Friday, July 24, 2015

Pio Pico: The Last Governor of Mexican California (a book report)

Today, I finished reading a fantastic history book called Pio Pico: The Last Governor of Mexican California, which is about the guy who was governor of California when it was part of Mexico, just before the United States conquered the golden state (and half of Mexico to boot).  Pio Pico is often not given his just place in California history, and this book seeks to show how this one man’s life embodied dramatic changes in California (my home state).  As author Carlos Manuel Salomon writes, “California was formed between two worlds at the decline of the Spanish empire and the dawn of an emerging United States.”  I wrote a book report on what I learned.  Enjoy!


Pio Pico’s Ancestry

Pio Pico’s lineage included Indian, Spanish, and African ancestry, which initially placed him near the bottom of the racial caste system of Spanish society in the New World.  His grandfather, Santiago de la Cruz Pico, accompanied the Spanish soldier/colonizer Juan Bautista de Anza in 1775 on an expedition north into Alta California, part of Spain’s plan to settle California with missions and soldiers.

Juan Bautista de Anza (1774)

Pio’s father, Jose Maria Pico, served as a guard in California missions.  He was instrumental in foiling Kizh-Gabrieleno leader Toypurina’s rebellion at Mission San Gabriel.  Jose Maria joined the Mexican Independence movement, for which he was imprisoned in San Diego in 1811.  He never achieved his goal of obtaining a California land grant.

Toypurina is a hero to the local Kizh (Gabrieleno) tribe.

Pio was born in 1801 at Mission San Gabriel, and had a relatively poor childhood.

Pio Pico’s Political Rise


Pico rose to prominence through the marriages of his sisters to prominent Californio families.  In 1826, he was elected to San Diego town council, and eventually became a part of a political leadership cadre known as the disputation, which also included the Yorba family (who owned the rancho where modern-day Yorba Linda exists).  In 1829, California governor Jose Maria de Echeandia gave Pico his first land grant, Rancho Jamul, east of San Diego, and he became an emerging cattle baron. 

In Mexico at this time (including California) the two political factions were: conservatives (who favored a centralized military-type authority), and liberals (who favored more local/civilian authority).  Pico was a liberal.  When the conservative General Manuel Victoria was appointed governor of California, Pico opposed him. 

In conjunction with other political and business leaders, Pico began fomenting dissent against Victoria, writing manifestos and distributing circular pamphlets.  In 1831, he and other leaders (including Abel Stearns, who owned the rancho where my hometown of Fullerton exists today) led a rebellion against Victoria’s government.  They marched into San Diego, captured military leaders, and took weapons.  At the Battle of Cahuenga (outside LA), the two forces met and Victoria was defeated.  Pico became temporary governor of California.

There followed a power struggle between Pico and Echeandia in the south, and Victoria’s secretary Augustin Zamorano in the north.  In 1833, Jose Figueroa was appointed governor of California.   In 1834, Pico married Maria Ignacia Alvarado in the plaza church in Los Angeles.  Governor Figueroa was present as the best man.

Pio Pico and his wife Maria Ignacia Alvarado.

Secularization of the Missions

In 1833, partial secularization of the missions was enacted, divesting the catholic church of mission lands, but not distributing them to the Indians, as was seen by many as the goal of secularization.

Instead of re-distributing the mission lands to the Indians, regional politicians were given control over them as comisionados.  In 1835, Pico was named comisionado of Mission San Luis Rey, and almost immediately ran into conflict with the Luisenos (native tribe) over the labor requirement of secularization (the Indians were still required to work the lands for free).  In 1836, Pico was named encargado de justica, a position of judicial power which basically undermined the authority of the local Indian leader of the Luisenos, Pablo Asis.


Author Carlos M. Salomon writes, “His primary aim was to operate an enterprise rather than to ensure the transition of former neophytes into Mexican society…Forcing the Indians to work, denying their promised liberties, treating them harshly, and encroaching on Temecula, where he grazed his own cattle, led to Indian protests and eventually rebellion.”  Eventually Pico acquired the Luisenos’ land of Temecula.

Thus, the Luisenos despised Pico.  Salomon writes, “Although many historians say he was the worst exploiter of the missions, he seems to have done no worse or better than the other administrators…The proponents of secularization believed that liberty, private ownership of land, and the ‘gift’ of entering Mexican society would transform the Indian population.  Yet, in many instances, the Indians simply wanted to be left to themselves.”

In 1837, Pico joined a rebellion against the new governor of California, Juan Bautista Alvarado.

War With the United States

Under the administration of governor Alvarado, Pico lost Mission San Juis Rey and Temecula, but gained Rancho Santa Margarita.  Thus, his status and wealth remained relatively intact.  At this time, Pico lived in Los Angeles, as a member of a kind of rancher-political elite.  Los Angeles at this time was the most populous town in California.   In 1845, after another uprising against the governor, Pico was appointed interim governor and he named Los Angeles the capital of California.

Meanwhile, illegal immigrants (Yankees) from the United States began arriving in California.   After the annexation of Texas, and the continuous tide of Anglo settlers, war with the US seemed imminent.  The United States’ designs on California were an embodiment of Manifest Destiny and the expansionist policies of president James K. Polk.  In 1846, U.S. military leader/explorer John C. Fremont arrived in Caifornia with soldiers and unstated intentions.


Not only was California facing a potential external threat (from the US), but it was having strong internal problems too.  In 1846, Pico was officially made governor, however, he immediately came into conflict with the northern military leader Manuel Castro, who threatened civil war.  Meanwhile, in defiance against the Mexican government of California, the American Fremont raised an American flag at his “fort” and lead a rag-tag independence movement called the “Bear Flag Revolt" (or, California Republic).  At first, Pico thought it was a hoax.  But when Fremont refused to leave, Pico protested the actions of the American squatters.

The "Bear Flag Revolt" was a bunch of Yankee squatters.

In the face of imminent attack, Pico and Castro reconciled their differences for the defense of California.  In 1846, the U.S. occupation of California began, as part of the larger Mexican-American War.  Military leader Robert F. Stockton landed in California with troops intent on conquest. Despite being outnumbered, Pico refused surrender.  Instead, he left California to seek assistance from Mexican president Santa Anna.


During the war (seeing opportunity), some Californios sided with the US, including Abel Stearns.  Meanwhile, American troops besieged Los Angeles.  Andres Pico (Pio’s brother), a valiant leader of the Californio defense against the United States, defeated general Stephen W. Kearney at San Pasqual, just outside of San Diego.  Ultimately, however, the Californio forces were outmatched by the American forces.  President Santa Anna did not send reinforcements, and in 1847, Andres Pico signed the Treaty of Cahuenga, which ended fighting in California.

Andres Pico (Pio's brother_

In 1848, the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo was signed, which ceded half of Mexico to the United States, including California.


After the War

After the Mexican-American War, under the U.S. military occupation, Californios experienced new kinds of racial discrimination.  Salomon writes: “To the racially conscious Yankees, Pico’s African features made his wealth and influence problematic.  When California became a state, less than two years after his return, blacks weren’t allowed to own land or attend public schools…The first state legislature passed a statute prohibiting blacks, Indians, and individuals having at least one-eighth African ancestry from testifying against white citizens.”   Indeed, the 1850s were “a period of unrelenting violence and prejudice against Mexicans.”

Describing racial violence in Los Angeles in the 1850s (the years immediately following the American conquest), Salomon writes: “Los Angeles became the most violent city in California in the 1850s, and for a time it claimed the highest murder rate in the United States.  Lynch mobs were not uncommon, and many Mexicans fell victim to racial intolerance.”

In 1850, California became a state, and in 1854, the Know Nothing Party gained political power—known for their anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant views.  Pico sided with the newly-formed Republican party (Lincoln’s party).  Democrats at this time were pro-slavery.  He even supported the presidential candidacy of John C. Fremont!  Pico used his influence as an arbiter between Californio and Anglo tensions.  He supported Lincoln’s candidacy for US president.


Pio Pico’s Decline

The main problem facing Californios after the war was land.  Though they enjoyed some legal protection under the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, they faced legal challenges to their land grants, Yankee squatters, and real estate speculators keen on acquiring former rancho lands.  The Land Act of 1851 proved disastrous for Californios, divesting them of thousands of acres.  At first, Pico proved economically resilient after U.S. annexation.  He and his brother held over 290,000 acres.

The Gold Rush was actually an economic boon for Pico.  The 49ers needed food, and became a steady a consumer market for his cattle.  Also, Andres co-founded California’s first oil company, Star Oil, which eventually became Standard Oil (by this time the Picos had sold their stocks).  Meanwhile, Pio invested in the Los Angeles Plaza (today, Olvera Street).  He built the luxury hotel Pico House, which still stands.


However, in the 1850s, the cattle industry in California began to decline, and the last decades of Pico’s life would be years of loss and decline.  He lost Rancho Santa Margarita to his brother-in-law John Forster over a debt.  His brother Andres’ developed a major gambling addiction, which cost Pico a lot of money and land.  In 1876, Andres was beaten to death in Los Angeles, probably over a gambling debt.

The final loss would come with the case of Pico vs. Cohn, in which the aging don lost the last of his once vast empire.   Pico won the case, but lost in retrial.  And he lost everything: the Pico House, a bank building in LA, and his beloved Ranchito in Whittier.  He lived the rest of his days poor, with friends and family.  Meanwhile, the California demographic was changing—Anglos began to outnumber Mexicans and Californios, and their contributions to California history, society, and culture would often be excluded from official histories.


Pio Pico died in 1894.

Pio Pico’s Legacy

In 1893, one year before his death, Pio Pico was invited to attend the massive World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago (basically, the World’s Fair), as a representative of the “Old West.”  He published his response in the Los Angeles Times: “No, I will not go, for two good reasons.  The first is because I am poor, and the second is because I do not intend to go to the big show to be one of the animals on exhibit.  If those gringos imagine for a moment that they can take me back there and show me in a side tent at two bits a head thy are very much mistaken.”


Reflecting on Pio Pico’s legacy, Salomon writes: “Today, as the demographics of Mexican Americans in California soar to new heights, Pio Pico is a historic figure many look up to as a shining and inspirational example of the Mexican past.  Pio Pico’s life story reminds us of a unique multicultural legacy in California.  Pico’s two hundredth birthday celebration in Los Angeles revealed that he has taken on a new role in California’s history.  Today, Cinco de Mayo is a celebration not only of the Mexican past, but also of a  Californio past, rich in its Mexican, American Indian, African American, and European roots.”

The Pico House still stands in the historic Plaza on Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles.

1 comment:

  1. Great article, thanks! I wonder if you have more information about Gov. Echeandia and his story - where was he from, why did he come to Mexico, ancestry, etc. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete