by Paul R. Spitzzeri
On this day in 1801, Pío de Jesús Pico was born at the Mission San Gabriel in what was a remote, isolated outpost on the frontier of New Spain. His father was a mestizo (Spanish and indigenous) corporal in an army that was representing an empire on the verge of disintegration and his mother was a mulata (of African and Spanish ancestry). Just weeks prior to Pico’s birth, Spain and France signed a treaty during their alliance against England, but the latter imposed a crippling embargo on Spain that severely damaged its economy, particularly as silver from Mexico was unable to be delivered. The Treaty of Aranjuez, incidentally, led to Spain ceding what became the Louisiana territory in North America to France in exchange for lands in the Tuscany region of Italy, though France, led by Napoleon, quickly sold the territory to the United States for $15 million.
By 1808, when Pico was seven years old, Napoleon occupied much of Spain and installed his brother as king, though the Peninsular War continued until 1814, as the French emperor was on the edge of crushing defeat broadly speaking. While Spain became fully independent again, its colony in Mexico took the opportunity of its battles with Napoleon to launch a war of independence that ended in victory after roughly a decade.
During this time, Pico grew up in the highly insular world of Spanish Alta California and, during the Mexican era, after operating a store in San Diego, he rose to become a singularly important figure in the political world of the sparsely inhabited department of the new republic. He was a member of the legislature, the diputación, and briefly served as governor in 1832 after one of many revolts by Californios, who so identified because of their isolation from Mexico City, unseated a governor sent by the central government.
From the late 1820s, Pico began amassing land holdings through grants from the California government and he played a major role in promoting and implementing the secularization of the lands of the missions so that they were available for private ownership (naturally, he personally benefited significantly from this development).
For five years, Pico was the administrator for the Mission San Luis Rey in what is now Oceanside, once it was secularized. In 1841, he and his brother, Andrés, acquired the massive Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores where today’s Camp Pendleton is in the northern extremity of San Diego County.
In 1834, Pico married María Ignacia Alvarado, whose brother was governor of Alta California during the early 1840s (he granted Rancho La Puente to John Rowland during his tenure). The two were childless and were married for twenty years until her death in 1854. While Pico did not remarry, he did have several children from a few different women in later years.
In 1843, the government in Mexico City sent another governor to Alta California and the locals, always unhappy when this was done, were further enraged at the way Manuel Micheltorena acted and were deeply unhappy with the military force he brought with him. Pico became the focal figure in the unrest rapidly generated during Micheltorena’s administration and the culmination was a battle at Cahuenga Pass near Los Angeles in early 1845.
By this time, William Workman and his family had lived on the Rancho La Puente for three years and, while he was not, for reasons that remain obscure, on the original grant, Governor Alvarado gave him all the rights and privileges on the ranch as if he was. How Workman and Pico developed their friendship in these years is not known, but, as Pico assembled an armed force to confront Micheltorena, who marched south from Monterey, the long-time capital of the department, he had a unit of extranjeros, or foreigners, of which Workman was the captain.
When the two forces squared off at Cahuenga in February, little violence took place and the affair was mainly settled when Americans and Europeans on one side made contact with those on the other. For example, Workman, Rowland and Benjamin D. Wilson, supporting Pico, recognized men on Micheltorena’s side who came with them in late 1841 from New Mexico. After some negotiation, it was agreed that Micheltorena, who inspired little enthusiasm from his own side, would resign and leave California. Pico, however, told an interviewer over three decades later, that, when he saw the parley between the two sides:
I went to where Workman was and told him if I again saw him attempting contact with the enemy I would not consider him a friend of mine. He protested his great loyalty, assuring me that he was incapable of betrayal.
This might have been a way for Pico to frame his legacy so that it wouldn’t appear as if he lacked control over the situation at Cahuenga, but the end result was that he became governor, not knowing he would be the last under Mexican rule.
Pico’s success at becoming the chief executive of Alta California appears to have provided some latitude for the bestowing of the “spoils of war” on those who were key supporters. Several months afterward, in July, Pico issued a new land grant for La Puente, significantly expanding it from just under 18,000 to nearly 49,000 acres. Moreover, Rowland submitted a statement in which he claimed that Workman was inadvertently left off the first grant, clearly a strange way to try to explain how his long-time friend, business partner, and neighbor was not included. In any case, the regranting of La Puente deepened the friendship between Workman and Pico.
This was further solidified the following year, as it became known that war erupted between the United States and Mexico on a pretense by the Americans who had ambitions to extend the nation to the Pacific. In late spring 1846, Pico granted Workman a small island offshore from the hamlet of Yerba Buena in the north. Commonly known then as Bird Island, it became (in)famous as Alcatraz and the grant specified that Workman was required to build a lighthouse on it to assist ships entering San Francisco Bay, with the name San Francisco given to Yerba Buena.
At the same time, Pico granted San Clemente Island, off the coast south of Santa Catalina Island, to his brother, Andrés, and to Workman, and then the lands of Mission San Gabriel to Workman and Hugo Reid, a native of Scotland. It is not known if there was a proposed purpose for San Clemente, though the mission properties were clearly very valuable. Ultimately, all three grants were not retained by Workman, as the United States military took possession of Alcatraz and San Clemente and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in 1864, against the claim and Reid’s successors for the mission lands.
The resulting war, however, uprooted most plans for those in California and Pico left (or fled) for Mexico to either seek help from the central government, which couldn’t possibly have done anything under the circumstances, or remain in exile until situation calmed down back home.
Workman, meanwhile, played an active role in matters, including meeting with U.S. Navy Commodore Robert F. Stockton at San Juan Capistrano to negotiate an amnesty for Californios defending against a second invasion of Los Angeles, bringing out the flag of truce after the battle that led to the recapture of the town, and working with neighboring ranchero Ygnacio Palomares, of Rancho San José (modern Pomona), to free Americans and Europeans who were taken prisoner at the Chino Ranch in modern Chino Hills by Californios concerned about their gathering during the tense wartime environment.
When Pico finally returned in 1848, he did so by stealth, including staying for a time at the Workman House, as he tried to gauge what the local military commander, Jonathan D. Stevenson, wanted from him. When John Rowland’s son-in-law, John Reed, who volunteered for the American forces during the invasion, rode into Los Angeles to inform Stevenson of Pico’s presence at Workman’s home, the commander railed at Workman calling him “ever hostile to the American cause.” Eventually, however, Pico, who turned himself in and promised loyalty to the new regime, was released.
The seizure of Mexican California by the United States was very quickly followed by the discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada Mountains just days before the Mexican Congress ratified the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending the war. The subsequent onrush of many thousands of gold seekers and others brought tremendous tension amid a lack of government and law enforcement and existing animosities between many Californios and Americans and Europeans flocking to California were worsened.
Pico adapted to these sudden and strident transformations and became a neighbor to William Workman and to Workman’s daughter (one of whose suitors was the ex-governor’s brother, Andrés) and her husband F.P.F. Temple. Pico acquired the Rancho Paso de Bartolo just below the Whittier Narrows, with the Temples to the north at Rancho La Merced and Workman to the northeast at La Puente, and built his El Ranchito adobe house now a state historic park.
While Pico left politics behind, he continued to manage enormous landholdings, including much of the Rancho Ex-Mission San Fernando in tandem with Andrés and experienced the highs of making money selling cattle for fresh beef in the gold fields and the lows of the horrendous floods and droughts of the first half of the 1860s.
As greater Los Angeles entered its first significant and sustained period of growth towards the end of the Sixties and through the first several years of the Seventies, Pico could see the change and decided to take part. In 1868, at the beginning of that period of growth, he built the two-story brick “Pico Building” on the east side of Main Street. It was probably no accident that his compadres, Workman and Temple and their partner Isaias W. Hellman, the brilliant young merchant, opened the second bank founded in town in the former governor’s structure.
Then, Pico, realizing proceeds from the sale of his holdings in the San Fernando Valley, decided to revitalize the historic Plaza by building the Pico House hotel, which set new standards in amenities when it opened in 1870. The building was designed was Ezra F. Kysor, the first professional architect in the region and who is attributed with the extensive remodeling of the Workman House completed the same year. There are many similarities in style between the two buildings concerning the extensive Italianate features (arched windows, prominent roof eave brackets, and so on.)
Sadly, Pico’s efforts to keep the Plaza viable by building his fine hotel were not successful as the business district moved south where the Temple Block was located, closer to the Pico Building. Additionally, Pico’s penchant for litigation proved problematic as time went on and drained much of his finances, weakened, as with most people, by the economic downturn that came in 1875-76 when the Temple and Workman bank failed.
As he aged, Pico fell increasingly into straitened financial circumstances and then was the victim of a blatant swindle, which he tried to combat in court, but lost, at enormous expense. He lost his El Ranchito and other holdings and was forced to leave Paso de Bartolo, spending the night with the brothers Walter P. and Charles Temple at La Merced, as he traveled to Los Angeles to move in with a daughter.
In the early 1890s, Pico was often pointed out to tourists and visitors as one of the relics of a bygone Spanish and Mexican era, though, when he died in September 1894 at age 93, there were tributes to a man considered as one of the most compelling and powerful figures of his day. He was laid to rest at Calvary Cemetery at the base of the Elysian Hills in a cast-iron tomb he had imported during his salad days of the Gold Rush years and in which his wife Ignacia was buried forty years before.
As the cemetery closed and was abandoned, vandalism took its toll, including a gruesome ransacking of the Pico tomb in the first years of the 20th century. When Walter Temple acquired the Workman Homestead in late 1917, his first priority was renovating the El Campo Santo Cemetery his grandfather established in the 1850s and which experienced its own desecration about the time the Pico tomb was despoiled.
When Temple built a Neoclassical mausoleum between 1919 and 1921, he contacted descendants of the ex-governor and received permission to have the remains of Pío and Ignacia reinterred in a crypt fittingly situated next to those of Temple’s parents and grandparents—neighbors in eternity as they were in life. To this day, the Homestead is often known as the final resting place of a man whose life spanned nearly the entirety of the 19th century through the Spanish, Mexican and American eras and he appropriately lies adjacent to his compadres in the Workman and Temple families.