The First Latino Congressman’s Election Was Contested—Twice


Romualdo Pacheco was adroit at bear-wrangling and politics alike, but in 1877 he faced a rocky road to the House of Representatives.

When Romualdo Pacheco walked up to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1877, he’d already served in nearly every government capacity in the still-new state of California. Now, the charismatic politician had broken another barrier as the first-ever Latino Congressman.

Pacheco brought with him a paper from the California Secretary of State that certified his election. But Pacheco was about to learn that not everyone agreed he’d been lawfully elected and the marble halls of the U.S. Capitol were filled with people who wanted him gone.

Pacheco Was Part of Wealthy Mexican Elite, the Californios

Romualdo Pacheco

Romualdo Pacheco.

He was a familiar face in California, but relatively unknown in Washington. A sailor, hunter, rancher and astute politician, Pacheco was part of the wealthy Mexican elite, known as Californios, who had lived in and dominated California before it was acquired by the United States.

By the time Pacheco ran for Congress, the Californios were in decline. With the Gold Rush and the end of Mexican rule, white settlers had flooded the new state. They soon outnumbered former Mexican citizens, changing California’s economy and social structure. Not all Californios were eager to participate in the new political system.

As historian Rosaura Sánchez notes, many resented the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, the treaty that ended the Mexican-American War and transferred Alta California to the United States. In the years after the treaty, Californios’ extensive land holdings were challenged and largely ceded. Those who did still own land experienced catastrophic droughts during the 1860s, explains Sánchez, and the ranch-based system they had created had crumbled in the face of urbanization. “This economic restructuring not only relocated the Californios within new social spaces but peripheralized them politically as well,” Sánchez writes.

Some Californios managed to ride out the waves of change. Among them was Pacheco, who was born into an elite Mexican family in Santa Barbara in 1831. An avid outdoorsman, he’d pledged his allegiance to the United States after a Mexican ship he captained was threatened by a U.S. Navy ship patrolling the Pacific coast.

Pancheco Had Political Clout in California, Not Washington

Bilingual and as comfortable in a formal drawing room as the outdoors, Pacheco was among the few Californios who created political power during his era. After the Mexican-American War, he began climbing the political ladder. He became a Republican before the Civil War due to his anti-slavery views, and within years of the Civil War had served in multiple government roles in the new state. He served a brief term as governor when Newton Booth was appointed to the U.S. Senate.

Pacheco may have found a political niche in his home state, but his bid for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives wasn’t a shoo-in. Though he ran to represent a large Southern California district that was majority Hispanic and sympathetic to his bid for office, he ran up against fierce opposition in the form of Peter D. Wigginton, the incumbent Democrat. Wigginton had the support of the newspapers and apparently, much of the public, and Pacheco squeaked by with only one vote.

Wigginton contested the election. The investigation prompted cries of voter irregularities, and Wigginton accused the Monterey county clerk of tampering with ballots. Wigginton also accused Pacheco of relying on votes from people who did not reside in the district in which they voted. Meanwhile, Pacheco found evidence that some votes for Wigginton were cast by “unnaturalized foreigners.”

Desperate to keep his narrow margin of victory, Pacheco petitioned the California Supreme Court, which conducted an investigation of its own and ruled in his favor. He was given a certificate that stated he had won the election and headed to Washington.

But someone else headed to Washington for the start of the October 1877 Congressional term: Wigginton’s fellow Democrats, who controlled Congress and wanted to get their candidate back in the seat. They protested Romualdo’s claim that he had won the election and sent the case to the Committee on Elections. James Garfield, an influential Republican, took up Pacheco’s cause and pushed through a resolution to let him take his seat. After a voice vote in his favor, Pacheco was sworn in in October 1877.

Congressman Romualdo Pacheco

This portrait of Romualdo Pacheco by artist Daniel Greene was unveiled in 2005. Pacheco is depicted in the Capitol meeting room where he presided over the Private Land Claims Committee from 1881 to 1883, surrounded by maps, which were an essential tool of his committee.

Dismissed From Congress, Then Re-Elected

Pacheco became the nation’s first Latino Congressman, then—three months after he took office—it was stripped from him. The Democrat-controlled Committee on Elections sided with their fellow Democrat, Wigginton, and threw out Pacheco’s electoral victory. “The House Elections Committee has earned the reputation of caring very little for law or equity when the interests of the Democratic Party are involved,” a New York Times article stated on January 14, 1878.

Though Pacheco’s case was cast as that of a no-name frontier politician engaged in a squabble over petty politics, he had already made his name on the national scene—just not for his political career.

Three years earlier, while serving as governor, readers of the New York Times had been treated to an article about another one of his skills: lassoing a bear. “He can lasso, and get away with, a wild grizzly bear,” wrote a California correspondent, “and we saw him do it.”

Pacheco had been dumped by the House of Representatives, but in 1875 Wigginton decided not to run for re-election. Pacheco did, and finally headed to Washington in 1879.

Though other Hispanic men had served as Congressional delegates before him, Pacheco was the first full Representative to claim Latino heritage. He remains the only Latino to have served as governor of the state of California—and lasso a grizzly.