Black Mexico: Legacy of Pío Pico
The legacy of Mexican California's final governor is enshrined in street names, schools, parks, and businesses across Southern California.
Pío Pico, Governor of Mexican California, circa 1897. Photo: Wikimedia/Schumacher/public domain
An amazing Afro-Mexican’s imprint on Los Angeles; Pío de Jesus Pico was the most influential Black-Mexican with roots to the original pobladores
This multiple-part series unravels the little-known history of how Mexico’s 15th-century assimilation of Spaniards, Indigenous natives, and African slaves gave rise to “Black Mexico,” and eventually led to the founding of Los Angeles by Black Mexicans and Mestizos in the 18th century when California was still under the rule of Mexico. Even though the Black imprint in Mexico is unraveling more and more as time moves on, the reality of the truth is still largely mired in a Shadow History and the truth has never been taught as a history lesson in Mexico, much less as historic text in America. Until now, this historic truth has largely been available as scholarly works. The Compton Herald sought out this history, scaled down its volume from multiple scholarly sources, and now present it in nine parts for public consumption — the editor.
Part VII — “Black Mexico: Unearthing the ‘Third Root’”
THE IMPRINT BY THE ORIGINAL POBLADORES in Los Angeles history is indelible. The African contribution, which was initially omitted by historians, was amended 200 years later at the arrival of the City’s Bicentennial celebration in 1981, as was presented in Part VI of this series.
While the ongoing contributions of the sons, daughters, and cousins of the original settlers remain sketchy, one individual, Pío de Jesus Pico, the son of a Spanish artillery sergeant, offers an amazing view. The surname Pico is widely familiar in Southern California — from busy Pico Boulevard, the City of Pico Rivera, the Pico House, to Pio Pico State Historic Park. The surname adorns myriad businesses, from corner grocery stores, fast food establishments, and dry cleaners, to shopping malls. Despite all of this, much of what the general public knows about Pio Pico ventures little beyond the persona.
In a lifetime that spanned 93 years under the flags of Spain, Mexico, and the United States, Pio Pico’s rise from humble beginnings to the highest office in the state places him among the most remarkable figures in California history.
Pico was born on May 5, 1801, at the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel to mulatto parents, José Maria Pico, and María Eustaquia Gutiérrez. His life shines brightest after the death of his father in 1819, and mother — the last surviving member of the original pobladores — in 1860 at age 97.
Pío Pico lived 93 years. His life spanned several distinct periods of Southern California history — from Spanish colonialism to Mexican rule, and from American conquest to L.A.’s prodigious growth in the late-nineteenth-century.
Pico’s paternal grandmother, María Jacinta de la Bastida, was listed in the 1790 census as mulatta. His paternal grandfather, Santiago de la Cruz Pico, was described as a mestizo in the same census. There was no question of Pico’s link to an African ancestry.
Pío Pico, himself, would succumb 34 years after his mother in 1894. He represented the clearest picture of the extended reach of the original settlers into the building of Los Angeles’ infrastructure in the early days. Before his expiration, he would go on to tremendous conquest in both business and politics.
Rise of Pío Pico
By the 1850s, Pío Pico was one of the richest men in Alta California. In 1850 he purchased the 8,894-acre Rancho Paso de Bartolo, which included half of the present day city of Whittier. He bought the acreage from the heirs of Juan Crispin Perez. Two years later, he built a home on the ranch and lived at “El Ranchito” from 1852 to 1892. According to some accounts, the house at one time included 33 rooms and served as a respite for neighbors, and business acquaintances traveling great distances between settlements.
The land was also a working ranch. After gold was discovered on Jan. 24, 1848, in the American River at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Coloma, Calif. at Sutter’s Mill, it ignited the California Gold Rush, with more than 300,000 people surging to California to seek their fortunes from either mining for gold or selling supplies like food, clothing, burros, lumber, picks, and shovels to the prospectors.
That proved a bounty for Pio Pico two years later after his purchase of the ranch. The timing could not have been better. The demand for beef surged with the Gold Rush, and vaqueros tended to Pico’s large herds of cattle and horses. He eventually became one of the wealthiest cattlemen in California controlling more than a quarter million acres of prime grazing land. Most of the ranch has since been subdivided into the cities of Whittier, Montebello, and Pico Rivera,
In 1883 inclement weather gave rise to a devastating flood that wiped out most of the mansion, leaving only the foundation and a few walls. It is preserved today as Pio Pico State Historic Park.
Pico and his brother Andres, another leading figure of Mexican California, also owned Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores, an immense tract in northern San Diego County, which today is the sprawling U.S. Marine Corps base, Camp Pendleton. Pico also individually owned more than 500,000 acres comprised of large estates near Whittier and in the San Fernando Valley.
Pío Pico, governor of Alta California
Looking back nearly five decades before Pico became fabulously wealthy, he served twice as governor of Alta California, and the last governor of the territory under the rule of Mexico. Pico was a mover and a shaker in the annals of early California. His rise to the governorship did not come by conventional means.
Upheaval marked both of his terms, and in each case, Pico succeeded an ousted governor.
In 1831, a dispute over California’s mission lands escalated into an open revolt against the rule of Gov. Manuel Victoria, who refused to secularize the missions, to transfer their vast property holdings from ecclesiastical control to civil possession and use.
Victoria and the rebels, led by wealthy landowners, converged on Cahuenga Pass on Dec. 5, 1831, launching the Battle of Cahuenga Pass, where Victoria was seriously injured, forcing him to flee vacating the office of governor. As the senior member of the territorial legislature, Pico became governor by default, but his tenure was disputed by Victoria’s hand-picked successor and lasted less than three weeks. Following his brief stint as governor, Pico remained busy politically and became administrator of Mission San Luis Rey. Pico had established himself as a leading political figure in California and within 18 months, led the secularization of the missions.
As the story goes, Pico joined the Mexican army for a brief time in 1828. The following year, he received his first land grant of 8,922 acres near San Diego, named Rancho Jamul. Years later in 1841, Pico and his younger brother, Andrés, were awarded the 133,441-acre Rancho Santa Margarita.
Pico steered the missions under civil control in 1831. The secularization paid great dividends, as the awarding of such vast land grants would not have been possible under mission ecclesiastical control.
Following the end of the Mexican-American War with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Pico reclaimed his title to the land he had previously acquired and re-invested in still more real estate becoming a wealthy and influential private citizen.
Further secularization of the Missions
Trade and commerce further increased with the complete secularization of the California missions by the Mexican Congress in 1833. Extensive mission lands suddenly became available to government officials, ranchers, and land speculators. The governor made more than 800 land grants during this period, including a grant of over 33,000-acres in 1839 to Francisco Sepulveda which was later developed as Los Angeles’ Westside. Sepulveda Boulevard remains one of the area’s major thoroughfares.
Much of this progress, however, bypassed the indigenous Indians of the traditional villages who were not assimilated into the mestizo culture. They were regarded as minors who could not think for themselves and were increasingly marginalized. Due to increasing debt and rampant alcoholism, the indigenous people increasingly found themselves relieved of their land titles and the properties repossessed.
Pío Pico weds María Ignacia Alvarado
Pico found time to take a brief respite, settle in San Diego and marry María Ignacia Alvarado on Feb. 24, 1834, in the Plaza church. It was attended by the entire population of the Pueblo — 800 people, plus hundreds from elsewhere in Alta California.
While in San Diego, Pico ran for office in 1834 as the first alcalde (magistrate) of San Diego after the secularization of the missions but was defeated. He challenged Gov. Juan Bautista Alvarado on various political issues and found himself in trouble with the government, imprisoned on several occasions.
A year later In 1835, the Mexican Congress declared Los Angeles a city, making it the official capital of Alta California. It was now the region’s leading city.
Ten years later in 1845, Pico, having already been chosen in 1844 as a leader of the California Assembly, was strategically positioned to succeed another deposed governor, Manuel Micheltorena, who had been appointed by the Mexican government, who was staring down a rebellion by Californios — persons of Spanish or Mexican heritage whose birthplace was California — who wanted a native-born resident to hold the office.
The influential Pío Pico led a popular coup against the unfavorable Micheltorena near the Cahuenga Pass in the Battle of La Providencia, after which Pico became acting governor. One year later in April 1846, he was appointed as Micheltorena’s permanent successor. Pico didn’t waste any time exercising his authority to make Los Angeles the capital of Alta California.
By then the very real possibility of war hung over Alta California as the U.S. had designs on the Mexican province and other northern territories of Mexico. Pico’s governorship would crumble soon thereafter upon the arrival of invading American forces later that year.
The U.S. declared war against Mexico on May 13, 1846, with U.S. forces quickly overcoming Mexican forces, occupying Santa Fe de Nuevo México and Alta California Territory, then invading parts of Northeastern Mexico and Northwest Mexico; meanwhile, the Pacific Squadron conducted a blockade, and took control of several garrisons on the Pacific coast farther south in Baja California Territory.
U.S. Army General Winfield Scott captured the capital Mexico City, marching from the port of Veracruz, virtually unopposed. The war lasted one year until the fall of 1847 and ended in Mexico’s defeat, resulting in the loss of approximately half of its national territory in the north. When news of the war reached California, the fall of Mexican California was swift. The U.S. captured Monterey on July 15, 1846, prompting Gov. Pico to issue the following proclamation:
“Pío Pico, Constitutional Governor of the Department of California, hereby makes known to its inhabitants that the country is threatened by the United States by land and by sea, that it now occupies Monterey, Sonoma, San Francisco, and other frontier points to the north of this department, where the Stars and Stripes now wave with further threatenings to occupy more ports and towns and to subdue them to its laws; therefore, this government, having stood firmly resolved to do its utmost to oppose the most unjust aggression committed during late centuries, caused by a nation possessed with extraordinary ambitions, purposely authorizing a cleverly disguised robbery, exercising power over us during a period of political weakness.”
It was one of Pío Pico’s final acts as governor. As American forces advanced on Southern California, Pico fled to Baja California-Mexico in a futile attempt to raise a resistance force and to prevent his capture and imprisonment.
In the end, Los Angeles fell to the invading American troops and the capture of Mexico City in September 1847 sealed California’s fate, becoming a permanent American possession.
The aggression against Mexico by the U.S. also established a long-held belief by Mexicans, and Mexican-Americans to this day, that the U.S. stole California.
Pío Pico’s focus on business
Pico returned to Southern California after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo established peace between the U.S. and Mexico. Although Pico would never learn English, relying instead on an interpreter, he remained one of Southern California’s leading citizens through much of the 19th century. He was a brilliant businessman and dealmaker as evident by his great wealth. But little is known as about the genesis of earnings. It can be assumed that Pico’s initial investment came from military service in Mexico, as the Mexican government was known to repay military service with the awarding of land grants.
In 1868, Pío Pico sold his vast landholdings in the San Fernando Valley to provide capital for the construction of the 33-room Pico House (Casa de Pico) on the old plaza of Los Angeles, opposite today’s Olvera Street. At the time of its opening in 1869, it was the most lavish hotel in Southern California and the city’s first three-story high rise.
By the advent of the early 1900s, however, the Pico House had lost its splendor and was in decline along with the neighborhood, as L.A.’s business center moved further south. After decades of serving as a shabby flop house, it was deeded to the State of California in 1953 and is now a part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Monument. It is used today occasionally for exhibits and special events.
Decline of Pío Pico
Unfortunately, Pico’s wealth and affluence would fade 10 years later. He lost the hotel and other properties to foreclosure. His decline was attributed to extravagant living, heavy gambling, fraud, and bad business practices. The culmination conspired to rob him of nearly everything he accumulated, forcing him to liquidate his real estate holdings.
In 1893, a committee of local boosters and history enthusiasts asked him to appear at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition as “the last of the California dons.” Pico refused, considering it an affront to his dignity.
It is believed that Pico was later swindled out of his home and ranch in present-day Whittier. And even though he defended his position and fortune in more than 100 legal cases, including 20 that were argued before the California Supreme Court, he never regained his previous standing.
Tragically, Pío Pico’s final years were impoverished. He died in 1894 at the home of his daughter Joaquina Pico Moreno in Los Angeles and was buried in the old Calvary Cemetery on North Broadway in Downtown Los Angeles. His remains, as well as those of his wife, Maria, were disinterred and relocated in 1921 to a modest tomb in El Campo Santo Cemetery, now the Homestead Museum in the City of Industry.
Besides Pío Pico’s gradual fall from grace, he also suffered a physical malady called acromegaly, the excessive hormonal production of the pituitary gland resulting in abnormal growths on the face, hands, and chest. The disorder was also accompanied by occasional symptoms of headache, double vision, fatigue, chest pain, shortness of breath, frequent urination, extreme thirst, severe snoring, muscle weakness, and impotence.
The legacy of Mexican California’s final governor is permanently enshrined in street names, schools, parks, and businesses across Southern California. Los Angeles boasts a proud history owing to its greatness, in part, an enduring personality — an amazing Angelino named Pío de Jesus Pico.