Pio de Jesús Pico was born May 5, 1801 at the Mission de San Gabriel Arcángel in what was then known as Alta California, Mexico, the son of a notable soldier. His grandmother was identified as a mulata, which under the Spanish caste system denoted a mixed race individual having both Spanish and African ancestry.
After his father died in 1819, Pico settled in San Diego, California. He entered business, and subsequently became one of the richest people in the province, owning several thousand acres of prime ranch land, a hotel (Pico House), and other properties and businesses. The size of his land holdings amounted to 500,000 acres.
After Manuel Victoria was deposed in 1832 after failing to follow orders from the government regarding secularization of the famous Catholic Missions, Pico became Governor of Alta California Province. He abdicated after only twenty days in this capacity. In 1834, Pico ran for mayor of San Diego, and was defeated. He also became notable for challenging the powerful Governor, Juan Alvarado, and found himself in prison on numerous occasions between 1836 and 1842.
In 1844, Pico became leader of the California Assembly, and in 1845 was appointed Governor, succeeding the unpopular and disliked Manuel Micheltorena. Pico made Los Angeles the province’s capital, carried out secularization of the missions, and argued in favor of California becoming a British protectorate as the Mexican-American War loomed, as opposed to a territory of the expanding United States. In 1846, American troops occupied Los Angeles and San Diego, and Pico became a US citizen, also being elected to the Los Angeles Common Council.
After the American annexation of California and the rest of what we now call the West was complete, Pico continued to dedicate himself to his business dealings. He remained the wealthiest man in California, until his extravagant lifestyle, bad loans, natural disaster, and gambling habit forced him to liquidate his real estate holdings and he spent his last years in a state of virtual poverty, dying at the home of his daughter in 1894. His death marked the loss of a link to California’s Mexican past, and also marked the passing of a key representative of African ancestry in the mestizaje, or mixture, of Mexicanness.