The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1999, Volume 45, Number 1
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Forster vs. Pico: The Struggle for the Rancho Santa Margarita.  

By Paul Bryan Gray. Spokane, WA: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1998. Photographs, maps, bibliography, notes. 256 pages. $29.50 cloth.

Reviewed by Robert J. Chandler, a Wells Fargo Bank historian and author of numerous articles on 1860s California history. His pictorial description of Wells Fargo in Old Town San Diego will appear shortly.

Southern California historian Paul Bryan Gray, a practicing attorney in Claremont and in Mexico, blends two cultures to elucidate a noted 1873 San Diego court battle that decided the fate of the largest confirmed land grant in California.

Gray is the second historian to tackle Forster vs. Pico, and he acknowledges Terry E. Stephenson’s three-part article with that title in the Southern California Quarterly (December 1935, March and June 1936), which Santa Ana’s Fine Arts Press reprinted in 1936 as a 40-page book. Although Stephenson’s work contains valuable nuances, Gray’s research into manuscripts, secondary sources, and interviews with Pico and Forster descendants goes far beyond. Once I started reading, I read straight through.

In this finely designed work by The Arthur H. Clark Company, Gray looks to larger implications between Californios and Americans during California’s first twenty years of statehood. His story is the interplay of three themes: “American greed,” “Mexican improvidence” and “natural disasters.” (p. 20). Land was the crux. For Americans, it was “a capital asset that should produce income;” for Californios, “land was used for self-sufficient estates.” (p. 15). In explanation, Gray adds, that as lords of the manor, “the Californios had a tendency toward self-destructive spending.” (p. 17).

The stage was the Rancho Santa Margarita y Los Flores, the latter an Indian Pueblito inside the grant and later incorporated into it, comprising some 133,440 acres, or 208 square miles, or five percent of San Diego County. The three principal actors were famous. The original grantees were Pio Pico (1801-1894), the last Mexican governor, and his brother Andres (1810-1876), commander of the victorious lancers at San Pasqual and an 1850s legislator and politician. The Land Commission and courts found no fault with the title, but their foe turned out to be brother-in-law, John Forster (1814-1882). Each contestant had to absorb another culture, and the English-born Forster was first. He arrived in Mexico in 1831, drifted north to California in 1833, and in 1837 became Catholic. That year, Juan Forster gained Pio Pico as his protective and nurturing God-father and his sister, Isidora Ygnacia Pico as his bride. All had to become Yankeefied after the American conquest.

On to the plot. In the 1850s, Andres Pico became indebted to the French bankers Pioche & Bayerque and was in a jam. If creditors auctioned off his collateral, one half of the ranch, fixed bidding would result in a low price. Andres would have no land and still would be stuck with the debt! On May 21, 1862, he turned over his half in trust to his brother, and Pio Pico assumed his debts. Then, the drought of 1863-1864 killed thousands of cattle, dropping the price from $20 to the hide value of $2.50. In desperation on February 25, 1864, with a debt of $44,000 at 1 per cent interest per month, Pio Pico turned for relief to his beloved godson of twenty-seven years, Juan Forster. What happened next would be tested in a San Diego District court from January 29 to February 20, 1873.

The Pico brothers claimed that they valued the ranch at $75,000, and offered Forster Andres’ one-half interest ($37,500), plus 1,500 cattle and 150 horses at a market rate of $3 each, to match the value of Pico’s $44,000 debt. Andres made the arrangements with his trusted brother-in-law Forster and left, leaving Pio, who could not read English, to sign the deed. Neither brother kept copies of either the deed or bill of sale, nor bothered to pay property taxes. Imagine their consternation and outrage in 1868, when by chance, one of their lawyers discovered Forster had recorded a deed for the entire ranch! Forster maintained this was the correct business arrangement.

The trial was a disaster for the Picos, and, after a short twenty minutes, the jury favored Forster. Gray concludes, “Based on the evidence presented to the jury, their verdict against Pio was inevitable” due to “the incomplete, ephemeral testimony of the Picos.” (p. 205)

The Picos lost their beloved ranch, but staved off financial collapse for years. Forster’s expenses, speculations and borrowings turned out to be not much different from the Picos. Schemes to divide the ranch failed, and the family lost Santa Margarita to foreclosure. That wily old fox, Pio Pico, outlived all of the major participants, with Forster’s’ sons contributing to his care in later years.

Gray goes on to argue that this verdict was “wrong,” (p. 212) and I wish to quibble. Presentation is crucial, as shown by recent, well-publicized Southern California trials that many believe were miscarriages of justice. Gray continually points out that the Pico attorneys were “simply not ready” (p. 158), “bumbling” (p. 208) and “bungling” (p. 213), and constantly showing “inexplicable negligence” (p. 195), missing opportunity after opportunity (pp. 197, 199, 206), and generally giving a “wretched performance” (p. 173). In contrast, Forster’s lawyers “made a thoughtful analysis” (p. 184) to create a “masterful illusion” (p. 213).

Gray’s opinion of testimony is not kinder to the Picos. He read the transcript “with complete astonishment.” (p. 167) Neither brother could give the terms of the agreement. All Pio did, Gray concludes, was “confound the jury.” (p. 170). On the other side, Forster’s “eloquence,” Gray says, “must have been forceful and sometimes even magisterial.” (p. 196). With that said, did this verdict serve Justice and vindicate Truth? The answer is a resounding “NO!”

Through great detective work, Gray analyzes the 1864 livestock bill of sale, which Forster introduced as evidence. After 125 years, he proves with “near mathematical certainty” (p. 213) that Pio and Andres Pico told the truth.

The livestock indeed made the equalizing payment to Forster, as the Picos’ debt was slightly greater than one-half their value of Rancho Santa Margarita. The magnitude of Gray’s achievement becomes apparent since the Picos and their lawyers overlooked this evidence during cross-examination, closing arguments, and appeals; newspaper writers and other commentators did not see it during the lifetimes of the participants, and historian Stephenson missed it in 1936.

The case for “American greed” in this land case, though, is a weak point of Gray’s three-part framework. Family dynamics assumed a greater importance. The contestants psychologically seemed to operate under pre-conquest Californio law, which attempted conciliation, rather than determine right or wrong. Each could feel for the other’s position. Neither wanted to go “for the kill,” resulting in what Gray terms Forster’s “odd behavior” and the Picos’ “strange behavior.” (p. 106-7).

The key question became, “How do you cope with Pio Pico’s imperious and devious personality?” Gray makes a strong case that Forster acted in self defense. “As soon as Pio was restored to relative solvency,” Gray declares, “he immediately involved himself in other financial disasters,” (p. 214) and, therefore, Forster took an “enormous risk in having Pio as a joint owner.” (p. 216). Forster’s solution? “It was possible to deceive Pio,” Gray observed, as he stressed the crucial point, “but exceedingly difficult to engage him in a lengthy, reasoned discussion.” After twenty-seven years, Forster simply could not talk to Pio Pico!

Gray says, “Let us assume…..” when proving his thesis (p. 208). I, too, wish to make assumptions: First, that Forster was preserving the Pico family; and second, he was generous to Pio and Andres Pico.

Juan Forster was a Pico family man. He was “devoted” (p. 41) to Donna Isidora, his wife of forty-five years, who, compared to the cult of youth today, was six years his senior, and, in that legally racist society, displayed her Indian and African heritage. Forster’s sons would carry on the legacy of the Picos, as neither Pio or Andres had legitimate heirs.

Forster was generous to his brothers-in-law. Their valuation of $75,000 for that parched cattle ranch, when its sole product could only be salvaged for hides, was delusional. Even the Pico attorneys did not object to an 1864 estimate of only $30,000, making Pio’s debt of $44,000 greater than the value of the entire 208 square miles of Santa Margarita.

Gray rails (p. 83) at the high cost of money — interest at 2 to 3 percent per month in the mid-1850s; dropping to 1 to 2 percent in the 1860s — in a hugely speculative economy among a non-settled population, but these fees applied to all Californians. Pico’s debt of $44,000 was at only 1 percent — the rate a good customer now pays on monthly borrowing through a credit card. In 1864, when Forster refinanced the mortgage, then at $59,000, Pioche & Bayerque charged him 2 percent — which, he testified, “cost me many a sweat to pay.” (Stephenson, March 1936, p. 28; Gray, p. 193) Those today who have missed minimum credit card payments can sympathize.

Although Rancho Santa Margarita appreciated over the years, it never had the value of other Southern California lands, which owners subdivided to vastly multiply their wealth. In 1942, cattle still roamed this intact Mexican grant when the United States Marine Corps purchased it for World War II training as Camp Joseph H. Pendleton.

Clarity comes through hindsight and analysis. The fate of man is to choose between bad options. For the preservation of his extended family, including his brothers-in-law, Juan Forster made a calculated, unforgivable affront to their honor. The Code of Dueling claimed Californians for offenses far less serious. Forster vs. Pico was a Greek tragedy unfolding.

The current decline of stocks, bonds, and gold demands alternate investments. Paul Bryan Gray’s Forster vs. Pico: The Struggle for the Rancho Santa Margarita is a “Buy!”