by Carlos Manuel Salomon
University of Oklahoma Press
Luis Torres firstname.lastname@example.org (626) 577-5664 March 10, 2011
Have you ever visited the stately and ornate Pico House near Olvera Street, in the shadow of Los Angeles City Hall? Ever wondered what went on in that building and how it got its name? A new book about Pio Pico, the last governor of California during the Mexican era will inform you and will give you a fascinating glimpse into the early history of California, a time when it went from being part of Mexico to becoming the 31st state in the United States of America.
“Pio Pico: The Last Governor of Mexican California” by Carlos Manuel Salomon uses the intriguing and often quixotic life of Pio de Jesús Pico as a thread for revealing remarkable historical, political and cultural trends that marked California’s often rocky transition from Mexican to United States sovereignty. It is a tale of military heroism, political maneuvering, far reaching real estate shenanigans and efforts to overcome prejudice and injustice. All the tale needs is a comely heroine or a rescued damsel in distress. But it is history, not fiction. And it is a briskly-told tale in the hands of Salomon who has devoted years of study and painstaking research to the life of Pio Pico who was born in 1801 and died 1894.
Pio Pico was twice the governor of California during the Mexican era. He at times was a rebel leader of a militia. He was an astute politician. He was a rancher with vast tracts of property, including his beloved Whittier Ranchito. He was an aggressive, yet sometimes naive, businessman who built and ran the elegant, bustling hotel in downtown Los Angeles, which now bears his name and is a meticulously restored historical landmark — the Pico House.
Pio Pico first became governor of California in 1831 after he was among the leaders of a revolt against the incumbent Mexican governor. That popular rebellion swept him into office for the first time. During his second term as governor, in 1845 he “fought in vain to save California from the invading forces of the United States,” according to Salomon. It is Pico’s role in the transition of California that is particularly noteworthy historically.
Relying on sources in both English and Spanish, Salomon chronicles the achievements that made Pico an extremely rich man and patriarch as well as the miscalculations that ultimately led to his political and financial downfall. Pico lost his huge Ranchito Whittier when he lost a series of lawsuits originally filed by adversarial investors and businessmen. In his old age he was left penniless.
Salomon concludes that Pico’s losses in court resulted from demonstrably false testimony and legal underhandedness. Something other Californios (original Mexican settlers) encountered in the transition. “But along the way, Pico also made some unwise business transactions and his ultimate demise was more associated with corrupt and cunning individuals who conspired to destroy the old governor than a systematic process aimed at destroying all Californios,” he writes in “Pio Pico: The Last Governor of Mexican California.” Pico died a pauper, but when he was at the top of his game, he had been undeniably been a wealthy and influential force in California.
California, of course, had long been a territory of New Spain and then of Mexico. Mexico achieved its independence from Spain in 1821, a time when a young Pio Pico was making his way as a young man in southern California. Twenty-five years later Mexico and the United States (which was caught up in the intoxicating jingoistic wave of “Manifest Destiny”) went to war. When the U.S.-Mexico War (1846-1848) was over, Mexico ceded nearly half of its territory to the United States. California was perhaps the biggest prize.
Pio Pico was governor at that time and although he and other “Californios” failed in their efforts to forestall the acquisition of California by the “gringos,” he became, for the most part, a force of peaceful reconciliation in the years of the transition. Salomon writes, “Pico was able to continue investing in real estate well into the 1870s and his survival as an important economic force following the U.S.-Mexican War, his centrality in the politics of early California, and his place among Californios help illuminate the larger political, economic and racial transformation taking place in nineteenth-century California.”
Pio Pico was of African and mestizo heritage, as were many of the settlers in early California. He worked to mitigate some of the harsh policies and practices that subjugated the indigenous population, including Gabrielinos, or Tongvas as they called themselves. His own life was a reflection of the changes — both good and bad — that occurred in the transition from Mexican to American rule in California, as Salomon ably demonstrates.
The book is fundamentally the life story of an interesting and historically significant individual. However, Salomon generally uses Pico as the vehicle for looking at the events of his era. One book can’t cover every issue, of course, but the book might have been enhanced with a closer look at the role the church, the military and the state played in subjugating the indigenous populations of California. Pio Pico was, after all, an eyewitness to that phenomenon. And it is an important, if painful, chapter of early California history.
You might want to consider these historical threads next time you visit the stately Pico House in downtown Los Angeles.