The Legend of Zorro
Early California's Robin Hood

By Richard Duree (Col. Richard Dodge, SASS 1750 Life)


Ruth Levin Duree and Richard Duree

Johnston McCulley's "Scourge of Capistrano," published in 1919, began a tale that has intrigued readers and movie producers ever since. The masked Zorro arose to respond to the injustice of his time and became the first "super hero."

Zorro was the "scourge of Capistrano" in the original story because he came from San Juan Capistrano and was the scourge of the wicked and corrupt Spanish government officials in the Los Angeles presidio. It was an interesting and colorful plot that could never have happened the way it was portrayed by McCulley.

First of all, there was never a presidio in Los Angeles. Los Angeles was a small agricultural settlement of small importance at the time. More importantly, when the Spanish were in control, there were only missions and the presidios at San Diego and Monterey. There were no ranchos owned by a Californio aristocracy, living in luxury in a land of plenty. That didn't come until Mexico's independence from Spain in 1821. Mexico's governance of California after that was almost non-existent, with petty officials and limited influence.

Mexico's initial efforts to utilize California consisted of sending small groups of settlers into the area and leaving them on their own to survive or not. It was during the following 25 years that the famous "Rancho" period created itself and powerful families emerged to give their names to today's California. No Zorro needed here.

So why the story of Zorro? What was McCulley's inspiration and message? The answer lies barely covered by the pages of California history.

There was indeed a time in California when a foreign power dominated the native Californios with cruel and unjust treatment. It takes little insight to realize that it was the Americans who were the transgressors, swarming into the state in countless numbers, fueled with visions of sudden riches in the gold fields, destroying the Californio culture in the process.

Not only were the foreign immigrants an unruly mob, robbing and killing with abandon, it didn't take long before they found a way to legally seize the Californios' land holdings through the implementation of their own legal system and statehood. Many of the old Californio families were impoverished when their land grant deeds were found to be "invalid" by the Yanqui courts.

California was then in a tumultuous situation. American gold seekers, adventurers, and even the military had assumed control of the countryside, destroying the Californio and Native American culture as surely as they would soon destroy the Native American cultures to the east. Injustice and cruelty were a common practice and it was not long before armed resistance began to assert itself. To the Californios they were freedom fighters; to the Americans they were bandits.

Joaquin Murrieta is perhaps the best-known bandit. The California Rangers were formed under the leadership of Captain Harry Love just to pursue and capture him. Juan Flores was another. Solomon Pico was another.

Solomon Pico? Of the powerful Pico family? The very same.

Solomon was a cousin to Pío and Andrés Pico and owned a land grant on the Tuolumne River in what is now Stanislaus County near Modesto. His was one of the land grants disallowed by American courts and Solomon, a former member of the Spanish army, was not a man to meekly accept the injustice done to him and his fellow Californios. So, a bandit he became.

Since the gold was in Northern California and the food source was in Southern California, a brisk trade developed between the two, with enormous cattle drives the length of California – much further than the famous Texas cattle drives 20 years later – becoming common. The actual trail routes are unclear today, but it is most likely that they passed through Gaviota Pass and up the west side of the Coast Range to San Francisco.

Banditos like Solomon, Murrieta, and others found lucrative prey along that route. Cattle buyers from the north had to travel south to buy the cattle and, since there were no wire transfers at the time, commerce was on a cash-and-carry basis. That meant that the hapless cattle buyer must travel the long road with bags of gold.

Some of the gold must have gotten through, because many of the Southern California ranchers became very wealthy. However, the banditos were successful in relieving many of them of their booty. Solomon was particularly successful and his exploits are believed to be the source of McCulley's Zorro.

Solomon frequently delivered his bags of gold to dispossessed Californios and even escaped from jail on at least one occasion. He defied the American authorities, escaping from their frequent traps and pursuits. He ended his days in Baja California where he became, of all things, a peace officer. The event of his death is unclear even now, though it is believed to have been in 1860.

A web search will reveal that McCulley's inspiration by Solomon is widely accepted. Solomon came from a wealthy and powerful family, as did Diego de la Vega. His family had been wronged by an abusive foreign power, upon which he wreaked colorful vengeance. As a soldier, he had the martial skills to enable his exploits and he plied them in the defense of his fellow citizens.

The belief is that the Pico family applied their considerable influence to quash the tale of Solomon, for he is barely known today; rather, we know of Murrieta and Flores. There is a small town, Los Alamos, along Highway 101, north of Santa Barbara. Near Los Alamos is Solomon Mountain, named for the forgotten crusader. Tales of hidden gold abound in the region, for it was well-known that Solomon Pico operated in the area.

Folklorists and historians know that many fanciful legends are based on facts and, indeed, that may be true in the case of Zorro. His legend, as the first super hero with a disguise as a harmless alter ego, set the theme for many which followed, such as Superman, Batman, Spiderman, the Hulk, and others still being created from the fertile minds of those who follow Zorro's example.