The Last Governor of Mexican California
By Carlos Manuel Salomon
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS Copyright © 2010 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
A California Family
Historians have written that Pío de Jesús Pico (1801–1894) made his name as a revolutionary leader. The popular image of Pico is as a young man on horseback, blazing trails in the arid southern California sun and confronting his opponents against impossible odds. While some truth can be found in these stories, Pico's true obsession concerned the forging of a new society. He was a politician, after all, and came of age during the formative period of California history. Californio politicians cherished their independence above all else. But as in any region destined to make up a borderland, competing forces pulled in contrasting directions. California was an immensely contentious region during the nineteenth century. Although it was part of Mexico, the government struggled to win the respect of California citizens as fiercely as the United States determined to conquer it. Borders are formed in such ways and are often the result of generations of cultural and political contention. No single episode can determine their nature or their outcome. The narrative of Pico's early life, however, evokes the transformative spirit of the Californios and reveals how enthusiastically they participated in the evolution of their homeland.
California was formed between two worlds at the decline of the Spanish empire and the dawn of an emerging United States. As the Anglo-American colonists prepared for revolution against England, Spanish California remained a largely unknown landscape to all but the indigenous population. By 1769 the Spanish government began to settle California. Roughly fifty years later, some of the first English-speaking sojourners marveled at the peaceful coexistence of its inhabitants and at the beautiful and bountiful land. Alfred Robinson, who arrived in 1829 as a clerk for the Boston firm of Bryant, Sturgis & Company, saw Monterey as "situated on the declivity of a beautiful rising ground, the top of which is crowned with stately pines.... There are many pleasant locations in the vicinity where the natives frequently resort to celebrate their festivities...." Although Robinson adapted to Californio life, converted to Catholicism, and married Ana María de la Guerra, a daughter of one of California's most illustrious families, his description of his new homeland foreshadows the menacing interest Anglo-Americans had in California land. The American westward movement was already in progress as Robinson's ship anchored in Monterey Bay. His employer, Bryant, Sturgis & Company, among others, helped to intensify the hide-and-tallow trade in California, dominated by U.S. firms, which brought Mexican California closer to the economic sphere of an emerging global market. Such seemingly innocent trade relations helped to create wealthy families like the Picos.
There is some truth to Robinson's descriptions of California, however flawed and romanticized his views may have been. When he arrived, California had an extremely diverse Indian population, living in hundreds of small villages and thinly populated settlements. In southern California the land was arid, yet suitable for sustaining life and ideal for ranching. As the first Spanish explorers recognized, California had profound geographic contrasts, where deserts gave way to bountiful forests, and pine-covered coastal ranges dropped suddenly into the expansive ocean. The settlers pushed forward to forge a new society, brutally conquering lands and people that stood in their way. The continuous construction of presidios, missions, and pueblos allowed the Californios to create an isolated and far-removed outpost of the Mexican nation. Naming them as they trudged north, San Diego de Alcalá, Los Angeles, San José, and Santa Barbara were but a few of the sites they selected as settlements. Spain's imperial dreams laid the ground work for a new land, literally on the cultural and geographic fringe of Mexican society.
From the Spanish period forward, California attracted a small but wide variety of people, mostly poor pobladores, or townspeople. They were a racially diverse group who, as many later settlers also would, saw California as an economic opportunity. Many families, like the Picos, were of African descent. Twenty-six of the original forty-four founders of Los Angeles, for example, were of Afro-Mexican origin. Also present were Indians, mestizos, a few Spaniards, and a variety of mixed racial castes. For the most part, early California settlers did not fit the profile of the land owning classes living in the interior of New Spain, who tended to be of pure Spanish descent. The opportunity for land and a new start attracted them from the beginning. As the years went by they began to take root in their new homeland and a distinct culture emerged. Like other communities on the borderlands, cultural contact between settlers and the surrounding Indian population produced a convergence of ideas and identities. Indian and colonizer together created a hybrid culture in a land removed from the cities of New Spain.
Like most early Alta California settlers, the Pico family had few economic resources. Pío's grandfather, Santiago de la Cruz Pico, came from Sinaloa, some six or seven hundred miles northwest of Mexico City, and had accompanied Juan Bautista de Anza to California in 1775 as a soldier. The colonial Spanish government had commissioned Anza in 1774 to open a land route from Sonora to the California coast. With the success of his first journey, Anza recruited two hundred forty settlers for the next, including many soldiers, to found a settlement on the shores of the San Francisco Bay. These soldiers and their families mostly came from the states of Sinaloa and Sonora. The route north was dangerous, primarily because of the scarcity of water and the constant fear of Indian aggression. Father Pedro Font, who accompanied Anza on the second journey, presaged the urgency attached to the spiritual conquest of California as he observed indigenous communities along the way. "Shall we think that God created these men merely to condemn them to Inferno, after passing in this world a life so miserable as that which they live? By no means!" For Santiago Pico and his sons, Font's words had a prophetic reality. Some, including Pico's father, would become mission guards.
The military personnel who settled in California were part of New Spain's strategic plan to protect California from the threat of foreign invasion and the reprisals of Indian converts. Life in the military had few rewards. Charged with exploring California's vast terrain, soldiers had to protect against foreign invasions at the newly established presidios, guard settlements, and protect the missions against Indian attacks. But they also had the often brutal task of putting runaway Indian converts into irons. These frontier soldiers had the thankless undertaking of imposing colonialism on native inhabitants, even if it was an incomplete conquest. Although this imposition resulted in a hybrid culture because of the resiliency of native people and their methods of survival, the frontier military drastically altered the life of California Indians who lived near the Pacific coast.
Santiago Pico's son, José María, found a constant source of employment as a guard in the mission communities. He eventually started a family, and in 1801 Pío Pico was born at Mission San Gabriel. Santiago often moved from mission to mission as duty called, and it was outside the tiny settlement of Mission San Diego that Pico spent his childhood.
San Diego was not a bad place to live in the early days of California. The region's first permanent settlement, it had the advantage of including both a mission and a presidio, similar to the settlements of Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco. Although not considered a civilian town like San José or Los Angeles, abundant opportunity for regional trade and travel existed. Young Pico received a modest education there, as well as any boy from his class could expect, and often read from the Bible at Mass. Years later he recalled, "I knew all Ripalda's catechism from beginning to end." Although not profoundly religious, Pico and others in San Diego felt the immense presence of the Church, especially since the mission dominated the economy.
Life in San Diego also had its limits. Young men usually took an interest in the military or the Church since relatively few other work options existed. Pío became interested in his father's profession and in 1815 local officials temporarily left him in charge of the mission guards in his father's absence. By this time his family had established its reputation in the military and among leading politicians. Because of its limited population, San Diego allowed any eager youth the ability to make connections with high-ranking officials. With only a handful of families in residence, its military and religious foundation formed a shared landscape with a close-knit community. The French merchant Auguste Bernard Duhaut-Cilly visited San Diego in 1827 and estimated there were only thirty to forty houses in the community. Another visitor, the Bostonian Alfred Robinson, estimated just thirty houses in 1829. In this relatively intimate location, Pico befriended priests, officers, and merchants. San Diego was the perfect location for a man of Pico's limited means to advance his situation.
In many areas of New Spain a man of Pico's racially mixed heritage had few options to advance himself. A rigid racial hierarchy existed throughout colonial Latin American society. The caste system insured that Spaniards and their American-born children held the highest social rank in society. But the atmosphere in California was much different, and the rigidity of racial purity was not as important there. This fact helps explain how California's prime location became a meeting place for intersecting cultures. As Mexico won its independence, many Anglos entered the region to take advantage of the newly opened commercial markets. Politicians hurled proclamations declaring the "liberation" of the Indians from the care of the friars, and more new settlers began to enter from Mexico. Although some hoped to maintain racial purity, it was not always possible in California. For example, Pío Pico's lineage included Indian, Spanish, and African ancestry, which together placed him near the bottom of the caste system. His greatgrandfather, the Spanish-born Pío Pico III, had likely come to Mexico in the first or second decade of the eighteenth century, according to one source. Pío Pico's mestizo grandfather, Santiago de la Cruz Pico, married María Jacinta Vastida, listed as mulata in the 1790 census. An interesting fact about José María Pico is that the 1790 census listed him as a Spaniard but listed his brothers as mulattoes. He was on his way, so he thought, to a promising military career. He may have won the "privilege" of listing himself as a Spaniard, or he may have simply used trickery, such as purchasing a certificate that supported his claim. He also married an española, María Eustaquia Gutiérrez, which may have given his family certain privileges in late colonial California.
However, Californios began to break away from such arbitrary racial categories even before Mexican independence paved the way for the abolition of the caste system. Although many Californio officials and landowners could boast of Spanish lineage, mestizos and mulattoes often received grants of land and took on important political roles, especially after Mexican independence. It was Pico's poverty that generated the greatest obstacle to his mobility. Pico recalled that, because of lack of housing at Mission San Gabriel, he was born in a shack made of branches. With a family of ten children, the Picos found it difficult to support themselves. Although a hardworking, industrious man, José María Pico pursued an elusive quest to gain land and become an officer in the Spanish military.
Californios were impoverished for various reasons. Mexico City's inability to continuously supply the distant colony, especially during the wars of independence, left California constantly undersupplied. Settlers complained about the mission's near-monopoly of valuable coastal lands. Although offering little aid to the settlers, Spain enthusiastically populated California with individuals like Santiago de la Cruz Pico. He had five sons, two of whom, José María and José Dolores, firmly established the Pico family in both southern and northern California. Despite their poverty, the Pico brothers had distinguished themselves in the military. Californios often relied on their own vision to shape California because of the Spanish Crown's lack of involvement. For example, California Governor Vicente Solá wrote to Mexico City in 1817 to report that the soldiers hadn't been paid in months, often went hungry, and suffered from lack of clothing. It is no wonder the soldiers soon came to envy the priests, whom they believed lived in immaculate and fully stocked mission buildings. The priests had the advantage of a free Indian labor pool, which dramatically increased the wealth of the missions. Even so, the priests often suffered from the same lack of supplies. The California economy was heavily dependent on the missions because of their ability to produce goods and trade. Despite some antagonism, there existed a mutual commercial relationship between the missions and the government, while military personnel often went poor.
Certain members of the Pico family distinguished themselves, however, and are among a handful of enlisted families who received grants of land during the colonial period. During the 1775 Anza expedition, Santiago de la Cruz Pico followed the colonizer to San Francisco where he intended to stay. In 1777 he transferred to San Diego and thereafter retired to the pueblo of Los Angeles. His sons all joined the military, and like José María, distinguished themselves in duty. In 1795 Governor Diego de Borica granted José María's brothers, Javier, Miguel, and Patricio, along with their father, Santiago, the Rancho San José de García de Simí near Ventura and Los Angeles counties. José Dolores, perhaps the most successful of the brothers, served in the Santa Barbara and later the Monterey military companies. He made a good name for himself as a soldier and Indian fighter and received the recognition of his superiors. José Dolores and his wife, Gertrudis Amezquita, raised their family in Monterey and later the government granted him the Bolsa de San Cayetano Rancho in 1819. Government officials granted pueblo settlers plots of land for a house and a small claim of agricultural land on the pueblo outskirts. These small plots were the incentives for recruiting soldiers. But the largest grants were scarce during this period. The Spanish government gave a few of these ranchos to the most deserving petitioners.
Pío Pico's father, José María, never experienced such luck. He enlisted with the San Diego Company in 1782 and a few years later served as a guard at Mission San Gabriel. From 1780 to 1790 José María Pico advanced as one of the most prominent enlisted men in southern California. By 1785 he seemed to be heading toward a promising future. That year military officials celebrated José María's skills when he uncovered a planned Indian uprising at Mission San Gabriel.
The Gabrieleño Indians' complaint was that the missionaries deprived the Indians of their culture and freedom. The Indians, once baptized, had to learn Christianity, reject their traditional religion, and work for the benefit of the mission community. Work was regarded as a necessary step in the process of civilizing them. This atmosphere produced continuous Indian rebellions that took on various forms throughout the missions. Indians frequently attempted to escape from the padres. At Mission San Gabriel, the rebels prepared for a full scale attack.
Their plot was a single episode in the unending struggle of Indians against the California mission system. Unfortunately for the rebels, the plan failed. José María apparently could speak the native language of the Gabrieleños, or Tongva, as they called themselves. Somewhere in the vicinity of the mission, he overheard the rebels speaking of a plot to attack the mission. José María hurried back to report the news to Corporal José María Verdugo.
Plans for the rebellion developed around a group of escaped neophytes, in particular, the so-called renegade Nicolas José. The rebels targeted Verdugo, the soldiers, and the padres alike. Apparently José made plans with a local chief to attack the mission, and in the process, begin a massive rebellion to repel the Spanish from southern California entirely. Pico informed Verdugo that the rebels depended upon the magic of a powerful woman named Toypurina. Reportedly, Toypurina had convinced Nicolas José and Chief Temejasaquichi that she could place a spell on the priests and soldiers, putting them into a deep sleep while Tongva warriors went in for the easy kill. Pico must have been fluent in the Tongva language. He reported detailed information, including the time and place of the attack. With this knowledge, Pico spoiled the uprising and the leaders were apprehended. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Pío Pico by Carlos Manuel Salomon. Copyright © 2010 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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