exploiting them, was eventually discharged, and the administration at San Luis Rey was subsequently replaced. Nevertheless, José Antonio remained in service until 1849.


On January 8th, 1840, Governor Alvarado issued José Antonio the 26,688-acre Agua Caliente grant. His landholdings further expanded Throughout the decade, disorder and poverty plagued the missions as indigenous populations fled and weak administrations failed to maintain control. Consequently, José Antonio’s brother Pío, now governor, decided to sell the missions at a public auction in 1845. On May 18, 1846, Pío sold Mission San Luis Rey to José Antonio and Antonio José Cot for $2,437. His landholdings, along with the over 291,000 acres owned by his brothers, rendered him wealthy on paper–especially when the property values increased after annexation into the United States. This wealth set José Antonio and his brothers economically ahead of California’s new Anglo settlers.

However, as more Americans moved into California following annexation, they discovered that millions of acres of fertile land belonged to a small number of Mexican families. Consequently, white settlers increasingly resented Californios. As a result, Congress soon enacted the Land Act of 1851 that demanded Mexican land grant owners prove the legitimacy of their titles. On October 10th, 1854, the United States Land Commission confirmed Juan J. Warner’s claim to José Antonio’s Agua Caliente grant. With continued misfortune, the commission then confirmed William Cary Jones’s claim for Mission San Luis Rey on June 12, 1855. José Antonio therefore lost both properties.

Marriage, Children and Brothers

In 1828, José Antonio married María Soledad Ybarra in San Diego. María Soledad died young. Later, José Antonio married Magdalena Baca, a shoemaker’s widow from Los Angeles. José Antonio and Magdalena named their first son José María Pico. A second son was born on February 16, 1842 when Magdalena birthed Francisco Pico. The couple later had two daughters: María Concepcion was born on April 8, 1855, and Rudecinda arrived on May 30, 1863. Both daughters were baptized at Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Unlike the tight bond between Pío and Andrés, who were said to have a “bond stronger than most brothers ever share,” José Antonio did not have close friendships with his brothers. When Pío fled California to Mexico in the 1840s, José Antonio and his family remained on and maintained Pío and Andrés’ property at Santa Margarita. Later, José Antonio asked his brothers to grant him a deed to part of the land, though they refused. José Antonio was later said to have commented on the “ungratefulness” of his brothers for selling the ranch without giving him an interest. José Antonio later settled with Magdalena and their children at a place called the “Pueblito” in Santa Margarita.

Death and Legacy

José Antonio died on October 11, 1871 in San Diego and was buried at Mission San Luis Rey. After his death, the widowed Magdelena Baca claimed that José Antonio left a quarter of Rancho Santa Margarita for her and the children, though her evidence was ruled insufficient in Forster vs. Pico since, as discussed above, José Antonio himself was granted no ownership.

Their son Francisco, who married María de los Dolores del Rosario Aguirre in 1884, died on September 9, 1909. Francisco gave José Antonio four grandchildren: Clarence Pico, Albert Pico, Gertrude Pico, and Ruth Pico, who passed away in 1990.

Recommended Reading

Engelhardt, Fr. Zephyrin. Missions and Missionaries of California. San Francisco: The James H. Barry Company, 1915.

Reports of Land Cases Determined in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. San Francisco: Numa Hubert, 1862.

Saddleback Ancestors: Rancho Families of Orange County, California. Orange: Orange County California Genealogical Society, 1969.

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

Tyler, Helen. “The Family of Pico.” The Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly 35, no. 3 (1953): 221-38.

Stephenson, Terry E.. Forster vs. Pico: A California Cause Célèbre. Santa Ana: Fine Arts Press, 1936.