The Battle of San Andres Street

Namesake Andrés Pico Was Half Black

Andrés Pico | Credit: Courtesy Neal Graffy

Recently a proposal has come forth to rename San Andrés Street, a thoroughfare named in 1851 for Andrés Pico, a hero to the native-born population of California and a gentleman highly respected by the new “Yankee” residents.

The proponents of the name change apparently know very little of Don Andrés, presenting their complete list of qualifications for the dismissal of this historic street name as follows: “André [sic] Pico was neither a saint nor resident of Santa Barbara.” Their two benchmarks for testing the validity of a street name’s importance would easily call for the renaming of more than a dozen streets in our community, including Calle César Chávez.

Over the past week, I have been bombarded with questions about how the street was named, who named it, and most importantly, who was “San Andrés.”

To start, San Andrés is one of four streets laid out side by side specifically and purposefully to memorialize two people and two events of the 1846 Mexican American War in California. The other streets being San Pascual, Chino, and Gillespie.

Andrés Pico was born November 18, 1810, in San Diego, the third son and ninth of 12 children born to Josef Maria Pico and Maria Eustaquia Gutierrez. Far from the pure Spanish bloodline that most people think constitutes the heritage of California’s early settlers under the Spanish flag, the Pico family’s ethnicity was recorded as mestizo and mulato, a blend of Spanish, Mexican Indian, and African.

Andrés’ name can be found throughout the annals of California during the years of rule by Mexico. He was recognized for his aptitude and intelligence and appointed to serve in a number of positions. He also played a part in the various schemes, plots, and uprisings that dominated California politics in the 1830s and 1840s.

It was two pivotal events during the Mexican-American War in California that earned him his street and sainthood. In December 1846, Captain Andrés Pico was camped with about 80 men near the Indian village of San Pascual, about 40 miles north of San Diego. He was unaware that American General Stephen Watts Kearny and his force were camped nearby, having arrived after a thousand-mile march from Santa Fe. Advised by his scouts of Pico’s presence, Kearny decided on a surprise attack at dawn, despite the fact that his men and animals were exhausted, cold, and wet. He confidently believed that Pico’s men, hardly a professional army, would flee.

Unfortunately for Kearny, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. It was dark and foggy and his men became separated. The surprise attack failed to surprise Pico’s men, who heard the advancing Americans and rushed to mount their horses. Orders from Kearny to his men were misunderstood, and general chaos commanded his troops as they descended down a hillside toward their objective. The Californios, superior horsemen and formidably armed with long lances, quickly and easily tore into them. The Americans found their gunpowder too damp to fire, and firearms were now relegated to clubs; those with swords found them too short to be of service when confronted with the length of a lance. After 10 to 15 minutes of intense fighting, Captain Pico’s men were finally driven back when the Americans pressed two cannon into service.

The battle cost General Kearny 21 dead and 16 wounded, including himself and Lt. Archibald Gillespie, USMC, who was severely wounded by three lance thrusts. By comparison, Captain Pico only had 11 wounded, none seriously. Two days later, true gentleman that he was, Pico sent a man under flag of truce to bring tea and sugar to Kearny’s camp as well as a change of clothing for the wounded Lt. Gillespie. Captain Pico also traded his four prisoners for one captured by Gen. Kearny. Reinforcements for both sides arrived, but Pico was smart enough to know that lances and horses were no match for the increased American firepower and withdrew as the news of his decisive victory at San Pascual was hailed throughout California.

Within a month’s time the commander of the California troops, General José María Flores, fled to Mexico, relinquishing command to Pico and elevating him to the rank of General. Flores was also acting governor, and that title was passed on to Pico as well. (Flores had inherited the position from Andrés’s brother, Pío Pico, who had been governor of California until he departed to Mexico in September 1846.)

On January 13, 1847, acting Governor and General Andrés Pico, met face-to-face with Lt. Col. John C. Frémont at the Cahuenga Pass, eight miles northwest of Los Angeles, to discuss the terms and conditions to end the war in California. Pico had sought out Frémont as he knew he could arrange for far better terms for his countrymen with Frémont than with any of the other American commanders. Ensuring complete trust between the two was a Pico family affair. Riding with Frémont was Pico’s cousin, José de Jesús Pico, the alcalde of San Luis Obispo, and Bernarda Ruiz of Santa Barbara, his great aunt. Alongside General Pico was his brother-in-law, José Antonio Carrillo. The resulting Treaty of Cahuenga, drafted by the Pico team, was anything but a harsh document of surrender. It generously stated that all combatants were pardoned and free to return to their homes, all Californians were granted the protection and all privileges of American citizenship without having to take an oath of allegiance, and anyone wishing to leave California for Mexico or any other territory was free to pass.

Four years later, as Salisbury Haley was surveying the town of Santa Barbara and laying out the future streets and blocks, the Town Council appointed Antonio Maria de la Guerra, Judge Joaquin Carrillo, and Eugene Lies as the Committee to Name the Streets. Among the 52 names they laid down on the new map of Santa Barbara was “San Andrés” in honor of Andrés Pico.

So why did the Committee to Name the Streets call it “San Andrés” and not “Pico”? Apparently to save us from engaging in further debate over which Pico: Was it the hero of San Pascual and Treaty of Cahuenga, Andrés Pico? His brother, Governor Pío Pico? Their cousin, José de Jesús Pico? By naming the street “San Andrés” and elevating Pico to “sainthood,” the Committee displayed how the native Californians felt about him and their sense of humor which can be found winding in and out of our original 52 street names. And, without realizing it, they also named the first street in Santa Barbara for a person of black ancestry.

But Pico’s career wasn’t finished yet. He served in the California State Assembly from 1851 to 1860 and was elected to the California State Senate in 1860. This would make him, so far as is known, the first black individual elected to those positions in California.

As State Senator, in February 1859, he presented the “Pico Bill,” which proposed to divide California in half, with the southern portion to be the “Territory of Colorado.” The bill passed the State Assembly and Senate and was signed by Governor John B. Weller on April 18. The next step was approval by Congress and then it could be placed on the ballot for consideration by the voters of California. However, Congress became distracted by the events leading up the Civil War, and the bill was set aside and forgotten.

Prior to the Civil War, Senator Pico had been commissioned as Brigadier General of the First Brigade of California Militia. As the war between the states got underway, Pico, described as a “patriotic gentleman,” was offered the position of major of the First Battalion of Native Cavalry, though he declined due to illness. An interesting achievement considering he had been in command of troops opposing the American Army a little over a decade earlier!

Andrés Pico died in Los Angles on February 14, 1876, ending a life of honor, achievement, and respect under the flags of Spain, Mexico, and the United States.

Changing street names dishonors our history and heritage and sets in motion a bad practice of changing street names whenever a group decides to advocate for one. Instead of eradicating our history, why not create something for future generations to embrace as part of our community’s legacy. If the people of Santa Barbara desire to honor Dolores Huerta, why not create a community garden (a slight play on her last name) — an act that would give to the community rather than removing our history.


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