If you search a list of California governors, his name isn’t there. That’s because he was the last governor of California under Mexican rule.
His name is Pío Pico, and what he represents — his name, his story — is bigger than any official historical list. His legacy represents the diverse and often underserved communities in our State and the need to tell stories that matter.
Who was Pío Pico?
Pío de Jesús Pico (May 5, 1801 — September 11, 1894) was the last governor of Alta California. He was of African, Native American, and Spanish ancestry.
About Pico’s heritage, Blackthen reports,
He was born in Alta California on May 5, 1801, making him a Black Californio. His father was a career soldier as was his brother Andres Pico. His paternal grandmother was listed as “mulata” and his grandfather as “Mestizo.”
Mestizo, literally “mixed person,” is a person of mixed European and indigenous non-European ancestry in the Spanish Empire. In certain regions such as Latin America, it may also refer to people who are culturally European even though their ancestors are indigenous. (Source: Wikipedia)
A Mexican citizen at one point, Pico was automatically granted U.S. citizenship when Alta California was ceded to the United States. He rose from poverty to become one of the wealthiest men in the State and he had huge influence within society.
Pico’s influence as governor
In 1832, Pico first became the (interim) governor for a brief time. Two years later, he married Maria Ignacia Alvarado and started a family. In 1845, he became the governor of Alta California, just prior to the U.S. military occupation.
Here is one of his most famous quotes, as told by the Los Angeles Almanac.
We find ourselves suddenly threatened by hordes of Yankee [American] emigrants, who have already begun to flood into our country and whose progress we cannot arrest….Shall we remain supine while these daring strangers are overrunning our fertile plains and gradually outnumbering and displacing us? Shall these incursions go on unchecked, until we shall become strangers in our own land? We cannot successfully oppose them by our own unaided power; and the swelling tide of immigration renders the odds against us more formidable every day. –A Tour of Duty in California, by Joseph Warren Revere, published by C.S. Francis & Co., 1849
Pico after politics
In the decades that followed his time as governor, Pico became extremely wealthy and influential as a rancher, cattleman, and land owner (roughly 500,000 acres). He often defended lawsuits contesting his land and ownership. Then in 1868, he built one of the most extravagant hotels in Los Angeles and all of Southern California called the Pico House.
Pico also spent the money on serious opulence, by the standards of the time and place: 80 bedrooms, 21 parlors, and a French restaurant arranged around a central courtyard with a fountain and an exotic-bird aviary, all with gas light and running water, all behind an exterior finished to look like blue granite. It once even advertised an “elegant Billiard Parlor and Reading Room connected with the establishment,” targeting — and attracting — countless guests of means, who, after the Southern Pacific Railroad opened Los Angeles to the rest of the country, could take the hotel’s free bus shuttle straight in from the train station. It didn’t take long to get there; the parcel of land Pico used, which once belonged to his brother-in-law, was right on the Plaza, at one time the center of Los Angeles public life.
Today the Pico House, located in downtown Los Angeles, is both a California Historical Landmark and a National Historic Landmark.
A timeline of Pío Pico’s life
California’s Whittier Historical Society presents the timeline of Pío Pico’s life:
- 1801: Pío de Jesus Pico is born on May 5th at Mission San Gabriel to Jose Maria Pico and Maria Estaquia Gutierrez.
- 1826: Pío Pico is elected to the advisory assembly of the governor.
- 1832: Pío Pico becomes interim governor of Alta California for 20 days.
- 1834: Pío Pico marries Maria Ygnacia Alvarado, niece to Alta California Governor Alvarado.
- 1845: Pío Pico becomes governor of Alta California.
- 1846: Pío Pico flees his home and escapes to Mexico when Americans invade Alta California.
- 1847: The Capitulation of Cahuenga is signed. Alta California is surrendered to the Americans, and Pío Pico returns home.
- 1848: Pío Pico purchases Rancho Paso de Bartolo. Pico called it “El Ranchito.”
- 1853: Pío Pico builds his adobe mansion on the “El Ranchito.”
- 1853: Pío Pico is elected to the Los Angeles Common Council and serves one term.
- 1854: Pío Pico’s wife dies on February 21st in Santa Barbara.
- 1869: Pío Pico begins construction of The Pico House, a luxurious hotel in Los Angeles.
- 1870: The Pico House opens for business.
- 1880: Due to bad business decisions Pío Pico loses The Pico House to loan sharks.
- 1892: Pío Pico is evicted from his home “El Ranchito.”
- 1894: Pío Pico dies a pauper at his daughter’s home on September 11, 1894.
Today in Southern California
A number of places in and around Los Angeles, California, bear Pico’s name, including:
- Pico Boulevard, a major east–west thoroughfare in Los Angeles
- Pico Union, Pico-Roberston, Pico Park, Pico/Rimpau, L.A. neighborhoods
- Pico Rivera, a city in California
- Pico station and Pico/Aliso station, stops on the Los Angeles Metro Rail
- Pío Pico State Historic Park, site of Governor Pico’s Rancho Paso de Bartolo
- Pico House, historic site in Downtown Los Angeles
The later part of Pico’s life was fraught with gambling and business debts. However, the legacy of his life and leadership live on, namely in Southern California.
The name Pico honors the little known California governor’s legacy and underscores the importance of telling stories that often go untold, especially those within historically underrepresented communities. Here is a governor of mixed race, mixed ancestry who rose to riches and prominence, helping to shape the very state of California.
As namers, we love to connect dots between names and deeper meaning and metaphor. In this case, the English prefix “pico-” alludes to a very small number (one trillionth). Metaphorically, it’s a great reminder that even small actions over time can have an enormous impact, just as the ripples of Pío Pico’s life spread within California to this day.