Pio Pico, Brother to Andres Pico & the Last Governor of California Under Mexican Rule
Pio Pico Remembered
By Loverne Morris
Pio Pico was the brother of Andres Pico and has his own adobe ranch house in Whittier, California. This article is presented as background information for the time period.
Pio Pico "Mansion" is a stone's throw from Whittier Blvd. between Montebello and Whittier. It is not a mansion at all, but is a crude farmhouse, which once had partly dirt floor. It belonged to Pio Pico who was Governor of California at the time of the U.S. occupation. According to Don Pio Pico's Historical Narrative, translated by Arthur P. Botello, in July 1846 he convoked the deputies at Government House and asked the chamber to authorize him to take command of forces to fight the U.S. invaders. They refused, saying most of the people were rural civilians. The assembly directed Pio Pico to leave the country, and he went to Sonora, Mexico and sent an appeal to Mexico City.
There was no response, so he returned to Alta, California and accepted U.S. domination. He arrived at his Santa Margarita Ranch June 9, 1848, and then went to Los Angeles and presented himself to Colonel Stevenson who was in command.
Pio Pico owned several ranches, which he had acquired after the secularization of the Missions. His smallest ranch was his 4000-acre place at Rancho Paso de Bartola where Pio Pico "Mansion" stands. It was his retreat after he lost everything else. Before that, he had prospered in Los Angeles and had built the handsome Pico House, the finest hotel in town.
In 1950, California's Centennial year, I talked to Crispin Castillo and Juan Lopez who remembered Pio Pico. Lopez at the age of sixteen had driven Pio Pico's team, taking the former governor about to inspect his 40-acre cornfield and his orchard of sour oranges, and his vineyards. Both men said Pio Pico was fond of children and always had sweets for child visitors. He got along well with his neighbors. They liked to watch as he raced his horses on County Rd.
He loved racing and borrowed money on his lands to buy and race fine horses. When the horses did not win, mortgages were foreclosed and he lost his lands.
Was this last duly constituted governor of California handsome and of noble lineage? Hardly, he had a face like a moose and he was born in 1801 in a shack at San Gabriel Mission where his father was then corporal of the guard. His parents, Jose Maria Pico and Maria Gutierrez Pico had come with Capt. Juan Batista de Anza who brought the first colonist overland to California. Instead of going north to Monterey and Yerba Buena with the colonist, they stayed in San Diego with their soldier fathers.
Pio Pico recorded that he had two brothers and seven sisters. His father died in 1818 when his older brother was in the army and two of his sisters were married.
Pio Pico recorded, at his father's death. "Nothing was left to us, not an inch of ground.... All the family moved to San Diego. We stayed at my mother's side and I solicited help for her. My sisters and mother worked at fine needlework. I put up a small store where I sold liquors, provisions, chairs and shoes". He early learned to gamble, losing as often as he won. Soon he entered the gamble of politics. In 1826, he was a voting member of the Diputación, and about a year later was named secretary to the attorney general. He delivered documents back and forth between San Diego and Los Angeles.
Government in California was a revolving door with winners gaining power through revolutions. Armies were always marching. Pio Pico opposed Governor Victoria, saying he was a despot. Victoria sent word that he was coming south to hang Pio Pico. He led an army down from Monterey, but Pio Pico's friends met and defeated him, paving the way for Pio Pico's first stint as governor. That time he was able to hold the governorship only a few months. Then in 1838 he tried to take the post from Governor Alvarado, but failed and was taken prisoner and held briefly at Santa Barbara. Then relatives and friends freed him. Later, he defeated Governor Micheltorena at Cahuenga Pass near Los Angeles, became Governor a second time, and held the chair until U.S. occupation.
In 1834, political adventurers gained the thousands of acres of rich mission lands and governors granted them to political favorites or sold them. The first plum to go to Pio Pico was the 133,400-acre Santa Margarita Ranch y Las Flores in the present location of Camp Pendleton.
The wife of his youth bore no children and died young. At Rancho Paso de Bartola, his housekeeper became his common law wife and bore him children. One grandson used to attend functions at Pio Pico Mansion and he told us that Pio Pico died a pauper at the home of a daughter in Los Angeles.
He had bet large amounts on favorite horses that lost, and gambling debts piled up. He was cheated because he never learned English and signed deeds thinking they were mortgages. When he was past eighty years of age, he borrowed $62,000 from one Bernard Cohn, signing a deed that he thought was a mortgage. Therefore, he lost Rancho Paso de Bartola and died penniless in 1894.