The Californios: In the Face of Conquest

Oct 5, 2015
8:42 pm
Andrés Pico, Californio governor and military commander

Andrés Pico, Californio governor and military commander

Captain Andrés Pico’s men were ready on the morning of December 6, 1848. Hours before, one of his patrols had spotted scouts sent by the opposing General Stephen W. Kearny, whose Army of the West had just marched 2,000 miles across desert and mountains to ensure the conquest of the Mexican province of Alta California, which today includes all of California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah, plus parts of Colorado and Wyoming.

Born in the town of San Diego, General Pico was a proud Californio. In fact he came from a prominent Californio family. His father José María had been of African, indigenous and Spanish descent, and had come to San Diego as a child during the early days of Spanish settlement. Big brother Pío had twice been governor of Alta California, the last time coinciding with start of the U.S. California Campaign. Living on the frontier of first the Spanish Empire and then a new Mexican republic, the Californios had developed a taste for autonomy and chafed against any form of outside rule.

But by August 1846, just as word arrived from the east that the United States had declared war on Mexico, U.S. troops controlled the northern half of Alta California. Whereas American settlers had once been welcomed in the province, even offered land grants if they underwent the facile naturalization process, in 1845 the Mexican government began threatening the American newcomers with disenfranchisement and even expulsion. Encouraged by Captain John C. Frémont, who arrived near present-day San Francisco in early 1846 (and would later become the first presidential candidate of a newly founded Republican Party), the settlers gradually made their resentments known.

On June 14, a band of over 30 Americans took control of the largely undefended town of Sonoma, making the barracks their headquarters where they raised the Bear Flag and declared an independent Californian republic. A few weeks later Captain Frémont was made commander of the Bear forces, and less than a week after that the U.S. Marines took effective control of the area, putting an end to the short-lived revolt.

After U.S. troops seized the Alta California capital at Monterrey, Governor Pío Pico and his military commander moved the capital to Los Angeles. But when they heard that the conquering army was marching on their position, the two men fled to Mexico, leaving José María Flores in charge of the resistance as both governor and comandante general. It was under Flores’s leadership that the Californio forces handed the U.S. Marines one of their very first defeats at the Battle of Rancho Domínguez in October 1846. It was also Flores who sent Captain Andrés Pico to stop General Kearny’s advancing troops.

The two sides met in San Pasqual Valley. Tired from their 2,000-mile trek, their uniforms and weapons drenched from the rain that fell the night before, the U.S. calvary was no match for Pico’s lancers, who knew the terrain and could ride a horse better than anyone. For half an hour the Californios outflanked and outmaneuvered the Americans, resulting in heavy losses. Still, to this day historians debate whether Pico or Kearny won the contest. Many more American troops were left dead or wounded, though Kearny described it as a pyrrhic victory since Pico’s lancers ultimately withdrew.

In the end, the Battle of San Pasqual would be the Californios’ last great stand against the American conquest. After two defeats in January, General Flores also fled to Mexico, leaving Andrés Pico in charge. A few days later, wanting to put an end to the bloodshed, the now Governor Pico secretly met with the now Lieutenant Colonel Frémont and agreed to a surrender. The Treaty of Cahuenga allowed Californios to return to their normal lives under the promise that they would enjoy the same rights as U.S. citizens, a promise ratified by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which ended the Mexican-American War a year later and ceded half of Mexico to the United States.

Both Pico brothers reluctantly became U.S. citizens, and while the older Pico refused to join the early Los Angeles city council when he was elected under the newly formed California state government in 1853, Andrés would serve as first a state assemblyman and then a state senator between 1851 and 1876. In 1864 his substantial landholdings were seized by the federal government, which had begun to reject the original right of ownership of many Californios. He died poor, as his brother Pío later would.

Remembering the Californios — and how quickly the conquerors can become the conquered — is how we celebrate our heritage.