José de Jesus “Totoi” Pico

By Jessica R. Smith

"Don José de Jesus Pico," California Historical Section, California State Library, 2bfb7408dc40d0060dcba9d56e141/.

Don José de Jesus “Totoi” Pico was born March 27th, 1807 in Monterey, California to José Dolores Pico and Maria Isabel Cota. Pico’s father was of African descent through his mother, María Jacinta de la Bastida. Pico was by all accounts a handsome man and was a soldier and government official based in San Luis Obispo. Pico followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a soldier. From 1827 to 1831 he served as a regular soldier in the Monterey company. From 1828 to 1829, he took part in the Solis revolts, but he seems to have taken time off in the early 1830s to start a family. In 1832, he married Javiesa Trinidad Antonia Gabriela Villavicencio (1813-1869) at Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel, California. The couple had 12 children together. From 1836 to 1847 Pico was in and out of active military service, taking time to serve in administrative positions in Missions. During this time, he obtained a grant of land for his service in the military known as the Rancho de la Piedra Blanca. In the early 1850s Pico finally retired from the military and settled in San Luis Obispo as a state assemblyman, which kept him away from his ranch. He eventually began to sell off large pieces of his land when he could no longer afford taxes and land expenses. Despite selling his ranch, he kept a home in San Luis Obispo where he lived with his wife until his passing on May 1, 1892.

Early Years (1807-1845)

In 1836, Pico returned to the military under the command of his friend and governor of California, Don Juan Bautista Alvarado (1809-1882). Alvarado, known as the father of the Red Star Revolution, was the first of the Californios to become governor. He took this position through his involvement in the Red Star Revolution (1836) in which he intended to overthrow the current governor, Nicolas Gutierrez. In November of 1836, Pico assisted Alvarado and his forces in securing the governor’s surrender and gaining California more autonomy from Mexico. For his services in the revolution, Alvarado appointed Pico administrator for the San Antonio Mission from 1838 to1840 before being assigned a post at the San Miguel mission where he served from 1841 to1843.

Pico was also given a grant of land by Alvarado for his bravery in 1836. With this grant Pico obtained Rancho de la Piedras Blanca in San Luis Obispo County on January 1, 1840.

Extending from Arroyo del Morena to San Carpoforo Creek, the grant encompassed 48,805.59 acres. Pico built a home for himself and his family on the Rancho. He kept orchards and cattle on the property, but he spent little time there, leaving it to be maintained by Native American workers while he attended his post at the San Miguel Mission. In addition to the abode he built on the Rancho, he kept a home in San Luis Obispo to be closer to his work there.

After 3 years of maintaining his mission post, Pico re-entered active military service in 1844. Upon his re-entrance, he took part in revolts led by Juan Bautista Alvarado to secure the resignation of Governor Manuel Micheltorena. Micheltorena had earned the ire of the Californios by returning missions to the church, evicting anyone who lived on those lands. Pico aided Alvarado’s forces near Los Angeles, helping to secure Micheltorena’s resignation. This allowed Pio Pico, José de Jesus Pico’s cousin, to become the last governor of California. His participation in these affairs paved the way to his meeting John Charles Fremont (1813-1890) in 1846.

Breaking Parole - Facing Execution (1845-1847)

After assisting Juan Bautista Alvarado in Los Angeles, José de Jesus Pico and Alvarado made their way back to San Luis Obispo, California. Upon their return an American battalion commanded by Fremont approached the two men. The battalion granted Pico and Alvarado parole under general amnesty in exchange for agreeing upon oath that they would not bear arms against the United States for the remainder of the war with Mexico. A few months after taking this oath, Pico was once again called upon to bear arms against the United States, breaking his previous oath under orders from his Mexican commander.

Commanding General José Maria Flores sent word to Pico with orders to organize a military force to assist Don Manuel Castro and Don Federico Rico in what is known today as the Battle of Natividad. Pico understood that breaking his parole was wrong and that doing so risked severe punishments if he was caught, but he also understood that the lives of his countrymen were at stake. He was named military commander of San Luis Obispo. Pico recruited everyone who could bear arms to participate in the force, amounting to about 30 men and began their march alongside Castro and Rico. The force fought primarily in La Natividad (Monterey) against Fremont’s forces on November 16, 1846. The battle lasted roughly 5 hours, ultimately ending in the defeat of Fremont’s forces. Pico and some 20 men retreated to San Luis Obispo as night fell that day, believing they were being pursued by American forces. While the rest of his companions continued to Los Angeles, Pico stayed in San Luis Obispo and stationed a Native American named Santa Maria as a lookout in San Miguel.

Fremont pursued Pico and his forces, capturing Santa Maria first. Fremont executed Maria before continuing to San Luis Obispo to capture Pico. The American Battalion captured patrons at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa who informed them that Pico was in Los Osos. Fremont employed a man named Henry Dalley to lead men to the Rancho of Don Juan Wilson, where Pico and his family were staying. 50 men ran into the home and captured Pico, taking him back to San Luis Obispo to meet Fremont. Fremont accused Pico of breaking his parole and inciting rebellion against American forces and ordered a court-martial for December 16, 1846. Pico awaited his court-martial confined in the southeast corner of the Mission San Luis.

The trial was short, as Pico denied nothing. He admitted to breaking parole, forming an army, and participating in the battle at La Natividad. However, he claimed that the fault was his alone, and therefore, he should be the only one punished for the actions against American forces. Pico’s words led Fremont to set all the other prisoners free, but condemned Pico to be executed by firing squad the following morning.

On December 17, 1846, Fremont’s men marched to the center of the mission plaza, guns drawn. Fremont looked down upon them from his window in the mission. These men had lost friends at the Battle of Natividad and “they needed something or somebody to take the brunt of their growing fury, and Totoi Pico was to be the symbol of the invisible enemy, the scapegoat for all that had happened to them,” (Egan, 398). As Pico was being led to his execution, his wife was being brought before Fremont, their children following behind her. She fell to her knees and pleaded for her husband’s life to be spared. She claimed that her husband did what any man would to protect what he loved, and he would have been shamed if he had not taken command when his countrymen needed his service. Fremont listened to her pleas and instructed her to go home so that he could rethink his decision.

Fremont brought Pico before him. “He came in with the gray face of a man expecting death, but calm and brave,” despite knowing death was near (excerpt from Fremont’s Memoirs). Fremont informed Pico that his wife’s words have spared his life; however, Pico’s relation to other prominent members of the Pico family (Pio and Andrés Pico, former Mexican Governor and successful Mexican military commander respectively) may have also played a role in Fremont’s decision to spare his life. Fremont seemed to understand that after the war was over governing California would only be achieved with the help of prominent families like the Picos. According to Fremont, Pico responded to the news by thanking him and devoting the new life he had been given to Fremont.

After Fremont pardoned Pico, the two became friends and allies and on January 12, 1847, Pico accompanied Fremont to Los Angeles to help bring peace to the area. The pair then traveled from Los Angeles to Monterey with one of Fremont’s servants, Jacob Dodson. The three men traveled for days on horseback, eventually picking up a young Californio in San Luis Obispo to assist them on the journey. On the third day of their journey the group stopped in Salinas to rest. The three men were awoken by the Californio alerting them to grizzly bears approaching their camp. Fremont was immediately on guard wanting to shoot at the bears, but Pico stopped him before he could start shooting. Pico approached the bears, explaining that if you speak to them the right way they may be inclined to move along. Pico advanced on the bears slowly and once he was close enough, began shouting at them in Spanish until they fled. Fremont became one of California’s first senators and was the first Republican presidential candidate for the United States. Pico eventually returned home to his family, settling in San Luis Obispo.

“John Charles Fremont,” Mexican War in California.

"War in California,”


Juan Bautista Alvarado, father of the Red Star Revolution, “California's 'Red Star' Revolution." Santa Cruz Sentinel, July 25, 2021.

Settling in San Luis Obispo (1850-1892)

After his military services, Pico settled in San Luis Obispo in the early 1850s, where he got involved in the local government. In 1854, he was elected to serve in San Luis Obispo County as state assemblyman, which drew most of his time away from his ranch, Rancho de la Piedra Blanca, and he and his family lived at their home in San Luis Obispo. In that same year he began to sell off parts of the ranch, in part because he could no longer afford the taxes and land expenses. He began by selling 1,000 acres of land to a family friend named John D. Wilson for $1,500. From 1854 to 1865, he deeded pieces of his land to his children. However, 1863 to 1865 brought droughts that killed off most of his cattle and horses and he went further into debt on the Ranch. Finally, on April 20, 1865, Pico sold a massive amount of the land (including his half) to George Hearst for $9,350. His son Zenobio owned two bay lots on the land, but Pico himself had been removed from the Rancho.

George Hearst, a wealthy Euro-American man, had plans to acquire the entirety of the lands in San Simeon Bay. In total, he acquired roughly 50 miles along the coast. He left the land to his wife when he died, who in turn left it to their son William Randolph Hearst. Hearst built extensively on the land. Building a home for himself and expanding upon the rest of his estate. Hearst threw massive parties at his estate for celebrities and friends from all over the world, going so far as to build a zoo to entertain his guests. Although he sold off a considerable amount of the land in 1940, his estate, Hearst’s Castle, still stands today.

Although he had to sell his land, José de Jesus Pico remained a prominent figure in San Luis Obispo. He lived with his wife in the city until her passing in 1869. In 1878, Pico burned all documents in his possession that had any historic value. Don José de Jesus Pico died of “la gripe” (most likely influenza) on Sunday, May 1, 1892 at 11:38am at the Graves home in San Luis Obispo. He was 85 years old.

Pico was known to be a talkative but modest man who never pushed for recognition of his achievements. He was described as suave, polite, and generous by acquaintances. For example, in the early 1850s, José de Jesus Pico was seen riding a horse down Monterey Street in San Luis Obispo. A man stopped him to tell him what a fine horse he was riding. Pico responded with “At your service, sir,” before he dismounted, hat in hand, and gifted his horse to the man. He was the kind of man who gave without asking for anything in return, and fought for what he believed in.

Recommended Reading

Carotenuti, Joe. “José de Jesús Pico: Part 1.” Central Coast Journal (May 2021): 24-25. Carotenuti, Joe. “José de Jesús Pico: Part 2.” Central Coast Journal (June 2021): 24-25.

Cleland, Robert Glass. “The Early Sentiment for the Annexation of California: An Account of the Growth of American Interest in California, 1835-1845, II.” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 18, no. 2 (October 1914): 121-161.

Curry, Elliot “One of the Most Dramatic Incidents in the Early History of the City.”

Egan, Ferol. Frémont: Explorer for a Restless Nation. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1985.

Frémont, John Charles, The Expeditions of John Charles Frémont: Volume 2 The Bear Flag Revolt and the Court-Martial. Edited by Mary Lee Spence and Donald Jackson. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1973.

Gibson, Ross Eric. “California’s ‘Red Star’ Revolution.” Santa Cruz Sentinel, July 25, 2021.

Hamilton, Geneva “Rancho is First Development on Coast.”

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

Krieger, Dan. “A Hazardous Trail Through Paradise: Rain-slick Roads Crippled Fremont Soldiers’ Horses.” San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune, November 11, 1993.

Krieger, Dan. “Dona Ramona Carrillo de Wilson: Did She Save Pico?.” San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune, March 14, 1987.

Krieger, Dan. “José de Jesus ‘Totoi’ Pico Tells His Side of the Story.” San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune, March 7, 1987.

Krieger, Dan. “Pico is Focus of Fremont’s Revenge in 1846.” San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune, February 21, 1987.

Social Studies Fact Cards. “Rancho de la Piedra Blanca: Ranch of the White Rock.”

The Mexican War in California. “War in California.” po2.htm.

Whicher, John “José de Jesus Pico, A Son of the Old Spanish Invaders.” SLO Tribune.