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Pio Pico: A life as big as the 2-time governor's needs 2 graves

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He lived nearly a century, overthrew two governors, and gambled $25,000 on a single race. Maybe it isn't surprising that he needed two graves.

"What are we to do then? 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?" -- Pio Pico

Rags-to-riches-to-rags stories are common in the fabric of Southern California history. They're"quintessential," says Carolyn Christian of the Friends of Pio Pico.

Pio Pico, the last governor of Alta California under Mexican rule, was a revolutionary who at one point made the missions forfeit their land. He also bet tens of thousands of dollars on horse races, but at the time of his death, couldn't afford his own grave.

Pio de Jesus Pico was born on May 5, 1801 at the mission San Gabriel Arcángel. California in this era had a tightly stratified caste system with indigenous people at the bottom, Mestizos (Mexicans with European blood) in the middle, and Spanish rancheros at the top, making up a mere 3% of Alta California's total population, according to historian Paul Bryan Gray. Pico himself came from Spanish, African, Native American, and Italian descent, but thanks to his father's service in the Spanish army, he had the potential to be part of the landowning class.

(Pio Pico, 1858. UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library)

"The elite became the elite because they were the descendants of the original soldiers sent to California in 1769," says Gray. "The way things worked was that if you had an ancestor who did military service, or if you did military service yourself, you would get a land grant."

Eligibility was important, but availability came first. The Catholic Church controlled most of California's arable land through the missions. By the 1830s, upheaval was fomenting throughout the ranchero class, who were eager to expand their holdings by secularizing the mission lands for use by civilians. Pio Pico found himself at the head of a small rebellion and met the anti-secular Governor Manuel Victoria in combat at the Battle of Cahuenga Pass on Dec. 5, 1831.

Victoria was one of the very few injured in the battle, and didn’t return to his post. Pico "was elected to the Assemblea, what we'd call the state Assembly today," says Gray. He held office for 20 days in 1831 until the Mexican government pushed him out. The popular movement of secularization had taken hold though, and Pico and his brother Andres secured massive tracts of land in the San Diego and San Fernando areas, and after the Mexican-American War, in the San Gabriel Valley. 

Pico married his wife, Maria Ygnacia Alvarado, in 1834. The two never had children together, but adopted two daughters. Carolyn Christian says that Pico fathered these children with other women, and legitimized them through adoption. Maria Ygnacia was the niece of Juan Bautista Alvarado, the Monterrey-born governor from the north who held office from 1836 to 1842. When Alvarado was succeeded by Mexico’s Manuel Micheltorena, Alvarado and Pico joined forces with another former governor, Jose Castro, in an uprising that culminated in the Battle of La Providencia in 1845.

Governor Micheltorena was overthrown and Pico retook the governor’s mansion, this time with Mexico’s blessing. One year later, the United States declared the Mexican-American War, and Gray says Pico accomplished little in this time. Pico had written about the increasing throngs of settlers from the Southern states coming to California leading up to the war:

"What are we to do then? 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?"

"Pio Pico actually left California, went down to Mexico, and there are a couple stories why," says Christian. "Some people say he was a coward and he was running away. Other people say, no, he was going to down to Mexico to get reinforcements to come up and fight the Americans. The other reason why people think that he left is because if you have a head of government, and they're captured, you have a lot of negotiating power. So if they're gone and they can't be captured, that helps from having something leveraged against you."

Mexico ceded California and the rest of the Southwest with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in February 1848, signed at the Cahuenga Pass — the very site of both of Pico’s rises to governance. Pico returned to Los Angeles the same year.

"When he returned to California, he announced, 'I'm back, I'm governor of California.' And of course he was immediately thrown in jail," laughs Christian. Pico was bailed out by William Workman, says Christian, and became a proud member of the new Californian society. He was elected to the L.A. City Council, but never took office, says Gray. He continued building up a fortune in land holdings and gained a windfall from cattle raising because of the Gold Rush's high beef demands.

Maria Ygnacia Pico died in 1854, but Pio Pico would live on for another 40 years. In the 1860s and '70s he had two more children — sons — and in 1870 he made his last grand business venture: The Pico House. It was L.A.'s first three-story building and luxury hotel, with 33 suites, designed by architect Ezra Kysor, and still stands at El Pueblo de Los Angeles. Pico lost the hotel to the San Francisco Savings and Loan Company in 1876.

(L: Pico House, est. 1870, 400 block of LA's Main Street. R: Merced Theatre, erected 1870, L.A's first playhouse. Konrad Summers/Flickr Creative Commons)

Pico’s resources dwindled swiftly in the 1880s. His ranch was damaged by floods,  he gambled away as much as $25,000 on a single race, and his son and translator Ranulfo was murdered for leaving a woman at the altar. 

"He never bothered to learn English, so he couldn't read the deeds and mortgages and other documents given to him," says Gray, and Christian adds, "There was a lawyer by the name of Bernard Cohn, who actually swindled a lot of the Californios out of their land. He did it by presenting them with what they thought were loans, and they were actually signing over their ranchos... It went all the way to the California Supreme Court." Gray calls this the last in a long string of risk-taking by the ex-governor, "and as a result he lost all his land in Whittier and finally died in total poverty because of his negligence." 

Pico died on Sept. 11, 1894 at 93 years old. He was buried at the first Calvary Cemetery, L.A.'s original Catholic cemetery, which was founded in 1844 and condemned due to massive disrepair in 1920. Pico and Maria Ygnacia Alvarado were interred in an above-ground tomb with cast iron markers, and at one point Alvarado's skeleton was grave-robbed and left strewn some 50 feet away, according to the L.A. Downtown News. The cemetery and most of its occupants were relocated to Calvary's current location in East L.A. in the '20s.

(Pico Family tomb at Old Calvary Cemetery. LAPL/Security Pacific National Bank Collection)

Cathedral High School now occupies the site the original Calvary Cemetery stood on. Pio Pico was moved not to East L.A., but to the Workman-Temple Homestead in what was known as Rancho La Puente. Pico had granted William Workman massive land tracts for serving in the Mexican military during the Mexican-American War, and when his great grandson Thomas Temple found oil on his family's property, Workman's grandson Walter Temple built a mausoleum for friends and family — which is Pio Pico's final resting place. 

Visit Pio Pico's tomb at the Homestead Museum, which is giving a special presentation and tour at the Walter P. Temple Memorial Mausoleum on Sunday, Oct. 25.

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