December 5, 1846, 8:30 p.m.
San Pasqual Valley, California (Mexican Territory)
The thirty-six year old Mexican General came out from under his blankets. The fire was almost out, inside the warm Luiseno Indian hut. General Andres Pico could barely make out the Indian standing in front of him. The entrance to the hut was open and he could feel the ice-cold night air trying to invade the warmth of the humble dwelling. He could hear several of his Mexican soldiers engaging in feverish conversation just outside.
Determined to find out what all the commotion was about, Pico rose up off the floor. He called them inside. The soldiers entered and immediately became quiet. They all looked at the General, a debonair looking gentleman whose husky frame seem to match his large hands and eyes. His long and wide sideburns flared off the sides of his face. Suddenly, the excited soldiers all began talking at once.
In front of Pico stood several soldiers including the Officer of the Day, Captain Don Jose Alipas and sentry, Jose Maria Ibarra. Alipas immediately told Pico that Ibarra had heard a dog barking just outside the Indian village and, when he went to check it out, he heard several people thrashing through the brush around the camp. Ibarra reiterated the story and added there had just been two visitors inside the camp as well. The two men disappeared though when one of the village dogs began barking.
These two men were either in the village right now or were close by, Ibarra said. Pico could see Ibarra was alarmed by what he had heard.
Captain Alipas wanted to check it further. “It’s the Americans, they’re here,” he said. There was fear in Alipas’ voice. Pico wouldn’t hear of it though.
The Americans are not here, Pico said. He said they were only rumors circulating throughout the village from the Indians.
For several days now, the San Pasqual Indians had reported that a large group of American soldiers were in the area. These reports came from the Indians though and the Mexicans knew better than to trust an Indian.
Pico then ordered Alipas to go check it out. The men ran out of Pico’s hut. Alipas ran to the edge of the village and challenged the darkness beyond. Shouting out in Spanish several times, he yelled, “Who goes there?”
Suddenly, the darkness answered back with the sounds of clinking metal, the hooves of horses sucking down into mud and the trashing of wet sage brush. Alipas began yelling in Spanish, “To arms, to arms. “
Pico still didn’t believe it, at least that it involved any Americans but it was obvious that something was happening. Pico immediately ordered one of his officers, Captain Bautisa Moreno, to take the four horses left in the camp along with some men and check it out.
Pico’s hut cleared of people while he stoked what was left of the small fire inside. He placed a few pieces of cottonwood on the glowing embers. He couldn’t believe that he was being awakened by a bunch of spooked ranch hands turned soldiers in the middle of the night over such ridiculous circumstances. To top it off, their imaginations were in overdrive, believing that it was the Americans.
He sat on the floor on top of his blankets. His mind began to wander while he tried to warm up around the fire. He was trying to figure out what he was going to do if it was the Americans trying to sneak into their camp. He began to think back through all the years, to all the events that had brought him to this moment.
He had been born the son of Jose Maria Pico, a noncommissioned officer in the guard detachment at the San Gabriel Mission. His father died in 1819 whereupon his family moved south to San Diego. There, his family lived in a twelve-room house in Old Town. Andres’ older brother, Don Pio Pico, grew up quickly in life, learning how to acquire political positions and manipulate them for personal wealth.
Don Pio Pico became famous for such things as selling wine to Mexicans in ox horns equipped with false bottoms to make more money with less wine. His way of learning to hustle not only made him and the Pico family wealthy, but also jockeyed him into power positions. By 1832, he held the position of Governor of California for twenty-two days while two other incumbents fought over the position.
Indeed, the Pico family had become notorious. They were well known for their manipulation of the Indians at Mission San Luis Rey, just north of San Diego. Here, Pio and Andres had become the administrators of the mission and all its ranch lands. Since Mexico had won its independence from Spain, the missions and their power-holds over the lands and their people, were no more. Certain Mexican citizens were chosen by the governor to over-see operations at the various missions throughout the State.
>Like other administrators throughout California, the Pico’s were accused of stealing from the mission by sending wine and brandy made at the mission by the Indians down to San Diego for their own sale and profit. In addition, in 1839, they were accused of stealing cattle from the mission and embezzling funds from the post through fear and intimidation of the local Indians. This did not slow them down, however. By 1841, Governor Alvarado awarded a land grant to them for 89,742 acres just north of San Diego in the San Onofre and Santa Margarita areas. After several more years and over 43,000 acres later, the Pico’s controlled over 132,000 acres of land due north of San Pasqual known as the Santa Margarita Ranch. Much of this was acquired by circumventing many of the existing Mexican Laws. By 1845, Andres’ brother, Pio Pico, was the governor of California.
The very next year had found the Americans plunging towards California to claim it as part of the United States. The United States had declared war against Mexico.
This year, thought Pico, had plummeted the Mexicans to the very edge of their existence here.
Now, like Texas just ten years earlier, the Californios had arisen to the call to defend their land from the Americans. There was no hope for help from Mexican President, Santa Ana or the Mexican military. The vaqueros or Mexican Cowboys of California, had over-night, suddenly become soldiers. Now called Californios, they had united to fight a common fight. To stop the raping of their country by the American dogs who had no respect at all for the Mexican people.
In March, the Californios defeated Captain John Fremont and his sixty men at Hawks Peak forcing them to flee. They then defeated Benjamin Wilson and his small command at Rancho Chino capturing twenty of his men.
Onward yet, they surrounded and threatened Marine Corps Captain, Archibald Gillespie, and his men with starvation in Los Angeles. This, after Gillespie and his men had captured the town, placing it under martial law. The brazen Marine went as far as to forbid the Mexicans to even practice their cultural and religious customs. This created much contempt for the Captain. It resulted in a tremendous gathering of Californios who came together and retook Los Angeles.
Once captured, Gillespie only was allowed to leave unharmed if he promised to leave Mexico and never fight the Mexicans again in California.
Under the watchful eyes of over six-hundred mounted Californios, Gillespie, fifty-four of his men, and nineteen of their servants, rode out of Los Angeles to San Pedro where they boarded a ship and headed south. Shortly thereafter, the Mexicans attacked Captain Theodore Talbot and his men in Santa Barbara. The Americans barely escaped.
Word was reaching American forces all over California of the Mexicans’ powerful counter-assault against them. Forces such as John Bidwell’s that were garrisoned at Mission San Luis Rey, fled to San Diego in such haste, they ditched their cannon in a mud hole before departing. Once in San Diego, Bidwell’s force met up with Ezekiel Merritt and his fifteen men, whereupon all of them boarded a whaling ship to escape as the Californios seized San Diego.
Mexican forces captured the U.S. Consul, Thomas O. Larkin and five sailors at San Mateo before battling U.S. forces at “Natividad” near Monterey resulting in the Americans picking up their dead and retreating.
Captains’ Gillespie and William Mervine then took over three-hundred sailors from the frigate “Savannah” and headed to Los Angeles to retake the town. At a plaza in Los Angeles known as “The Place of the Virgin,” the Americans attacked the Californios who were under the command of Jose Carrillo. With the help of a four-pounder cannon, the Mexicans inflicted enough losses on the American side to again cause the U.S. forces to retreat in defeat.
Meanwhile, back in San Diego, all the Americans were starving aboard ship because the Californios still controlled the Old Town area. However, this changed upon the arrival of Admiral Stockton’s flagship, the “Congress” in mid-October. By December of 1846, Gillespie and his men had been able to reclaim San Diego. For the Americans, the port had become the base of operations against the Mexicans in California.
Despite so many victories against the Americans this year, Pico knew that more and more American soldiers would continue to arrive. Eventually, the Californios would no longer be able to hold their own against the superiorly equipped U.S. military. It was only a matter of time. His brother had already fled to Baja, Mexico. Andres, who had always been the strong-arm of his brother’s dealings now found himself appointed as a General of the Mexican forces in California. He was very aware that the position of General had been a political one.
He had no real military background at all. With the exception of one former Corporal of a mission guard, no one in his entire force had any formal military background.
Bits of wood crackled in the small fire as the soft light danced across the interior of the hut. Pico looked around at the inside walls adorned with beads, feathers and other small items of the family whose hut he had commandeered. Furs laid across the earthen floor in front of him. He examined the walls of the dwelling that were made out of willows tied together with bark and covered with tules.
He could again hear men quickly approaching. Again, he could hear the same hurried, excited conversation that he had heard before. The talking suddenly ceased outside the door to his hut.
Pico walked outside and was greeted by an Indian who simply held an object up to him.
From the light of the moon and a nearby campfire, he studied the men in front of him, watching their breaths in the cold night air. Captain Moreno and others stood by in the background. They had just returned from their short patrol. The nearby firelight flickered off the shiny buttons on the object that Pico now held and inspected.
For a moment, there was silence. Those standing around watched as Pico absorbed what he saw. In his hands was a U.S. dragoon’s uniform jacket complete with sergeant stripes. One of the men then stepped forward and showed Pico a blanket they had also found. It had “U.S.” stamped on it. Moreno and his patrol had found both items just outside the village. Moreno went further and told Pico of chasing the Americans across the valley floor, all the way back to the base of San Pasqual Hill.
The silence was loud as everyone stood there. The night air was still carrying sounds of the Americans riding back up San Pasqual Hill. They all stood there listening to the ever-faint sounds of the clanging of the soldiers’ swords. They could hear the soldier’s horses as they worked their way up the road. It was haunting. Moreno reported to Pico that he and his men had found a track of about six to eight men on horseback.
As much as Pico had not wanted to believe, the proof was overwhelming. The Americans were here and he could not deny it. He ordered his officers, including Don Leandro Cota and Don Tomas Sanchez to be summoned to his quarters immediately.
Pico re-entered his hut and was furious, shocked, and almost frightened all at the same time. What Americans would dare enter their camp like this? What was happening? Had the Indians’ reports for the last several days been true after all? Was there a large force of Americans in the area? But how could this be, he thought.
He was out in San Pasqual Valley with his men waiting to catch the notorious red-headed Marine Corps Captain, Archibald Gillespie. Despite that Gillespie had promised he would never take up arms again against Mexico on California soil, the Marine was back doing just that.
On December 3, Pico’s sister, Marquita, who was in San Diego Old Town, spotted Gillespie leaving San Diego through Mission Valley, to the north on horseback, with about thirty men. They were headed east. She immediately got word to Andres who was headquartered at his brother’s ranch-house located on Rancho Santa Margarita, right off the San Luis Rey River.
When he heard of Gillespie leaving San Diego, Pico thought Gillespie and his men were out to steal more horses and cattle from some of the nearby Mexican Rancheros.
Meeting just underneath a large sycamore tree just west of his brother’s ranch house, Pico discussed with his officers, Leonardo Cota and Jose Alipas, what course of action they should take against Gillespie. They made the decision to go to the Indian village at San Pasqual. There, they would wait for Gillespie to come by on the caretta road, on his way back to San Diego. They would then strike, capturing Gillespie again and, saving their fellow countrymen’s horses and cattle from these American thieves.
Now, back inside the Indian hut, Pico’s hand stroked his long sideburns and unshaven face. What was happening? he thought. Why would Gillespie and his men dare sneak into their camp?
As Pico slowly pondered the whole scenario, the gravity of the situation was sinking in. If the Indians had been right all along about a larger force of American soldiers in the area, then indeed, they were in grave danger. He remembered one conversation in particular that had occurred the previous day.
One of the Indians had reported to him that a “Big American captain, with more than two-hundred men, was coming by land.” He further said that, “He had made camp close-by, that he had brought a cannon, and from San Diego, another captain with more than fifty men had left to meet him and that they were all together.”
When Pico asked one of the Indians if the American forces were as large as his own, the Indian gave the amusing reply, “Que! Ustedes no valen nada; ellos son mas muchos,” meaning, “What! You aren’t worth anything; they are more mucher. “
Several men suddenly entered the hut. The air was alive with the sound of men. Pico was surrounded by his top officers, Cota, Sanchez, Alipas and Moreno. There was serious concern among all the men present. The facts were now alarming. If the Indians were right, there was a large force of American soldiers not far away. The jacket, blanket and two strangers could only have been a scouting party and that could only mean an attack was due.
One of the men inside the dwelling was Captain Pablo Vejar who held much discontent for Pico and did not trust Pico’s intentions at all. Vejar voiced his anger at Pico for ordering their horses so far away from the village. He told Pico they were lucky to have such information from the local Indians on the large American force that was approaching, and that if it hadn’t been for the Indians, they would have been caught like sheep.
Many of Pico’s men were extremely loyal to the Mexican cause but Pico was thinking differently. He was very aware that he had only a group of ranch hands for soldiers, that he probably had only thirty guns at the most, and the only other weapons left were the lances the men carried. This was no match for a large American force who would be heavily armed, Pico thought.
Andres Pico now spoke softly and carefully. He looked into the eyes of his officers as he began to speak of surrendering to the Americans. Surely it would save the lives of all so that they could return to their families and ranches in Los Angeles. He explained to them that if the Indian tales of a large group of Americans were true, they could be outnumbered four-to-one.
Pico also knew if he played the political game right, got in with the winning party now, he would be far ahead of the game later with the Americans. The men however, were extremely loyal to Mexico and the Californios’ cause. So, Pico came to a compromise. He decided that they would ride out and greet the Americans. Whatever happened beyond that point was in the hands of the Americans.
Pico figured the Americans were now aware that their scouting party had been detected and that it would be stupid to try to launch an attack. However, if they tried such a thing, the Greyhounds would be ready for it.
Because he had not believed anything like this would happen, Pico had all their horses out to pasture about a mile and a half due east of the village. This had dismayed many of his men because without their horses, they were powerless against the Americans. He now ordered all the horses be driven back to the village immediately.
His officers wanted all the soldiers awoken without delay and outside the huts, around the fires. They didn’t want the men to be caught asleep or inside the huts. Forward sentries would be posted across the valley floor, at the base of where the road ascended San Pasqual Hill. It was the only way in or out of the valley leading west.
Pico told the men that they would leave the village and stage across the road leading from the hill. There, they would greet the Americans. If the Americans were willing to talk, then so be it but if they attacked, they would be ready for them. With Pico as their leader, the others agreed but some reluctantly so. Some wanted not to talk at all but instead, to fight the Americans and defend California, land of Mexico.
As the officers left Pico’s hut, they talked amongst themselves. Some thought Pico would sell out to the Americans the first chance he got and, as the word spread, some thought about splintering from Pico and fighting the American dogs anyway.
For the next several hours, Pico watched as the Indian village came alive with activity. Men carried armfuls of oak and cottonwood as fires were being lit. Soldiers crowded around them to stay warm. There was talk as some put food in their stomachs, others checking their guns and still others, sharpening lances.
For Pico himself, he thought this could be a brilliant move. If he could stand his ground with the Americans, and even reach a compromise of a sort, he would have his name made. Pico saw the writing on the wall. Without help from Mexico City, California would fall to the Americans and he didn’t want to lose his land and power. Playing the game right, he could come out ahead on the American side.
Pico was suddenly alerted by sentries. The Americans were at the top of the hill. The Californios began to move as fast as they could, saddling their horses and preparing to move out.
Many were glad they had the time they did around the fires because it was wickedly cold. To make it worse, there was a cold, damp fog off the valley floor. Pico, who had set out to attack the Americans, now found it was he who was about to be attacked. As he mounted his horse, he knew it was now time to ride out into the valley and let destiny take its course.
The Californios moved out. Their dark figures gave nothing but silhouettes to the Indians left behind in the village. The Indians slowly began to grab their families and, begin to climb to large boulders and rocks on the hills above their village. From their perches, they quietly waited, watched and listened. Some shivered underneath their blankets and furs. The obscure sunlight of dawn was just barely beginning to make its presence known.
Up on their horses, the Californios quietly moved into the fog, their razor-sharp lances pointed upward towards the dark sky. They rode only about half-a-mile from the village and stopped in the middle of the valley floor, right across the road that lead to San Diego and Los Angeles.
Here, Pico and his men waited for the Americans. Pico positioned himself and about twenty-five of his men across the old cart road and valley floor. They faced San Pasqual Hill. He positioned Cota and about thirty-five men down in a ravine to his one side and then positioned Sanchez, and thirty-five men into a ravine on the other.
Most of the rifles they had were put with men in the ravine directly to their right. Pablo Vejar, who was with this group, told the men, “One shot and one lance.” Vejar knew if the Americans charged, there would be no time to reload weapons, just enough to get one round off and, then counter-charge with lances and sabers.
Pico ordered every rifle they had pointed at the road in front of them. “Fire only on command,” he yelled. He was aware of his two soldiers who had ridden to the base of the hill and were waiting there as forward observers. As soon as they saw the Americans riding their way, they were to immediately return and warn them. He was now ready to greet the Americans, no matter what the outcome was to be.
The Greyhounds waited as the early morning coldness slowly seeped inside their clothing. The fog that hung close to the valley floor now began to carry sounds their way. Hauntingly and slowly, they could begin to hear horses moving their way on the muddy road. They could hear sounds of clanging metal and then, horses suddenly galloping, men yelling and what sounded like swords being drawn from sheaths.