The Life of Pío Pico

Pio Pico portrait

Few people live in three countries without ever moving. Those extraordinary circumstances marked the life of Pío de Jesus Pico, last Governor of Mexican California and citizen of Spain, Mexico and the United States in turn.

Born at Mission San Gabriel in 1801 when Alta California was still part of Spain’s imperial holdings, Pico was the fourth child in a family of ten. The family moved to San Diego in 1805; in 1820, after his father’s death, 19-year-old Pico stepped up to take responsibility for supporting his entire family. He worked primarily as a merchant, selling dry goods and sundries.

Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821. Pico gathered wealth and land from grants and purchases, eventually building a home in San Diego for his family. At 25, he entered into politics as a member of the Mexican Territorial Assembly, and in 1832, he was elected governor.

After his first term as governor, Pico became involved with the tumultuous political scene in California of the 1830s and 1840s. He was reelected governor of the state once more in 1845, but his second term was interrupted by the Mexican-American war. While the United States occupied Los Angeles, Pico sent desperate pleas to the Mexican government to protect Alta California, but to no avail. Mexico ceded Alta California to the United States in 1848. Pico, who had fled to Mexico, returned to Southern California to live as a private United States citizen. It was his third and final change of citizenship.

Pico then focused on gaining property, land, and power. By 1855, he and brother Andres held title to more than 532,000 acres of land. Pico built the first three-story structure in Los Angeles, the Pico House Hotel. He also built his “El Ranchito” or “Little Ranch,” which included an elegant adobe house that is now the main feature of the Pío Pico State Historic Park in Whittier.

Pico was one of the few California dons to retain title to his land after Mexico lost the war. Vaqueros tended his ranch livestock. Pico entertained lavishly; guests often stayed for weeks to celebrate religious holidays and weddings, to play cards, and to bet on horse races. Guests were waited upon and had access to coin-filled trays located throughout the house, so they need not gamble with their own money.

Sadly for Pico, bad business dealings, his inability to speak or read English and natural disasters such as floods at “El Ranchito” left the generous businessman in ruins. He died penniless at the home of his daughter Joaquina Pico Moreno in 1894.

Pico’s legacy, however, lives on in California—from Pío Pico State Historic Park, named in his honor to Pico Boulevard, a busy thoroughfare in Los Angeles. Sometimes described as mythical, the legend of Pío Pico will always have a place in the history of California.