Don Pío de Jesús Pico
By Morgan Vonder Haar
Don Pío de Jesús Pico shaped California during a formative period from Mexican independence through the Anglo-American take-over. Pico was one of the most influential Californios of the time, holding a vast real estate empire and entering into politics at a young age. Pico took advantage of all the opportunities and changes offered by California. He came from a mixed racial background of Indigenous, Spanish, and African descent and despite the socio-racial hierarchy in Spanish and later Mexican society, California offered more opportunities for men of mixed racial identity to advance. Pico’s ninety-three-year lifespan (1801-1894) highlights his ambition, controversy, and adaptability in a changing California.
Pío de Jesús Pico was born in 1801 at the San Gabriel Mission situated just north of Los Angeles, which, at the time, was a small underdeveloped Spanish settlement. His grandfather, Santiago de la Cruz Pico, had come to California just sixteen years beforehand, in 1775, as a soldier from Sinaloa. He married María Jacinta Bastida who was listed in the 1790 census as a “mulata,” meaning of African and European ancestry. Pío de Jesús Pico’s father, José María also worked within the military as a mission guard, marrying an “española” or Spaniard, María Eustaquia Gutierres. Together José and María created a family of ten children and, despite José’s military successes, lived in poverty as Spain and then Mexico did little to develop California economically. Early California life was marked by a lack of resources, and what was available was controlled by the church. Once Mexico became independent, it struggled with centralization and nation building and did not have the money, time, or excess resources to support California.
Pico spent his early childhood at the San Gabriel Mission, receiving an education like many other young boys of the time, learning how to read and write. He and his family then moved to the small community of San Diego which allowed for the Pico family to gain a reputation both militarily and politically, providing young, eager men like Pico the ability to make connections with high-ranking military officers. By 1815, the young Pío Pico was put in charge of mission guards in the absence of his father. However, soon after young Pico’s entrance into a military career, his father died in 1819 after a turn of event that labeled him a rebel which left José María without honor, money or land. This meant that young Pico would take over the duties as the head of household in the absence of
his father. Pico’s oldest brother, José Antonio, was unable to return home from his military service which left Pico to take care of his other siblings, Andrés, Concepción, Tomasa, María, Isadora, Estéfana, Jacinta and Feliciana. His closest relationship was with his brother Andrés. Despite this hardship, Pío Pico found himself as a rising political power in just a short decade.
Social Climbing and Rising Political Career
California, during Pío Pico’s life, represented a new era of political and economic changes for people of African descent. For Pico, his entrance into politics came when Luis Bringas, a merchant charged for misappropriation of funds for a consignment of goods sent from the Mexican government, proclaimed that “the civilians were the sacred core of the nation and that the military were nothing more than servants.” Pico was so moved by this statement that he ended up in jail in 1827 for insubordination in siding with Bringas, marking Pico’s first political action. His liberal politics would soon end up shaping California’s early political system.
The Pico family came into wealth and prominence, despite the poverty of Pico’s late father, through the marriages and family unions of his sisters, Concepción, María Casimira and Estéfana. These marriages created financial security as well as connections for the Picos to some of
the most important families in California. By 1826 Pio Pico had become a highly successful politician in San Diego. In 1831, Pico joined the California legislature despite his personal lack of wealth and assets.
As a result of this political prominence, Governor Echeandía granted Pico his first large ranch, Rancho Jamul, in 1829, located near San Diego. This ranch elevated Pío Pico into further political prominence, as he now became part of California’s landowning class. Like most landholders at the time, Pico soon began investing in livestock. This was just the beginning of both Pico’s real estate and cattle empire. However, Governor Echeandía’s power and generosity was soon diminished with the arrival of a new, federally appointed governor, General Manuel Victoria, whose political views stood in direct opposition to Pico’s.
The new governor pushed Pico and other Californio leaders to make a risky move: launching a revolt. Victoria’s policies acted against the federalist principles that Pico and his colleagues had worked to uphold. Governor Victoria planned to abolish local autonomy, placing political power back into the hands of the federal government, thereby disenfranchising many prominent families. In late 1831, Pico, as the highest-ranking native Californian official, argued he had the legal right to rebel in order to protect Mexican law. Pico also presented himself as a protector for the common citizen’s liberty, disseminating his manifesto throughout California with the help of his brother, Andrés. Many Californios followed Pico’s lead, rejecting Victoria. Both sureños, residents of Southern California, and norteños, residents of Northern California, began plotting to rebel. On November 30th, 1831, the rebels, led by Pío Pico, released a group of liberal political prisoners in the name of the previous governor, Encheandía. By early December the insurrection confronted and prevailed against Victoria and his greatly outnumbered forces, forcing Victoria to return to Mexico. Pico became interim governor for a few months until continuing political upheaval in California became too overwhelming, and he resigned. Pico, however, was now an established political force that had pushed for the independent power of California within the Mexican republic.
The instalment of Governor Figueroa by the Mexican government marked the beginning of secularization within California. This new policy stripped land from the Catholic Church and in theory were supposed to give more freedoms for the indigenous population. Governor Figueroa had dual command as the jefe político (chief political officer) and comandante general (ranking military commander). Land and property were to be given to indigenous peoples and the surplus were to be used to benefit the economy. At this time, Pico had married María Ignacia Alvarado with the governor as his best man and within the next year, in 1835, was named the comisionado (commissioner) of the San Luis Rey Mission. Pío Pico was now one of the wealthiest men in California with the San Luis Rey Mission’s value of $194,436. However, Pico’s establishment of power and order within his newly acquired land came at the cost of forced indigenous labor and the continuing of a rigid social structure that had been enforced by the old clergy.
Pico’s mistreatment of the native population led to rumblings of protest and revolt. In this case, Pío relied upon government support and assistance to mediate the situation and allow for his continuation of his position as comisionado. The discontent persisted, resulting in an attack on Ranchero Jamul. Pico’s mother, Doña Eustaquia, and her daughters were fortunately able to escape unharmed though his mayordomo (steward), Juan Leiva and other employees, were killed. With California’s economy failing, native protests and the lack of a substantial military, many in Mexico and California were in panic. Pico was among the Californios experiencing hardship and sold his family ranchero in 1839. Soon after, he was also discharged from his position within the mission because of native complaints as well as other accusations of corruption and exploitation.
The disruption of his finances and position of power forced Pico to retreat from public affairs for a short period of time. However, he remained in opposition to Northern California power. Pío Pico purchased a house in the main plaza of, what was, the small city of Los Angeles. He invested most of his money into San Diego while others managed his two large ranches in Jamul and Santa Margarita. Pico became a wealthy, prominent Angeleño despite the continued political crisis in California. Pico, however, was adamantly against the independence of California from Mexico resulting in a battle with Governor Micheltorena. This battle ended with the reins of government handed over to Pico and most Californians recognized him as governor. Norteños were adamantly against Pico especially as they became increasingly disenfranchised through his influence. California’s capital had moved to Los Angeles and in 1845 Pico attempted to move the treasury as well which was rejected but only worked to intensify tensions between Northern and Southern Californian elite. Pico's family connections and negotiation skills helped him ease some of the unfortunate political strife, but California’s unstable atmosphere coupled with the threat of United States invasion affected his management. In order to protect California without the support of Mexico City he was forced to sell off missions and rush his secularization policy in order to obtain funds to prepare for war.
The United States was eager to acquire California, seeing it as the jewel of the West with bountiful resources and the San Francisco Bay, which would open trade to Asia. On January 29th, 1846, John C. Fremont, the son-in-law of US Senator Thomas Hart Benton, arrived in California with armed troops in order to discuss a friendly annexation. The California assembly began to meet continuously after March 1846 to address the disordered educational system, the administration of justice, and the state of the military. The Mexican government also sent orders to Pico to prevent the immigration of foreign families and parties from Oregon. However, General Castro, supported by the norteños, moved forward with a junta (ruling council) in order to weaken Pico’s power and protect California from invasion. Pico saw this threat as leading to civil war. These tensions continued to rise as General Castro met with Fremont. Pico therefore prepared his men in southern California to take on the norteños and then the Americans.
Fremont used the tensions between the Californios in order to launch the Bear Flag Revolt in what is now Sonoma County. The Bear Flag Revolt invigorated Pico’s cause against what the Californios perceived as an act of aggression on the part of the U.S. Unable to defend themselves, however, Pico met with Englishman Captain Patrick Blake to discuss the protection of California under the British. Unfortunately, plans did not move forward and in early July 1846, just days after meeting with Blake, U.S. naval forces captured Monterey. On July 12, Pico and General Castro publicly reconciled in order to properly protect California’s independence.
For the next year, Pico and Castro rallied their men and resources in preparation for war with the United States. Many Californios had understood the dire situation the state was in and petitioned Pico for land grants. From February 1845 to August 1846, Pico had issued 146 land grants, accounting for 2.54 million acres of land. However, the irregularity of the high numbers of these “eleventh hour” grants so close to the official U.S. occupation casted doubts on Pico’s motives. By June, Castro had decided to flee California to inform the Mexican federal government and soon, under advice of the California assembly, Pico fled as well. As the U.S. occupation looked inevitable, many prominent Californios began to side with the United States and nearly a month after Pico fled Los Angeles, the war turned violent. Pico’s brother, Andrés, managed to hold off Brigadier General Stephen W. Kearney and recapture Los Angeles while Governor Pico requested help from Mexico City. Relief for California never came as the Mexican government claimed that California was not their first priority. Andrés Pico ultimately signed the Treaty of Cahuenga in 1847, putting an end to hostility in California. This marked the end of Pico’s governorship as he returned to his Santa Margarita ranch in 1848, preparing for the next step in California’s history.
Regaining Prominence in Post War California
Pico arrived in the United States’ California as a controversial figure and recognized that the local political situation had drastically changed. Pico had an enormous presence and extraordinary wealth, which was seen as a threat to the U.S. especially considering his mixed-racial ancestry. Pico, nonetheless, faced his enemies head on, while his brother Andrés, having earned the respect of the Americans, became a highly influential politician and military leader. Many other Californios felt like Pico, outcast from the U.S. occupied California as cultural encounters invoked hostile tensions. This would bring all Californios from all different classes and racial backgrounds together to fight the racism and discrimination they felt from the Americans. This alliance was immediately tested as the United States pressured Pico to answer for the land grants he approved just before the military occupation. Yankee squatters felt like they deserved land grants like those given in Washington and Oregon and in 1851 Congress acted to seize many prominent Mexican families’ land. The Land Act of 1851 required Mexican land grant holders to prove the legitimacy of their land claims and Pico was called as a witness for these trials in San Francisco. Most of these grants were confirmed by the U.S. government but some Californios, like Andrés Pico, were not as lucky and lost their large estates. However, the lengthy trials, squatters, and high taxes caused many landowners to simply sell their land.
Racism would prove to become a larger factor into Pío Pico’s life, having his legitimacy called into question. Many Americans outwardly expressed their disdain for him, describing him as illiterate. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had protected Pico, at least on paper, allowing him to become a citizen. Despite the extreme racism felt under the U.S. regime, the Pico family was still prominent as Andrés won a seat in the state assembly in 1851. Pico, himself, went on to expand his business networks. U.S. government officials were, nonetheless, wary of Pico, viewing him as a threat to nation building.
Racial tensions grew in California as protests broke out in 1852 in Los Angeles and, by 1854, the Know Nothing Party won the governorship in California. The Know Nothing party used anti-Mexican rhetoric and many Californios faced discrimination. As outright hostility broke out, many Californios were murdered, abused in the gold fields, and expelled. Pico began to put his faith into the newly founded Republican party which promoted pro-citizen, pro-modernization, and an antislavery stance. In 1856, Pico led the California Republican Convention while his brother Andrés supported the pro-slavery Democrats. The political and racial divides continued to get worse in California and Los Angeles became its most violent city. The Californio community suffered immensely from both the violence and the legal discrimination. Pico played a large part in trying to defuse these tensions in order to gain economic success and renewed political power within the Republican Party. By the end of 1860, his younger brother Andrés had abandoned the Democrats for the Republicans.
Financial and Personal Hardship
Pío Pico was able to hold on to his real estate empire and wealth during the turmoil of early California history. Pío and Andrés held over 291,000 acres of land together along with many herds of cattle. These cattle provided gold miners with food, which was a major concern at the time. In 1849 Pico purchased the Rancho Paso de Bartolo, which became his primary residence and continued to be prosperous throughout the early 1850s. In 1865, California’s first oil company was founded with the resources provided by Andrés and Pío. The brothers spent their energy creating new industries and placing their money in many different kinds of economic ventures in hopes to produce more family wealth. They were involved in loans, agriculture, and cattle. However, his wealth did not shield him from getting into legal trouble, such as in McFarland and Downey v. Pico where a business matter led to a lawsuit. By 1857, the cattle industry had collapsed due to drought, and Pico had lost over 156 animals. Pico was still able to profit off the industry for a while by selling some of his well-bred mares.
Despite Pico’s success, he continued to face legal trouble. Pío was described as very trusting and kind towards strangers, this along with the mismanagement of his finances depleted his economic strength. In 1859, Pico’s financial struggles led to bankruptcy. This was the least of his concerns as Pico feared more the potential loss of reputation and vowed not to give up his properties. In 1862 Andres owed his brother over $60,000 and it only continued to grow. Pico, therefore, sold two of his ranchos, San Fernando and Encino, to allow both him and his brother to survive.
Los Angeles continued to decline with extreme amounts of violence, but Pico wanted to invest in the area. In 1869, Pico and his lawyers got to work purchasing the Carrillo home on the plaza in order to make a new hotel. This hotel would be run by Antonio Cuyas and Pico had hired French chef Charlie Laugier for the guests. The hotel had access to local businesses as well as Wells Fargo and Company express offices. However much of Pico’s assets went to brokers, lawyers, and moneylenders, having overextended himself in real estate. By 1873, Pico had three cases before the California Supreme Court, the most famous being Forster v. Pico. John Forster was his brother-in-law who, in order to help Pico survive his debts, bought one-half of Pico’s Santa Margarita Ranch. However, the contract had been in English and Forster had tricked him into signing over the entire rancho.
Pico’s trusting nature would continue to put himself into legal and financial issues, causing him to lose much of his acquired wealth. Even his own mistress, María Martínez tried to take his primary home, the Ranchito, in 1865. This case particularly caused public disgrace for Pico’s late wife, María Alvarado. Pico was known to have had affairs before the death of his wife, some producing children. He only recognized these children after her death, Griselda and Joaquina from an affair with Ascención Ávila in 1838. He also had a relationship with Felicita Romero, who produced Alfredo and Ranulfo. It is unclear whether or not he had any children with his wife. The loss of his Rancho Santa Margarita and other financial problems, including his expansive legal problems took a huge toll on him. The worst of his hardships came with the death of Andrés in 1876. This caused a lawsuit between Rómulo Pico, who had been raised by Andrés, and Pío over who had claim to Andrés’ estate. Pío should have had legal rights to his brother’s estate as Rómulo was not Andrés’ legal nor adopted son. This case allowed the entire family to be subjected to public scrutiny and gossip, disrupting the unity for which the family had been known.
As Pico turned ninety years old, he had lost the remainder of his property in Pico v. Cohn and like many of the other legal cases, it was incredibly unjust. The case was long and costly. Bernard Cohn was a trusted associate of Pico and because Pico needed some quick cash, he negotiated a contract. Pico had once again been defrauded by a trusted friend, resulting in the loss of the last of his assets.
After the trial, Pico was forced to leave his Ranchito, living a few more years in Los Angeles until his death in 1894. Many of his close friends and family had already passed away and by the end of his life Pico had little wealth to show for his incredible life. The second portion of his life was riddled with financial hardship and humiliation in court. However, Don Pío de Jesús Pico never lost his legacy as he navigated the tough terrains of a growing California. He was able to maneuver himself into positions of power, caring for his loved ones and building a vast amount of wealth and assets. His life reminds us that California’s history has a multicultural legacy and should celebrate not only its Mexican past but its Afro-descendant Californio past.
Estrada, William. “The Life and Times of Pío Pico, Last Governor of Mexican California.” KCET, (2017): https://www.kcet.org/shows/lost-la/the-life-and-times-of-pio-pico-last-governor-of-mexican-california.
Salomon, Carlos Manuel. “California Son: The Life of Pio Pico.” San Francisco State University, (2002). https://www.proquest.com/docview/305546837?pq-origsite=gscholar&fromopenview=true.
Salomon, Carlos Manuel. Pio Pico: The Last Governor of Mexican California. University of Oklahoma Press, (2010).
Valdes y Cocom, Mario de. “The Blurred Racial Lines of Famous Families.” PBS: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/secret/famous/pico.html