Born on May 5, 1801, Pio Pico was the last Mexican governor of Alta California and a pivotal figure in the transformation of Pueblo de los Ángeles from small Spanish settlement into major American city. While, the Afro-Mexican icon embodied the rich cultural diversity that lies at the roots of the Los Angeles’ story, his rise to prominence was tied to another hallmark of Los Angeles – real estate.
After beginning his business career by selling provisions from a small general store in San Diego, Pico travelled throughout Alta California – building relationships with prominent families throughout the territory. During the 1830s, Pico played a pivotal role in the “transfer of enormous land holdings from the control of Spanish missionaries to the private ownership of his fellow rancheros and political allies”. Shortly after becoming governor in 1845, Pico moved the governor’s office from Monterey to Los Angeles.
Following the US annexation of California in 1848, Pico dedicated himself to building his business empire. Increased demand for cattle in northern California helped Pico and other southern California ‘rancheros’ rake in huge profits during the ‘gold rush’, which allowed Pico to maintain and acquire large land holdings.
As California’s population surged behind the wave of new migrants heading west, many bought with them racist attitudes towards African-Americans, Mexicans, and Chinese immigrants. Not only was Pico an outspoken critic of those views, but he openly encouraged newly arrived Black Angelenos like Biddy Mason to invest their savings into local real estate ownership.
In 1870, Pio built the first three-story building in Los Angeles – the Pico House hotel in Downtown. Eventually, an extravagant lifestyle, bad loans, and gambling habits forced Pio to liquidate his real estate holdings, before spending his last years in a state of virtual poverty.