Who Was the Last Black Governor of California?

Can you remember when the last Black Governor of California served? I couldn’t and looked it up. It was over 150 years ago.

In 1845-1846, the last Mexican governor of southern Alta California was Pío Pico. He was born in 1801 at the San Gabriel Mission in California. He was and is a famous Californio, born and raised in Spanish and Mexican California. His grandparents Felipe Pico and María Jacinta Bastida were of mixed race heritage including African, Spanish and indigenous ancestry. They were free people who moved from Sonora in New Spain (Mexico) to Alta California along with the Second Anza Expedition in 1775 to begin a new life. Pico’s parents José María Darío Pico and María Estaquia López were children during the Anza Expedition. As young people in 1789, they married in San Diego. José María Darío Pico was a military man at the San Gabriel Mission and Mission San Luis Rey until 1818.

Pío Pico was actually governor of Alta California twice! The first time was in 1832, when he took over the post from Manuel Victoria (who also had African ancestry). So Pico wasn’t the first Black governor of California, only the last. Pico’s second term began in 1845. After 1846, he focused on his cattle ranching business and fighting to maintain his quarter million acres of land. He even opened a hotel in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile in the United States, the fable of Manifest Destiny was alive and well. The Texan revolt against Mexico’s anti-slavery stance began the Mexican-American War in 1846. Pío’s brother Andrés Pico was part of the resistance against the US invasion of Los Angeles, but lost to the stronger opponent. After Mexico’s defeat, California was annexed and became a US state in 1850. I believe it is important to note that Pío Pico was not in favor of US control of California. Considering the debate about whether slavery would be legal in California as it entered the Union and the fact that the racial divide continues to bar qualified Black candidates from the highest offices such as governor 170 years later, I can see why he felt that way.

More than a century later, California place names do homage to the Pico name; Pico Boulevard in LA, the city of Pico, CA, the Pico House, and Pío Pico State Historic Park.

Did you know Black settlers reached California before the Gold Rush? I look forward to your comments. –Rebecca

Governor Pío Pico Photo: US Library of Congress digital ID cph.31737
Rebecca Cuningham

25 thoughts on “Who Was the Last Black Governor of California?

  1. While it’s rather shocking that there isn’t a more recent example. I’m astonished at this interesting story. He must have been a real force of nature to accomplish becoming a governor a mire than a hundred years before I was born. By the way, how many female governors are there in the States – black, white or Latino?

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Margaret. Mexico’s history has prominent politicians of African descent during that period, there was President Guerrero as well. Good point about the women governors of the United States, that is also lacking. There have been only 43. Of those only 3 were women of color, however, none were Black women.

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  2. Thanks again for the great history lesson, my Friend. You always dig up some very interesting information. Makes me itchy to get started on my project. It’s running around in my head, but “life” is slowing it down at the moment. Broken pipes, hacked checking account, trying to get help lined up…nothing to worry about. 😒

    “Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

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    1. Thanks, Larry. Y’all been through some cold times in Texas this winter. Hope the frozen pipe got fixed and your bank account is once again safe. I appreciate your kind comments on the research. Thought the nod to the Lone Star State was right up your alley. I wonder if you could find letters of Texans in the 1800s talking about statehood.

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    1. For the places that were once New Spain, the US history books talk about the European explorers then boom, statehood, without much info on the 200 years inbetween. I agree that there are many diverse stories that rightfully should be included in the telling of history. Thanks, Michele.

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  3. I was born and raised in California, and I had no idea about Pío Pico! Really goes to show how much of our school textbooks didn’t touch on certain parts of history, including this one. Thanks for the lesson!

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    1. Thanks for your personal story, Rebecca. I wonder if California history textbooks include Governor Pico now. Seems like the Californios history is skipped over; the outline goes from Spanish explorers and missions to the Gold Rush.

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