The Zorro Myth

Joaquin Murrieta

Joaquin Murrieta

The Zorro myth is based on Joaquin Murrieta who came to California during the gold rush. Contrary to the Disney TV series or movies, Joaquin’s story was very different. His gang didn’t focus on the plight of Mission Indians or the Spanish but on White californians. He was called a bandit and murderer, for which he was hunted down and supposedly killed.

Chileans had laid claim to an area of Calaveras county called Chili Gulch where the largest amounts of gold were. In December of 1849 Anglo miners decreed that all non-whites were to leave the state within 15 days. It led to a regional conflict known as the Chile War that effected Joaquin personally.

Not long afterwards, his gang would go on a 4 year rampage across the state. They would be sheltered by Latinos during their spree that specialized in the killing of Chinese, but included attacks on white ranches, poor people, militias and even Spanish Dons.


The state legislature passed a law in 1853 that paid a team of 20 California Rangers, led by Harry Love to catch and kill Joaquin and his gang.

The Rangers killed two men in late July of 1853, pickling the head of the man they believed to be Murrieta and the hand of three fingered Jack from the gang. The head was certified by over a dozen witnesses as that of Murrieta’s. It would be shown at towns around the state, but was destroyed in 1906 SF quake.

Later claims were made that he had escaped and lived out the rest of his life in Mexico.

Zorro                                                                                 Murrieta

Spanish Don                                                 Mexican born Indian
Wealthy                                                         Poor came in search of 49’er gold
rampage started after gold was stolen
Had priest as friend                                  no such thing
Had servants                                               had a gang
Helped the poor Mission Indians       Did nothing of the sort
Devoted to a beautiful wife                   Hung out in brothels
Attacked only the wealthy Dons        Attacks Anglo’s, Dons, Chinese and the poor, specializing in Chinese murder
Lived at Los Angeles Rancho               Had no home roaming across the state
moved Mexico to the gold fields abandoned his gang and hid in L.A.
Opposed military cruelty                      Attacked the military may have killed General Joshua Bean
his brother-in-law took the rap and is reason for his capture when the other brother ratted him out
Lives happily ever after                         was killed by militia and had his cut off and in public display

The Zorro myth was originally written as  a dime novel by John Ridge (The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murrieta by John Rollin Ridge) in 1854.  Because of his proximitaty to the December 1849 Chilean Wars in Calaveras County, his story would be taken up and be repeated in Chile where a whole new spin to his rampage across California would take place.

This is a draft of what will be the most sensitive commentary around the issue of Mexico’s relationship to California.

Murrietta would be made out as a Mexican folk hero, that is highly inappropriate to the real historic relationship Mexico did have with California.  From 1869 until 1821, both Mexico (New Spain) and California was ruled by the Spanish Crown.  During this period Spain had promised the people of California that as soon as they were fit to govern their own affairs, that the lands they had lived on for thousands of years would be theirs.

There were three main players in this process. The Crown, the Franciscans and the military.  It is commonly understood today that the Franciscans treated Californians as slave labor that was enforced by the military personnel who lived off the labor of the tribal people.  Within the military culture in the state, there was a well developed Spanish Caste system that Most US Citizens have never understood or been educated about.  This caste system was in play in California as well as all other Spanish held lands in the west.  Class as well as pure blood Spanish were at the top of this caste system.

Only Spaniards were given power in California.  Mexico is a far older country than the US, having been colonized by Spain 500 years ago. Metizso people from Mexico were brought to California as servants.  Just as Mexico was ruled by Spain, so was California. When Mexico won its hard fought freedom from Spain in 1821 the Spanish leadership in California was forced to take an oath of loyalty. Most did not want to do this but understood the consequences.

From the earliest days, as well as throughout the entire Mexican period between 1821-1846 that California was considered the very last place anyone would ever want to live.  Within a decade after its conquest, most of the inner part of the state was in full rebellion against Spain.  Mexico itself, during the 1830’s was said by the Californios to be used as a penal dumping ground.

With the coming of the Mexican government’s secularizzation of the state’s Missions came with would could only be considered a one of the most despicable events imaginable, in terms of a Mexico’s behavior towards its own territory.  The reasons for what happened again come directly down from Mexico’s own miliatary driven caste system that Spain had put in place and is to a large extent still playing out in Mexican culture today.

Mexico failed to carry out a process that would have continued with the promise of guaranteeing the lands that Californians had worked since 1769 would stay theirs.  Instead, the Spanish elite in the state would quickly drive out almost all of the tribal inhabitants of the 21 Missions, and take control over nearly 14 million acres of land that rightfully belonged to its original inhabitants.

In 1834 the Hijar movement from Spain that was meant to give Mexicans ownership over the lands was thwarted by Santa Anna. Only a few Hijar ever made it into the state. One of which was Jose de Jesus Noe, who would get the San Miguel Rancho as well as Las Camaritas, both located within present day San Francisco.  Noe, would also play an interesting role as he also happened to be the last Alcalde before US rule.

It would be unfair not to mention that Mexico’s secularization Act did include an option to give some lands to tribal people as part of the process. However, there was no attempt to enforce this upon Californios, who were by far all former military personel from Presidial operations across the state.

It must be stated that one of the most important aspects of just how backward California was can be spelled out by looking at the population. Right up to the 1840’s, there were only a few hundred Hispanic people living in the entire bay area (a Mexican source claims there were 15,000 living in the entire area of California which at the time included Nevada).

Mexico at best represents a horrible failure in protecting true Californians landed rights as well as their lives.  After Mexico took control of California in 1821, over 100,000 people lost their lives as a result of disease and war against that country’s authority.  For example, the original tribe that once lived where present day Los Angeles is today, openly invited the Spanish onto their lands and were then completely wiped off the face of the earth as a people, language and culture.

California’s loss to the US as a result of the 1846 war continued to take a devastating toll on Californians with another 100,000 losing their lives within 15 year of the US conquest. It would be Mexican workers who were brought in by people like John Fremont as laborers to work the Gold Rush mines that would set up a trend of using Mexican people as immigrant laborers like Murrieta has become such a tragic part of California’s later history.

As was the case in Mexico, the indigenous people of that country are still caught under a caste system that gives them at best 2nd class citizenship.  This is the case for all of Latin America, with the current president of Bolivia being the only truly indigenous person ever elected in any of the countries of South or Central America.

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