Several of my projects have intersected, and some of the subject matter has aligned with the expressed curiosity of some readers of this page, and so I will share, from time to time, that material from my research into the life of Salomon Pico, Bandit.
Salomon Pico was born into a family of “movers and shakers” in Alta California, and arguably every influence in his formative years must have urged him to undertake leadership and responsibility. The mantle of indolent spoiled patrician must not have rested as easily on his brow as some have thought, if one considers his heritage of mixed races within a caste-conscious Spanish society. His grandfather, Santiago de la Cruz Pico was Mestizo (Spanish, black, and Indian mix) and his grandmother Maria de la Bastida was Mulatto (African mother, Spanish father). His own father, Jose Dolores Pico, first married a Mulatto, and after her death, took for his spouse Maria Ysabel Asencion Cota, of pure Spanish blood and from an elevated family. Of that union came ten children, and with that union came an immediate step up the caste system beyond their father. Still, as Lawrence Brooks De Graaf points out in “Seeking El Dorado: African Americans in California”, at her death Señora Maria left over a hundred mixed race descendents.
By the time Salomon entered adolescence, his brothers were grown men. Salomon’s oldest brother by 15 years was Jose de Jesus Pico. Next was Antonio Maria Pico, older by 12 years. Both brothers left Salomon large footprints to follow.
Jose de Jesus Pico was known as “Totio” Pico. The meaning of the nickname alludes me. Like his father, Don José became a soldier and served from 1827 to 1831 in the Monterey Company. In the mid-1830s, Don José helped Juan Bautista Alvarado in his unsuccessful attempt to make California an independent republic, separate from Mexico. For this help, Governor Alvarado rewarded Don José with a grant of land, “south of San Carpoforo Creek to the Arroyo del Morena, and east from the ocean at high tide to the summit of the Santa Lucia mountains”, including about 14 miles of coastline––today the Hearst Mansion land.
By 1836 he had become administrator of the Mission San Antonio de Padua near Jolon and in 1841 he was appointed administrator of the Mission San Miguel. At this point he married Dona Gabriella Villa and they established a home in San Luis Obispo. Mexican law required him to build a home on the Rancho Piedra Blanca, stock it with animals and plant an orchard, all of which he did. His adobe home was constructed a short distance from the ocean on the bank of a creek about three miles south of San Simeon Bay. Today this creek is known as Pico Creek. The picture on this page is his ruined adobe (courtesy of Autry national Center of the American West).
All of these accomplishments are important, but the truly extraordinary moments in Don Jose’s life came about through his unusual relationship with Colonel Fremont. A soldier Mexican Army, Totoi fought against the Americans. He was captured by Fremont and “paroled”, a curious but gentlemanly condition in which he is allowed to go home promising not to fight again.
But he did. Fremont learned that he has taken part in the Battle of Navidad with Manuel Castro. When Fremont occupied San Luis Obispo, he was informed that Don Jose was in town and he promptly recaptured him. There was a short trial, and Totoi Pico was sentenced to death at dawn.
Edwin Bryant describes what happened next, from his perspective as a soldier with Fremont. “While standing in one of the corridors (of the mission) this morning, a procession of females passed by me, headed by a lady of fine appearance and dressed with remarkable taste and neatness, compared with those who followed her. Their rebosos concealed the faces of most of them, except the leader, whose beautiful features, I dare say, she thought (and justly) required no concealment. They proceeded to the quarters of Colonel Fremont, and their object, I understood, was to petition for the reprieve or pardon of Pico, who had been condemned to death by the court-martial yesterday.”
In “Fremont, Explorer for a Restless Nation”, Ferol Egan describes it this way: “Captain Dick Owens opened the door and ushered in a striking-looking woman dressed in black followed by a group of children. Owens introduced Colonel Fremont to Señora Pico. She knelt before him, tears in her eyes, and pleaded with him to spare her husbands life.”
Striking-looking she must indeed have been, for not only did he spare Don Jose’s life, but he took him into his service. Their relationship grew quickly, so quickly that on more than one occasion Fremont trusted Don Jose with his life.
Fremont moved his camp within two miles of the Santa Barbara mission, prepared to confront the forces of General Andreas Pico. He sent Don Jose to the mission to deliver a letter to the general. The response led to a meeting the next morning. Fremont rode to that meeting accompanied only by Don Jose, and there the general terms for the Mexican capitulation were agreed upon.
In a second remarkable association, Don Jose guided Fremont and his personal black servant Jacob Dodson on a ride from Los Angeles to Monterey for a meeting with then acting governor Kearney. It was an urgent journey made manifest by a question of the manner of disbanding of his California Battalian. This remarkable ride of 800 miles in eight days, including layovers and a detention of a day and a half, was a statement of the quality of the California horse as well as the character of the men riding them. A full account is available at http://www.longcamp.com.
To recount a small part, beyond San Luis Obispo, probably just beyond the Cuesta Ridge, the men halted for a few hours to rest. In the early morning hours, they were awakened by movement of the horses. According to the Egan account, “At first, they thought there was an attack by indians or bandits, but Pico heard the grunts and growls of grizzly bears. Fremont was ready to begin shooting, but Don Jose said that would only make the bears charge. He said it would be better to try the Mexican way. Sometimes, if one spoke to the bears the right way, they could be convinced to move along. Saying this, he walked slowly toward the growling bears. When he was close to them, he shouted sharply in Spanish. The bears hesitated, then slowly moved away.”
The courage, strength, and character of Salomon’s oldest brother are beyond doubt. these accounts and others speak additionally to his honor and gentlemanly qualities. This is the stock from which Salomon Pico, bandit, sprang.
When I return to the topic of Salomon Pico in future pages, the subject will be Salomon’s second oldest brother, Antonio Maria Pico.