José Maria Pico

By Kaelyn Bremer

Of all of California’s Spanish past, the family of Pico has left one of the most considerable impressions on the power dynamics and cultural structures that make up the area today. Throughout his lifetime, José Maria Pico held different roles in different parts of society. He was a Spanish/Mexican soldier, and most scholars consider him a key player in breaking up the Tongva rebellion. He also served as a corporal and sergeant. Later in life he fathered Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of California. Although Pio left a lasting legacy for his descendants, José Maria is ultimately responsible for perpetuating the Pico family line, many of whom went on to impact the lives of Spanish American natives, colonizers, and Californian inhabitants long after their time. California’s history as a territory, region, and state is rich with political and cultural quirks largely thanks to the militaristic and administrative contributions of the Pico family. From settlement expeditions to military conquests, José Maria fortified his family name and California’s polycultural past.

Early Life- 1765

In present-day Sonora Mexico, José Maria was born to Santiago Pico, a mestizo, and Maria Jacinta Vastida, a mulata. In Spanish American society, race was a determining factor of a person’s socioeconomic class and career opportunities. Spanish noblemen topped the caste system, while native and black women made up the lower ranks. Thus, José’s mixed racial identity ensured from birth that certain opportunities, leadership positions, and social rankings were denied him. He had several siblings: José Miguel, Francisco Javier, Patricio, José Dolores, Maria Antonia, and Maria Joséfa. His family was one of notable Spanish-American ancestry, and settlement of the west had begun centuries before his birth with the colonization of the Spanish in the Americas.

Journey to Alta California- 1776

While the British colonies were just beginning their fight for freedom thousands of miles to the east, Spanish California began its own religious and militaristic transformation. When he was eleven years old, José Maria’s family embarked on an expedition from San Javier de Cabazan on the Rio Piastola in Sonora, Mexico, to San Francisco in Alta California. The purpose of this journey, led by commander Juan Bautista de Anza and hence called the Anza Party, was to colonize Alta California and establish a Catholic mission. The journey was a long and arduous one and consisted of several close-knit families. José Maria’s future wife, Maria Estaquia Lopez, was just a child when her family left with the Picos, and the two played together throughout the journey, fatefully unknowing of their joint future. Upon completing the months-long march, Santiago was directed to lead a presidio, a fortified military complex, in San Diego. The Pico family relocated to San Diego, and his father’s occupation guaranteed that José Maria and his brothers would also pursue militaristic careers. José Maria and his own family transferred several times between San Diego and San Gabriel before they eventually permanently settled near Mission San Gabriel.

Mission San Gabriel Uprising- 1785

Throughout his career, José Maria served as a corporal and sergeant. Most notably he played a significant role in resolving the Tongva Rebellion. In 1785, at Mission San Gabriel in Baja California, a large group of Tongva natives organized a plot to overtake the Mission and its inhabitants. José Maria was one soldier responsible for fortifying the mission and preventing the onslaught of natives. Probably because he grew up there José spoke Tongva and consequently eavesdropped on conversations in which the specifics of the plan were discussed. He was able to alert the inhabitants of the mission and prepare a counterattack. Two converted natives, Toypurina and Nicolas José, were held accountable for organizing the plot and instigating treason and heresy. The root of their grievances stemmed from a centuries-long pursuit of Spanish colonizers, missionaries, and soldiers attempting to brutally change their way of life.

José Maria’s defense of the mission and translation of Tongva and Spanish eyewitness accounts during the subsequent trials was his public display of simultaneous dedication to indigenous cultural values and Spanish society and religion. Ironically, despite José’s background and mixed racial identity, both of which were looked down upon in the Spanish caste system and prevented any sort of occupational advancement in his lifetime, meant his capabilities helped preserved Spanish colonial hierarchy in the region. Although he was never able to fully climb ranks in the military at San Diego, this event did establish a positive reputation for his career, especially at San Gabriel.


In 1782 José joined the San Diego Company as a soldier. From then until 1790, he

advanced in skill and rank, moving to serve as a guard at the mission in San Gabriel. He served the mission’s military posts with minimal income and focused on overseeing the control and conversion of natives. After his successful quelling of the Mission San Gabriel uprising, the 1790 census listed José as a Spaniard. Yet this was an identity significant only on paper, and José was never able to fully gain the credibility necessary to purchase land or titles. In the early 1800s, he was appointed sergeant of the San Diego Presidio, and soon thereafter commander of the guard at San Gabriel.

By 1810, Mexican independence came to colonial California. After word spread of Napoleon’s seizure of the Spanish crown in 1809, rumors of mestizo heroes, the abolition of slavery, and end the caste system in the Spanish empire circulated, man even high-ranking authorities to considered independence . Perhaps desiring toadvance his career, José Maria supported the Mexican movement for independence. In 1811, he was charged with conspiracy and disloyalty at the San Diego presidio, along with most of his cohort. Although José was quickly incarcerated and released, this brief brush with rebellion eliminated any last chances he had at obtaining land, retirement, or titles.

Personal Life and Death in 1819

In 1789, José Maria married Maria Estaquia Lopez, an Española (Spanish women), and the pair gave birth to several children; Andres, José Antonio Bernardo, Pio, Concepción, Estefana, Jacinta, Ysadora, Tomasa, and Felicina. Many of Pico’s children went on to marry into notable Californio families, like Carillo or Alvarado. Despite the advantages of his wife’s racial privileges and his reputation at the mission, José and his family remained in poverty. This might have been because of the limited resources and wealth the mission had to offer, because of their many children, or simply because settlements as distant as those in California were constantly understaffed and undersupplied. Several of José’s brothers received large land grants, but José himself never had such luck. José Maria died at the young age of 54 in San Gabriel in 1819, unable to witness the simultaneous blossoming of his children’s lives with California’s transformation into a Mexican territory.

Further Readings

Beebe, Rose Marie and Senkewicz, Robert M. Junipero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary. University of Oklahoma Press, 2015.

Frith, Eric. “The Rebellion Against the Mission of the Saintly Prince of the Archangel, San Gabriel of the Temblors, 1785.” KCET, History and Society.

Hackel, Steven W. “Sources of Rebellion: Indian Testimony and the Mission of San Gabriel Uprising of 1785.” Ethnohistory, vol. 50, no. 4. American Society for Ethnohistory, 2003. Link

Mason, William Marvin. The Census of 1790: A Demographic History of Colonial California. Ballena Press Anthropological Papers (no. 45). Ballena Press, 1998. Northrop,

Marie E. Spanish-Mexican Families of Early California: 1769-1850, Volume 1. Polyanthos, 1976.

Orange County Genealogical Society. Saddleback Ancestors: Rancho Families of Orange County, California. Orange County Genealogical Society. Aladdin Litho and Art, 1969.

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

Tyler, Helen. “The Family of Pico.” The Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 3, pp. 221-238. University of California Press, 1953.