Happy Birthday Governor Pacheco!

October 31 is the 170th anniversary of the birth of José Antonio Romualdo Pacheco Jr., California’s 12th governor, who is the first – and only – Latino or Hispanic to hold the office since statehood in 1850.

Born in Santa Barbara, Pacheco was also the state’s first native governor. During his time in the House of Representatives, Pacheco chaired the Committee on Private Land Claims, making him the first Hispanic to chair a standing congressional committee.

He is also the only governor to claim to have lassoed a grizzly bear.

During his more than 30-year political career, Pacheco held a variety of state, local and federal posts, including treasurer from 1863 to 1867 and lieutenant governor under Gov. Newton Booth.

It was Booth’s election to the U.S. Senate in 1875 that catapulted Pacheco into the Capitol’s corner office.

He didn’t occupy the space long, serving as governor from February 27 to December 9, 1875, the inauguration day of William Irwin, a Democrat, who won the 1875 general election which at that time was held September 1.

“Pacheco as governor did not have much opportunity to distinguish himself or make an exhibition as to what kind of metal (sic) he was composed of. No legislature sat during the nine or 10 months he held office, except the day or two previous to Irwin’s inauguration,” said Theodore Henry Hittell in Volume 4 of his 1897 History of California.

“No public disturbance or political climax occurred to call him out. Almost all his official occupation was confined to holding matters, as far as possible, in the condition of peace and prosperity in which he found them.”

The day before Irwin’s inauguration, Pacheco sent a message to the Legislature that noted proudly the state’s debt was at its lowest point in 23 years. He also offered his views on some of the matters policy makers would face after his departure.

Among the institutions he praised were the state universities, which he said faced no barrier to becoming the peer of any in the world. He said it was better for Californians to get their education at home than abroad.

However, he noted that the $50,000 the universities received from the state and the $45,000 generated in income from its land holdings was significantly less than the system’s $128,000 annual operating expenses.

Of public schools, Pacheco said the nearly $2.5 million they would receive over the next fiscal year – about one-half of state tax revenues – was a “very good object for the expenditure of public money.”

California’s Capitol Under Construction — 1868

He informed lawmakers of the near completion of the state Capitol and announced expenses of $2.5 million in its construction.

According to Hittell, in closing Pacheco told the Legislature:

“Fish commissioners had repeated an experiment that had failed on account of a railroad disaster in 1873 and succeeded in bringing an aquarium car with its contents in good order across the continent.

“The result was that many varieties of the finest fish common in eastern waters had been planted in Californian waters, while the rivers in general had been re-stocked with salmon.”

And the $2,500 spent doing so was “trifling in comparison with the great good accomplished,” Pacheco said.

Pacheco began his political career a Democrat and became a Republican.

Four political parties put forward governor/lieutenant governor slates in 1875.

The GOP didn’t nominate Pacheco for re-election as governor – or even lieutenant governor.

Pacheco was the candidate for lieutenant governor of the “Dolly Varden” or independent party.

John Bidwell, the founder of Chico, was the party’s gubernatorial candidate.

Irwin headed the Democratic ticket. Timothy Phelps was the Republican candidate for governor and William E. Lovett represented the Temperance Reform party.

“The various platforms were in general a re-threshing of old straw, with nothing very new or striking and nothing very serious or earnest about any of them. It is hardly likely anybody cared much about what they contained,” wrote Hittell.

The independents were a loose amalgam of mainly discontented farmers whose chief area of agreement was the exorbitant freight and passenger rates being charged by railroads and that the government should take over their operation. 

They allied with the anti-railroad wing of the Republican Party, of which Pacheco was a member, their support Booth governor and Pacheco lieutenant governor. 

Dolly Varden is a character in Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge. The more likely allusion is to the name of an oddly cut, usually
floral costume featuring a large bustle that was the fad among women from approximately 1869 to 1875.

The independent party earned the nickname, says Hittell, “on account of its heterogeneous constitution, parti-colored complexion and unusual make-up.”

Pacheco’s father died when he was an infant. His mother, a sister-in-law of General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, married John D. Wilson, a Scottish sea captain, who sent Pacheco to the Oahu Charity School in Honolulu to be educated.

At 12, Pacheco began an apprenticeship aboard one of Wilson’s traders, which flew the Mexican flag. After the Mexican-American War began two years later, Pacheco was detained by the U.S.S. Cyane in 1846 while trying to bring cargo to Yerba Buena.

He swore an oath of loyalty to the United States and was released.

Pacheco did some mining during the Gold Rush and was elected to his first public office – judge of the San Luis Obispo County Superior Court — in 1853. He was elected to the state Senate in 1857.

He returned from an extended trip to Europe in 1860, was elected to the state Senate and appointed by Gov. Leland Stanford a brigadier general in command of the State Militia’s First Brigade.

He married Mary McIntire, a 22-year-old playwright in 1863. They had two children, Maybella Ramona and Romualdo, who died in childhood.

That same year, Stanford nominated Pacheco for treasurer. During this time, Pacheco helped Mexican President Benito Juárez raise funds for the war against the French Empire.

A Later Portrait of Pacheco

In 1869, Pacheco was once again elected to the Senate and, in 1871, he received the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor.

During his tenure, he served as warden of San Quentin whose conditions, according to one account, he attempted to improve.

A year after his brief governship, Pacheco was elected to the House of Representatives. He beat the incumbent, Peter Wigginton, by one vote. Wigginton contested the election.

House GOP leader James Garfield defended Pacheco but in February 1878 the House Committee on Elections refused to accept Pacheco’s certificate of election and voted to seat Wigginton.

Returning to California, Pacheco joined a San Francisco brokerage house that focused on mining investments.

He was again elected to Congress in 1879 and re-elected two years later.

In the House, besides becoming the first Hispanic to chair a standing committee, Pacheco became a member of the Select Committee on the Death of President Garfield, his former defender.

After leaving Congress, Pacheco moved to Coahuila in northern Mexico, where he managed a large cattle ranch.

In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison named Pacheco the U.S. Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Central America, a position he held until 1893.

He died in Oakland in 1899 and is buried in Mountain View Cemetery, as are three other governors: Henry Haight, George Pardee and George Perkins.




Filed under: California History

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