El Roble de la Paz (the Oak of Peace)
I’ve got another oak tree memorial, this one lived across the arroyo and was known as the Oak of Peace or en Español, El Roble de la Paz. It’s a couple of miles away from the Cathedral Oak and, like the Cathedral Oak, it died of old age.
First a very brief look at the land grab: California was occupied by many diverse native tribal groups prior to Spanish colonization in the late 1700s. The main interest of the Spanish, at least initially, was to block the Russians, who were coming down the coast. No European country was particularly concerned with the sovereign rights of indigenous
people in their quest for colonial power at this time – it wasn't just the Spanish.
So when the Spanish moved in, they split California up into districts which were given to the missions. Garrisons were set up to guard the missions, compel the locals to do their bidding, etc. Spanish citizens, often via Mexico but not always, were basically given land just for settling there. Things were bad for the Indians – disease was rampant and they were in a forced labor situation while being deculturated, but for the most part they were allowed to remain on their land.
The Mexican War of Independence 1810-1821 from Spain affected the missions, but it wasn’t until the missions were secularized in 1833-1844, that the land grab really got going. Aiding and abetting was the anti-clerical Pío de Jesus Pico, who had no problem with giving away vast tracts of mission lands to friends and family members and to gain political influence. When the Americans rolled in, they didn't see much point in allowing a few families to keep the miles of choice farmland that they'd been given just a few short years before and distributed it to other American settlers. At this point the natives who had been in the same territory for 10,000+ years no longer had a claim to their own territories.
Pío Pico [1801-1894] and his brother Andrés [1810-1866] were fascinating characters, who lived through some of the most turbulent times in California’s history. They were of mixed ancestry – African, Italian, Native American, and Spanish – their grandparents, who came to California with the de Anza expedition were described in the 1790 census as “mulata” for grandma María Jacinta de la Bastida and “mestizo” for grandpa Santiago de la Cruz Pico. They started out poor, became the richest and most powerful men in California, and then lost it all, dying penniless.
So what’s this got to do with the tree?
On January 11, 1847, there was a tipping point in the War for California. The defending Mexicans had fought well and bravely, but there were too many Americans and they were simply outgunned. Mexico was in the process of losing the Mexican-American War and was in no position to send in reinforcements.
John Charles Frémont [1813 – 1890] was coming down the coast and briefly stated:
“In January 1847, combined American forces of army, navy and marines lead by Commodore Robert F. Stockton and General Stephen W. Kearny were rapidly approaching Los Angeles from the south. After American victory at the Battle of La Mesa on January 9th, the Californio troops under the leadership of General Jose Flores retreated to Verdugo Canyon on Rancho San Rafael. General Flores fearing that Stockton would have him shot if captured, decided to flee to Mexico. Before his departure, he held final council with about 100 of his men beneath the branches of an old oak tree. Here he passed the responsibility of Chief of the National Forces of California to General Andrés Pico.”
The official plaque states “Site of pre-surrender conference between the Mexican settlers and a representative of the invading American forces on January 11, 1847. Jesus Pico, acting as an emissary from Lt. Col. Frémont, met under the oak with General Andrés Pico and Governor Flores of the Californios to urge the signing of the treaty.”
Frémont wasn’t actually there, he sent Jesus Pico, a Mexican general and cousin [some sources say nephew] of Andrés Pico and Pío Pico. How did they get so cozy? Well, he had captured Jesus sometime earlier and was going to have him executed (he was pretty liberal with the executions – he killed an Indian guy just for having a letter from Jesus Pico). A certain amount of confusion comes up over the names – Pío Pico’s “real” name was Pío de Jesus Pico and his cousin [or nephew] was Jesus Pico – they were two different guys and the Picos had huge families, so there is a lot of name overlap. Anyway, Jesus’ wife heard that he’d been captured, rounded up their 14 kids, and went to beg Frémont for her husband’s life.
Frémont always maintained that it was the pathetic sight of this inconsolable family, along with Jesus’ quiet dignity, that moved his heart, but shrewd political awareness must have entered into the equation. Jesus Pico even sweetened the deal by giving Fremont some lavish gifts, some horses and showed him a real good time, fiesta style.
As they made their way down the coast, Jesus Pico got Frémont to confer with a Pico family friend, an old lady named Bernarda Ruiz, who had a reputation for brilliant negotiation. She dictated the terms of surrender most likely to please everybody. Frémont stayed near the San Fernando Mission, and Jesus went on to talk to his cousin [or uncle] General Andrés Pico, commander of the Mexican army, who with Governor José María Flores were staying at the ol’ Verdugo place and trying to figure out what to do.
“General José María Flores (1818-1866) was an officer in the Mexican Army and was a member of la otra banda. He was appointed Governor and Comandante General pro tem of Alta California for only a few months Oct.31, 1846–Jan.11, 1847. On January 10, 1847, Flores left Los Angeles and stayed at Los Verdugos. He held a final council, in which he decided to leave California. He transferred command to Andrés Pico and departed that night, the 11th, for Sonora. Before leaving Los Angeles he released all of the prisoners.”
The situation with Pío Pico and José Flores was dire. They had to flee California to avoid being captured and killed. They’d put up a pretty good defense in Los Angeles and had even captured the garrison. US reinforcements had come in, though, and the defending Mexicans had been forced to retreat to Pasadena.
Jesus advised them of Frémont's approach with the “Buckskin Battalion” and advised them that better terms of surrender could be obtained from him than from Stockton and Kearny, who were out for revenge. It was good advice and they took it. Flores split, Andrés Pico brokered the deal and the terms were thus: all native Mexican-Californians should deliver up their arms, return to their homes and assist in keeping the peace. Those wishing to leave could return to Mexico. The Capitualtion of Cahuenga was signed on January 13, 1847 at the Tomas Feliz adobe.
On the “official” Oak of Peace site: “This amicable end to the hostilities in Southern California was brought about because of a meeting under the spreading limbs of a tree in Verdugo Canyon. The tree which helped bring about a speedy end to what could have been a long struggle is known as the Oak of Peace and was designated a landmark in 1947. Sadly, the tree, which was estimated to be 500 years old, succumbed to disease in 1987. Remnants of the original tree can still be seen near the Verdugo Adobe at 2211 Bonita Avenue.”
Amen to that. El Roble de la Paz, you’ll be missed. The Catalina Adobe, located close by, has a fascinating history and is a post for another time. In the meanwhile, it tickles me to look around the glen and see all the Peace Oak kids growin’ up around where their forbearer once stood, sure and calm, inspiring some nervous folks to do the right thing, even when all seemed lost.