Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Aside from the Cinco de Mayo holiday, the 5th of May is notable in our region for being the birthday of Don Pío Pico, the last governor of Mexican-era Alta California. Like Nicolasa Urioste de Workman, who was recently profiled here, Don Pío lived almost the entirety of the 19th century and saw dramatic and transformative change in so many ways. Somewhat similar to Mrs. Workman, he was born in modest circumstances in frontier Mexican society, rose to great wealth, and then experienced poverty later in life, though the conditions were different.
Born in 1801 in San Diego and the son of a soldier, Pico became a merchant as a young man, but also began to cultivate a role in politics. He became the head of the departmental legislature and then briefly governor in the early 1830s before returning to the legislature. In 1834, he married María Ignacia Alvarado, but, after twenty years together, she died at just 44 years of age. The pair did not have children, but Pico did have children from later relationships.
This raises an interesting aspect of Don Pío’s life. Photographs of Pico from the late 1840s and into the 1850s show him with what many assumed to be pronounced features from his African ancestry–thick lips and a large flat nose are often cited as examples.
However, Dr. Ivan Login, a neurologist in Virginia who specializes in the study of acromegaly, a disease involving the pituitary gland, noted that later images of the governor show those features absent. In addition, the lack of facial hair and imbalanced features in the early photos were replaced by a long, flowing beard and a reintroduced symmetrical facial structure later. Dr. Login believes Pico’s condition, which is almost always fatal, actually spontaneously receded, leading to the change noticeable in photos from about 1870 and afterward. For more on this, read Dr. Login’s article.
In 1844, when Manuel Micheltorena, an appointee of Mexico City, arrived in California and quickly aroused the suspicion and anger of Californios who wanted more self-rule, Pico led an effort to unseat Micheltorena.
Gathering a small army, including a group of foreigners (Americans and Europeans) led by William Workman, Pico met the governor’s force (Micheltorena’s foreign contingent, led by John Sutter, included several men who came with Workman to California a few years prior) near Cahuenga Pass in February 1845. Scattered gunfire led to a dead horse and little else and negotiators among the Americans and Europeans on both sides settled the matter. In an 1870s interview, Pico stated that he criticized Workman for initiating contact with Micheltorena’s side, but the result was that he became governor when Micheltorena headed back to Mexico.
Five months after Pico assumed the governor’s seat, he issued a new grant to Rancho La Puente, first given only to John Rowland in spring 1842. The new grant officially included Workman as an owner (Rowland’s request inexplicably stated Workman was left out of the first grant by an error—more likely Workman was “laying low” after arriving from political problems in New Mexico) and expanded the ranch from about four square leagues, or 18,000 acres, to 11 square leagues, or nearly 49,000 acres, the maximum allowable under Mexican land law.
In the first half of 1846, moreover, Workman was given three more grants. One, with Hugo Reid, was to the lands of the former Mission San Gabriel. Another, with the governor’s brother, Andrés, was to San Clemente Island. The third was to “Bird Island” in the bay next to Yerba Buena. The latter soon became San Francisco and the island was better known as Alcatraz. Undoubtedly, all of these grants were to thank Workman for his assistance in Pico’s effort against Micheltorena and are early examples of the close friendship these compadres shared. Eventually, however, these three grants were taken away. San Gabriel was ruled invalid by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1864 and the two islands were seized as military possessions and remain government property to this day.
Within a year-and-a-half, however, of Pico’s governorship the invasion by American forces ensued. Pico left to seek help in Mexico and the Californios who remained to defend their homeland succeeded in retaking Los Angeles after the Yanquis conquered the pueblo in summer 1846. A second effort to subdue the town succeeded in early 1847 ending the war. Pico returned the following year, but stayed with friends to avoid arrest by the local American military commander. One place he stayed was here at the Homestead as guest of the Workmans. This enraged the commander who lamented that Workman, a native of England, was “ever hostile to the American cause.”
While most Californios saw their political and economic fortunes plummet in the American period, for a variety of reasons, Pico was among the few to remain financially successful, though his only political foray was his 1853 election to the Los Angeles Common [City] Council, though he did not take the oath of office and his seat was taken by another Californio.
Pico was the owner or co-owner of an enormous amount of land, including most of the San Fernando Valley, the substantial Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores in what is now southeastern Orange and northwestern San Diego counties, and the Rancho Paso de Bartolo in modern Whittier, where he established his home.
He became an investor in Los Angeles as it entered its first major growth period after the Civil War and built the Pico Building, a two-story commercial structure on the east side of Main Street, just about where the 101 Freeway cuts through downtown Los Angeles today. The year the structure was completed, 1868, it’s main tenant was the bank of Hellman, Temple and Company, which included William Workman and his son-in-law, F.P.F. Temple, both neighbors of Pico, as co-owners.
Selling off the massive Rancho ex-Mission San Fernando in 1869, Pico used his share of the proceeds to build the Pico House hotel, which apparently was an effort to keep the historic Mexican-era Plaza viable as Americans and Europeans, like Temple and Workman, built a new section of downtown further south. A major investment of time and money, the Pico House was a notable part of the emerging city’s landscape, but struggled to find success in coming years.
Pico also invested heavily in improving his Paso de Bartolo ranch and the fine home he built there in the early 1850s, but, in his later years, he was the subject of a terrible injustice involving fraudulent loan documents and perjury. His financial well-being was dismantled as a result of Pico v. Cohn, a suit that dragged out over years and was a plain instance of a legal travesty. Well into his 80s, Pico was essentially thrown into poverty and dependent on the support of family and friends.
In fact, it has been stated that, in 1891, when he left his home at the Paso de Bartolo because of the suit, he first spent a night with Walter P. Temple, who lived just a few miles north on a remnant of the Temple family’s share of Rancho La Merced, purchased after the 1876 failure of the bank of Temple and Workman largely ruined the families. A chair given to Temple by Pico was later donated by a member of the local Pollorena family to the Pío Pico State Historic Park.
Pico lived his final years with a daughter in Los Angeles and died on 11 September 1894. Among the remembrances of this remarkable man were those published in The Land of Sunshine and in the Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California.
The latter, penned by long-time Los Angeles resident Henry D. Barrows, has some remarkable passages about Pico’s life, activities, the injustices against him, defense of his actions during the Mexican-American War, and his character. Here is one instance:
Is it not high time that some one spoke out in his defense? Now that the venerable ex-Governor has been laid in his grave—and that, O most pitiful spectacle, a pauper’s grave!—is it not time that calumnies against him should cease? There are many of our people who did not know him, and who aim to be just, who still seem willing to believe ill of him; and there are, I’m sorry to say, plenty of writers who are very ready to pander to unworthy prejudices against people who are not of our own race and who do not speak our own language. It may yet be too early, but some day a friendly, sympathetic life of Pio Pico should be written.
Pico was laid to rest in an impressive iron tomb that he and his brother, Andrés, purchased after the death of Ignacia Alvarado de Pico, and placed at the Calvary Cemetery at the foot of the Elysian Hills north of downtown. Soon afterward, however, the cemetery was abandoned and, though most remains were removed, and Cathedral High School was later built on the site, Pico and his wife remained interred in the tomb.
In 1921, though, Walter P. Temple, thirty years removed from sheltering the governor as he left his ranch (echoing what William Workman had done almost 75 years before), obtained permission from Pico’s descendants to move the remains of Don Pío and Doña Ignacia to the new mausoleum Temple finished at the El Campo Santo cemetery here at the Homestead. There the Pico rest in peace, nearly a century later, next to their compadres William and Nicolasa Workman and their daughter Antonia Margarita and her husband, F.P.F. Temple, parents of Walter.
The Homestead is fortunate to be the final resting place of one of greater Los Angeles’ most prominent and notable 19th century figures and, on this day, it is important to pause and remember the life of Don Pío Pico. As to that “friendly, sympathetic life” of the ex-governor, a highly recommended work is Carlos Salomon’s biography–here is the Amazon.com listing.