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.
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 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.
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.
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.