Spitball Army

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Fantastic tales of gambling in Old California

December 6th, 2007 · No Comments

Don Pio Pico
Don Pio Pico himself, late in life.

One day in the late 1970s, while browsing the history sections of the Widener stacks, I came upon this book: Narracion Historica – Don Pio Pico’s Historical Narrative, as dictated to Thomas Savage, Los Angeles, October 24, 1877. I contacted the publisher, who very kindly scrambled together and bound the elements of the then out-of-print book and provided me with a full text. It was then given to my father as a Christmas gift in 1978, and kept safely (though I don’t think he ever read it completely). I inherited it back from my father upon his death in 2000, and it is one of the most cherished volumes in my library. Why? Well, Pio Pico is my family’s most notorious ancestor, having been the last person to hold the position of governor of California prior to its becoming an American state. In his nearly 93-year life span, he led an adventurous life as a revolutionary, land baron and, most unfortunately for his descendants, a prolific gambler. The following passage – from Pico’s own mouth, though translated by one Arthur P. Botello – describes what may have been the genesis of Pico’s gambling bug [the comments in square brackets were added by me]:

After the death of my father [in September of 1819] all the family moved to San Diego. Nothing was left us – not even an inch of ground. My older brother, Jose Antonio, was already in service but the rest of my family, except for two sisters already married, stayed at my mother’s side and I had to solicit help for her. My sisters and my mother worked at fine needlework. My sister, Tomasa, always finished before the rest because of her expertness.

I put up a small store where I sold liquors, provisions, chairs, and shoes. I always had a clerk in the store because I frequently went to Los Angeles and the missions and as far as the border of Baja California to sell goods and to bring back cattle and other goods in exchange.

One time I left San Diego with a load of sugar for the border of Baja California. Arriving at San Vicente, I lodged in the house of Lieutenant Commander Don Manuel Ruiz, brother of Francisco Maria. While there, I visited the Padre Ministre of the San Vicente Mission, Fr. Antonio Menendez, and the padre invited me to play a game of cards. I accepted. We played and he won all the sugar. I did not know the game and I had no idea that the priest would win, but he did and I returned home with nothing. When I turned over the sugar to him, Father Menendez said to me: “See here, Pico, it has happened to you as it did to Christ when he came into the world.” I asked, “What happened to Christ?” and he responded: “Christ came into the world to redeem sinners. He came for wool and left shorn. You came to sell your sugar and now leave penniless.”

This same Father Menendez some years later was chaplain of the San Diego Company and parson of the town. Still later he was transferred to Los Angeles and thence to Monterey.

During the stay of the padre in San Diego, we again played and I won from him twelve mules which he had brought from Baja California. I then told him: “Father, I do not want to behave like a tyrant. I will return your saddled black mule” and that is what I did.

My mother never knew of my adventure in San Vicente with Father Menendez but my sister Tomasa did. She was my confidante and took care of my money.

Tomasa once loaned $30.00 to a soldier from Baja California. I came home and my sister asked me if I had seen the soldier. I answered that I knew the soldier had left for Baja. She told me that the soldier owed her $30.00 and I offered to go and catch up with him. I went immediately. I caught up with him at Rancho de la Nacion [near present-day National City and Chula Vista], about eight leagues from San Diego, and he paid me the $30.00. After paying me he invited me to play. On the ranch was a corporal and four soldiers whose duty it was to watch after the interest of La Nacion. The corporal liked me very much and urged me to play with the soldier. He carried quite a bit of intereses [meaning, literally, interest, or money used for the sole purpose of generating money] from Monterey to Los Angeles. I won all that he carried. The soldier had on a pair of corduroy pants trimmed with gold thread. I asked him if he had anything more with which to play and he answered that he had only his pants and, if I wished, he would wager them. I did not want to play for his pants but my friend, the corporal, persuaded me to do so. With the pants, he not only won back all my money but my sister’s $30.00.

Afterwards, he continued playing with the corporal and the four soldiers and left them all bare. He did not even leave them the buttons on their uniforms. He won even their leather pants.

Tags: family · history

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