Salomon Pico’s Monterey

(Every couple of  months or so I will write excerpts of interest from my history research.The following piece is one such.)

The times shapzorroe the man (or woman). It is in part why research for a story, history or novel is so fascinating. Why do people react to similar environmental circumstances in vastly different ways? What are the triggers that send one person spiraling downward while the next finds opportunity in the same situation?

I am currently researching the life of Salomon Maria Simeon Pico, known popularly as a Mexican bandit, thought by some to be the origin of Zorro. For the purposes of this article, our story begins in Monterey, Alta Mexico in 1835. Salomon was 14 years old. His father, manager of the great Rancho del Rey of Mission San Carlos Borromeo, had died 8 years before, in 1827. Salomon grew up on that rancho, straddling a horse by the time he was four, as did most Californios.

His mother, Maria Isabel Ascension Cota was born of pure Spanish blood, a fact which instantly elevated Salomon beyond his own father in terms of caste, and hence social standing. His mother preferred life in Monterey to that of the ranch, but her attempts to coax Salomon away were futile, until his father died. She then brought him back to the city.

Monterey itself is critical to the man Salomon would become. At the time, it was a town undergoing tremendous change. After the Mexican Revolution, the new rulers encouraged international trade, a dramatic turnabout from the strict Spanish restrictions. The flags of many nations flew from ships in the harbor, and Monterey citizens were catapulted into cultures other than their own for the first time.

Further, this small capital constantly fermented revolution, for the governor in place at the moment was never agreeable to everyone, and the problem was usually addressed by force rather than politics.

Indeed, 1835 marked a transition in governors from José Figueroa to José Castro as acting governor, an old family friend of the Picos, and a man who would play a large role in Salomon’s life. Beginning in 1834, the Mexican government secularized the missions, resulting in huge tracts of land becoming available to opportunistic Mexicans––and foreigners who played their cards right––in the form of grants.

Under Mexican rule there was more tolerance for foreigners living in Alta California; by 1835 there were some 300 non-Californio males living there. William Hartnell, an American, as an example, fully embraced Mexican culture and was even appointed inspector of missions during the secularization period.

Another high-profile American on the Monterey scene was Thomas O. Larkin. In 1834 he began construction of the first two-story adobe house in the town, opened a store, and conducted trade with Mexico and the Sandwich Islands. He would later serve as the first and only United States Consul, 1844-1848. When he died, he was one of the richest men in California. Larkin would also become a major influence in Pico’s later life, in a dramatically different way.

In the early 1830s Indians from the interior tribes were raiding for horses around Monterey. It was a huge problem, exacerbated by the mission secularization which left many Indians at loose ends, and hungry. The Indians loved horses for mobility, but even more for eating, making them a handy meal on the hoof, so to speak.

Such raiding was not new; in fact, it had its beginnings as early as 1810, building to a crescendo by the 1830s. Such raids would have been extremely relevant to Salomon and his father during his ranch life growing up in the 1820’s. Undoubtedly, he would have heard stories of the San Jose Mission Indian Estanislao, who was alcalde of the mission Indians during the day, but secretly rebelled against the Mexican soldiers by night wearing a mask and cape, plundering soldiers and wealthy Mexicans where he found them upon the road, and leaving a trademark ‘Z’ upon their belongings (Yes, he was nicknamed El Zorro, the fox).

More history anon.

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