Glendale’s Oak of Peace and The Power of Women
The Oak of Peace was a giant oak tree that once grew in front of the Catalina Verdugo Adobe in the Verdugo Woodlands. It was under this oak in 1847 that representatives of the American Army and the forces of the Californios negotiated terms of surrender. The treaty that was hammered out there and signed at Cahuenga Pass ceded California to the United States. Because of these negotiations, the Oak of Peace in Glendale has been called the “Birthplace of California.” This historic moment in U.S. history was heavily influenced by two women – a fact that often is overlooked.
In the Mexican-American War, the U.S. was attempting to take by force a huge amount of land that is today the Southwestern U.S., including California. Lieutenant Colonel John Fremont was moving his army south from northern California to meet up with more American forces coming north. General Andres Pico commanded the Mexico-aligned Californio forces caught in the middle. This was 1846 heading into 1847.
When Fremont took the San Luis Obispo area he captured Jesus Pico, a relative of General Andre Pico. Jesus was in a bad spot. He had been captured earlier and paroled with a promise to be a non-combatant, but was now in command of enemy troops. For this offense, Fremont condemned him to be executed.
Just before the execution, Jesus’s wife visited Fremont and begged for his life. Fremont acquiesced and, as a result of his wife’s successful plea, Jesus became a loyal friend and negotiator for Fremont and the Americans. Had Fremont executed Jesus Pico, it would have further inflamed the upcoming negotiations with the Californios.
Fremont continued south to Santa Barbara. There he agreed to a meeting with a prominent woman, Doña Bernarda Ruiz. Doña Ruiz skillfully brought Fremont around to the idea that a peaceful surrender of the Californio forces could be achieved not with force, but with generous terms of surrender. Doña Ruiz recommended the release of all war prisoners, equal rights for all Californians and respect for property ownership. She knew the Californios would accept American rule if treated equally and that politically that would be advantageous to Fremont. Fremont took her advice to heart.
The American forces marching north took Los Angeles in two battles, and it was looking very bad for the Californios. Fremont arrived at the San Fernando Mission and Jesus Pico was sent to arrange a meeting with General Andre Pico.
Jesus and Andre met on Jan. 11 under a huge oak tree in Glendale, just steps away from the Catalina Verdugo Adobe. Jesus recommended that the Californios surrender to Fremont based on the generous conditions Fremont was offering, the terms that Doña Ruiz had suggested. There, under the shade of the enormous spreading Oak of Peace, General Andre Pico agreed to surrender to Fremont. He did so at Campo de Cahuenga a couple of days later.
The Treaty of Cahuenga was signed on Jan. 13, 1847 signaling the conquest of California by the United States. The Californios, now with the same rights as American citizens, went peacefully back to their ranchos, mostly because of the bravery and negotiating skills of two women.
So what ever happened to the Oak of Peace, the so-called birthplace of California? Oak trees, like all things, have a lifespan. The old oak, probably 500 years old, finally died in 1987.
But the Don Jose Verdugo Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution is dedicating a replanted Oak of Peace. On this Sunday, Oct. 22 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., there will be a dedication ceremony for the new oak. There will be food, music and entertainment, along with tours of the adobe, demonstrations of adobe brick-making and hand-made tortillas, kid crafts and photo displays. There will be a reenactment of the negotiations that took place under the Oak of Peace. I’ll be there playing John Fremont and descendants of the Verdugo family will be playing Jesus and Andre Pico. The Verdugo Adobe is located at 2211 Bonita Drive in Glendale. I hope to see you there for this historic event.