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Mask of Zorro Legend

Joaquin Murrieta - The Man Whose Life Provided Inspiration for Zorro

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Zorro is one of the icons of 20th century culture. Although he is a fictional character, his story was based on biographies of at least three men: Juan Nepomuceno Cortina, Tiburcio Vasquez, and the most important to the legend – Joaquin Murrieta.

His name was used in the movies with Antonio Banderas, whose character's surname is Murrieta. Moreover, his son is Joaquin. The premiere of the movies ''The Mask of Zorro'' in 1998 and ''The Legend of Zorro'' in 2005, brought back to life the legend of Joaquin Murrieta.

The Robin Hood of Mexico

Joaquin Murrieta was born around 1829 in Hermosillo, in the state of Sonora in Mexico. His life took place mostly in California, where he went looking for gold during the California Gold Rush of the 1850s. 

Murrieta faced racism from white Americans, causing him to rebel against society and its rules. He stood up for the rights of the Native American mines and eventually went on to become a very successful miner himself.  This attracted jealously from the white Americans, who raped his wife in revenge, and violently beat him. During this period, there was an illegal trade of horses taking place, which Murrieta joined and his fellow traders helped him to track down and kill most of those responsible for the attack on his wife.  

Artist's portrayal of Murrieta

Artist's portrayal of Murrieta (Public Domain)

This was the beginning of Murrieta's gang, which began attacking trains in California. It is unknown exactly how many people were in his gang – some believe that there were only five (so they were called ‘Five Murrietas Gang’ or the ‘Five Joaquins’), others suggest a much bigger group.

The gang murdered at least 14 Anglo-Americans and 28 Chinese, but the people who lived in nearby villages started to protect Murrieta and his gang. As Legends of America states: Murrieta had become a “folk hero who had only turned to a life of crime after a mob of American miners had beaten him severely and left him for dead, hanged his brother, and raped and killed his wife… Joaquin was a dashing, romantic figure that swearing to avenge the atrocities committed upon his family, committed his many crimes only in an effort to "right” the many injustices against the Mexicans.”

Some recordings about his life suggest that there could have been more than one man, whose actions created the legend of the Mexican Robin Hood. However, historical records about Murrieta, which could confirm the truth about his life, are scarce and so the stories of his deeds remain little more than folk tales.

Pencil sketch of el Zorro by Charles V. Norris

Pencil sketch of el Zorro by Charles V. Norris (Public Domain)

In 1853, the California state legislature enlisted a group known as the California Rangers to catch and kill Murrieta and his gang. They were a group of old veterans of the Mexican – American war. They received a payment $150 per month to seek him out and an additional $1,000 for the death of Murrieta and his gang.

Dead or alive?

Murrieta and at least two other men were official killed on July 25, 1853. As evidence of execution, the California Rangers cut off Murrieta’s head and delivered it in a jar of brandy.

However, reports began to emerge that the head, which had been displayed in Stockton, San Francisco and the mining camps of Mariposa County, was not the true head of Murrieta. According to official descriptions published by the editor of the San Francisco ''Alta'' in August 23, 1853:

'A few weeks ago a party of native Californians and Sonorans started for the Tulare Valley for the expressed and avowed purpose of running mustangs. Three of the party have returned and report that they were attacked by a party of Americans, and that the balance of their party, four in number, had been killed; that Joaquin Valenzuela, one of them, was killed as he was endeavoring to escape, and that his head was cut off by his captors and held as a trophy. It is too well known that Joaquin Murieta was not the person killed by Captain Harry Love's party at the Panoche Pass. The head recently exhibited in Stockton bears no resemblance to that individual, and this is positively asserted by those who have seen the real Murieta and the spurious head.'

A poster advertising the display of the supposed head of Murrieta in Stockton, CA. 1853

A poster advertising the display of the supposed head of Murrieta in Stockton, CA. 1853 (Public Domain)

In 1879, the sister of Murrieta claimed that the head she saw in the jar did not belong to her brother. She had not spoken up earlier as she wanted to protect her brother and allow him to escape. Her claims have never been confirmed because the preserved head was destroyed in a fire during the earthquake in San Francisco in 1906.

The Robin Hood of El Dorado

The story of Murrieta did not end with his supposed death and disappearance. He had a follower in his nephew, who was known as Procopio. He was also called Red-Handed Dick, a nickname given due to his red hair. He became one of the most famous bandits in the entire history of Mexico.  When Murrieta died, Procopio was only 12 years old, but he grew up in the cult of his uncle. During his lifetime, he did all he could do to increase the popularity of the legend of Murrieta. Due to his actions, the story of Joaquin became so widespread that in 1919, Johnston Mc Culley published a story ''The Curse of Capistrano'', which was inspired by the legend of the man who was protecting the poor and punishing the rich.

The fame of Murrieta was both good and bad. Some people considered him little more than a murdering bandit, but most people saw in him a great patriot who loved his nation. Murrieta became a character of many books and poems. The most famous one of them by John Rollin Ridge, a descendant of a Cherokee leader, which was published in the California Police Gazette in 1858.

John Rollin Ridge, Cherokee author.

John Rollin Ridge, Cherokee author. (Public Domain)

Until now, in some poor states of Mexico people like to tell the story of Murrieta or Zorro (“the fox”), and dream that one day another like him will emerge and help them in their struggles.

Top image: Mask of Zorro Legend. (CC BY 2.0)

By Natalia Klimczak


Jill L. Cossley-Batt, The Last of the California Rangers, 1928, available at:

Joaquin Murrieta - Patriot or Desperado? By Kathy Weiser, available at:

The Legend of Joaquin Murieta, available at:

What's the story on Joaquin Murieta, the Robin Hood of California? Available at:



I agree with stoks

Mosy certainly we will become racists if you mess with our family...

"Murrieta faced racism from white Americans...
The gang murdered at least 14 Anglo-Americans and 28 Chinese..."

Sounds like he was a bit of a racist himself.

"Murrieta faced racism from white Americans, causing him to rebel against society and its rules."

What unmitigated blather and spew. Get your head on straight and quite serving up this moronic mush. Do some real history, kid.


Natalia Klimczak is an historian, journalist and writer and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdansk. Natalia does research in Narratology, Historiography, History of Galicia (Spain) and Ancient History of Egypt, Rome and Celts. She... Read More

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