Friday, May 20, 2011

Pio Pico: Afro-Mexican Governor of California

Pío Pico's family reveals a mixture of Spanish, African, Italian and Native American Indian. His parents were born in New Spain (Mexico). They came to the San Gabriel Mission from Sinaloa with the famous overland Anza expedition of 1775. Pico was born in the San Gabriel Mission in 1801. He was the fourth of ten children (three boys, seven girls), and throughout his life remained very close to all the members of his family. In 1834 Pico married Maria Ygnacia Alvarado at the plaza church in El Pueblo de Los Angeles. The wedding festivities lasted eight days, with guests coming from all over California. The couple adopted two sons and two daughters.

San Gabriel Mission Playhouse

Pío spent most of his early years in San Diego, where his father was in the military assigned to the Presidio (a fort). In 1819 when his father died, 19-year-old Pico and his family were left without money or land. He began his career in business by opening a small store in San Diego where he sold liquor, provisions, furniture, and shoes. In 1823-1824 he built a ten-room adobe in San Diego for his mother, brothers and sisters.

Pío bought the rancho from the Juan Crispin Perez heirs in 1850. It was 8,891 acres and he named the land "El Ranchito" (the little rancho). During this time several outbuildings were added: a corral, a mill, a chapel, and the well in the patio. It was surrounded by beautiful gardens, which featured fruit trees, grapes, and a kitchen garden. A little zanja (canal) just west of the house provided a steady flow of water for bathing, washing clothes, and irrigation. Drinking and cooking water came from the well.

Pío used his business friends to become well known. That helped him to become governor in 1832 and again in 1845. Pico helped lead revolts against three Mexican governors. In 1845 he fought for political control of the province. As Governor of California during the Mexican-American War, he attempted to raise troops and money to fight off the American invasion. In September 1846 Pico fled to Mexico to avoid capture and to ask the Mexican central government for military support.

Pío used his political influence to build a vast land empire, and was one of the few California dons to hold onto his land after the American take-over. Pico and his fellow dons entertained often and in grand style. Weddings and religious festivals were some of the opportunities to invite family and friends for weeklong celebrations. Visitors were well received by Pico, often staying for weeks at a time. They were provided with their every need, including trays of coins throughout the house so they would not have to spend their own money. By 1855 he and his brother, Andres Pico, held 532,000 acres, making Pico one of the richest men in California. The adobe was always filled with people. Many members of Pico's extended family lived here at various times. Vaqueros tended the rancho's large herds of cattle and horses. Pico also invited his friends for company, card playing and gambling on horse races.

After the Mexican-American War he chose to reside at El Ranchito. Pico grazed cattle on his ranchos until 1862 and made a fortune selling beef, hides, and tallow to the gold-seekers in the north. The disastrous drought in the early 1860s, killed most of Southern California's large cattle herds, and Pico was forced to turn to farming barley, oats, grapes, and fruit.

In 1867 flooding changed the course of the San Gabriel River, which probably destroyed several rooms on the western side of Pico's house. In 1884 another San Gabriel River flood swept away 50 houses and might have destroyed most of Pico's adobe. Pico was over eighty years old when he began to reconstruct his house, an effort that pushed him further in debt. The house spread eastward, away from the threat of flooding. On the north, Pico added a new section with two rooms on the ground level and rooms on a second story. This wing sported an American-style storefront. He further Americanized the house by adding three windows to the west-facing pitched roof and one on the south.

Pío built and furnished the Pico House in 1870, a grand hotel which was the very finest hotel in the entire Southwest. Today, Pico House is still standing and is part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles. He spent too much money, buying whatever caught his fancy. He was also overgenerous, and liked horse racing and gambling. After the 1884 flood, Pico did very little entertaining, and the El Ranchito lands became much smaller. Although Pico managed to rebuild his home, money problems forced him to adopt a relatively simple lifestyle. Piece by piece, he sold his vast holdings to pay the money that he owed. Bernard Cohn, an American lawyer cheated him out of his land, because Pico couldn't read or speak English. He was kicked out of his beloved El Ranchito, and left in a buggy with his few remaining possessions in 1892. He died on September 11, 1894, at the age of 93, in the home of his adopted daughter, Joaquina Moreno.

Pío de Jesus Pico, 1801-1894

Ten years after his death, Pico's old adobe was a ruin. The outbuildings had disappeared and the gardens had gone to weeds. Mrs. Harriet Russell Strong purchased the adobe and began to fix it with the newly formed Governor Pico Mansion Society and Museum Association. Mrs. Strong had known Pío Pico since 1867. Now she set out to raise funds and renew the old house. Under her direction the building was repaired. In 1917 Mrs. Strong deeded the property to the State of California for safekeeping. In 1927 Pío Pico became one of the earliest state historic parks.

Aztec Gold Special Report: Pio Pico Sighting at Plazita Olvera!


  1. This is a good site, but this is not a picture of the San Gabriel Mission that was built in 1771. Instead, it is a picture of the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse (located across the street) that was built in 1927.

    1. Thanks for the catch. The image has been relabeled. Keep reading.

      --Ron Edwards, US Slave Blog



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