The Story of the Real Life Zorro, Joaquin Murrieta

The Story of the Real Life Zorro, Joaquin Murrieta

Shannon Quinn - July 5, 2018

Like so many other men during the California Gold Rush, Joaquin Murrieta traveled to the mountains in the hopes that he could earn lots of money. He was just 18 years old at the time- young, bright-eyed, ambitious, and completely in love with his young wife. They wanted to have a family together, and he promised to find lots of gold while his wife took care of their little house.

Since he was one of the first people to pan for gold in that area, he truly was making a lot of money, and they had no reason to want to pack it up early and go home. If he stayed long enough, he could gather enough gold to be a very rich man. He and his wife likely celebrated every time he came home with a new cache of gold, and they would have dreamed of the future under the stars.

Unfortunately for Murrieta, he ran into some very bad timing. In 1848, that area of California was won by the United States in the Mexican-American War.

The Story of the Real Life Zorro, Joaquin Murrieta
Portrait of what some people think Joaquin Murrieta looked like. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

One day, American men approached Murrieta and his wife at their home and demanded that he hand over his gold and his mining plot. They said that the land was their territory, now, and all Mexicans needed to leave. When Murrieta refused to give up his plot, the men tied him up to a chair, and forced him to watch while they tortured and sexually abused his wife. He had to watch her die from her injuries before he finally escaped from the ropes that tied him. The men left him alive, probably because they would never believe such a young man could do anything to retaliate. He buried his wife and tried to return to his hometown alone.

He returned to his village with a broken heart and empty pockets. He tried to become a card dealer in a saloon, working with these drunk American men he secretly hated so much. One day, his half-brother got a new horse, and he borrowed it to ride into town. A group of American men stopped him and whipped him, saying that he was a horse thief. Murrieta blurted out the horse was not stolen, and that he borrowed it from his brother.

When they heard this, they found his brother, and lynched him in the town square as a horse thief, even though he was innocent. The Americans had killed not just one, but two of the closest people in Joaquin Murrieta’s life. All around him, he witnessed Mexican people who were born and raised in California getting tortured and persecuted by white men. This flicked a switch in his brain that took him from being a good, ambitious young man to one who was hell-bent on getting revenge.

The Story of the Real Life Zorro, Joaquin Murrieta
Illustration of a gold prospector. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sweet, Sweet Revenge

A few days later, one of the bodies of the men who killed Murrieta’s brother was found cut into tiny pieces, and tossed near their gold prospecting camp. When some of his friends found the body, they rode their horses to see if they could catch up to the culprit, and they spotted Joaquin Murrieta. They recognized him as the man they had whipped, and started shooting at him, but he rode away so quickly, he avoided all of the bullets.

One by one, these men began disappearing from the camp. Everyone knew that Joaquin Murrieta was out to get his revenge. Even when they were on high alert at their camp, Murrieta still somehow managed to pick them off when they least expected it. He was like a ghost, rarely being seen or heard as he exacted his revenge.

Of course, these men were guilty of abusing multiple Mexicans, not just Joaquin Murrieta’s brother. So when some of the other Mexican villagers knew that a mysterious hero was taking down the villains who were oppressing them, they wanted to help him. He realized that getting vengeance for just himself was not going to be enough. After all, with his wife and family dead, he probably felt that he had nothing left to live for, and this was a cause he could stand behind. These original Mexican inhabitants were also left unprotected from the Americans who were coming in to take their land, and they needed someone to fight for them. He decided to devote his life to getting justice for the Mexican community.

Murrieta formed a gang of men who all lost members of their families to these American men who were taking over their homeland. Most of them were in their late 20s to mid-30s. Even though they were mostly older than Joaquin, they all followed him as their leader, because of his skills. They had each fought in the war, and they all had grievances against the Americans. One of the most well-known characters in the gang was nicknamed Three-Fingered Jack, because he lost the other fingers in a battle. Another member of the gang, Reyez Feliz, was just 16 years old. Joaquin fell in love with Feliz’s sister, and they formed a new family. The members of his gang would lasso American miners off of their horses. They stole the gold, and their horses, and moved on to the next gold miner.

After recovering the money that was stolen from him, Murrieta and his gang would return to the village and give money to the townspeople who had their gold stolen from the Americans, too. He was like Robin Hood, except that he was beginning to kill without prejudice. It was no longer a mission to go after the specific people who had done them wrong.

The Story of the Real Life Zorro, Joaquin Murrieta
Illustration of Joaquin Murrieta looking angry. Credit: University of Oklahoma Press.

Soon enough, word spread that their territory was not safe for American gold miners to travel through, because a gang of Mexicans would kill them. When the U.S. army learned about this vigilante gang who was killing American gold miners, a man named Harry Love was put in charge of The California Rangers. They had a mission to take down Joaquin Murrieta at all costs.

The rangers caught a group of Mexican men stealing horses, and they shot at the gang, killing all of them. When examining the bodies, they saw the man with three fingers, who they knew right away was Three-Fingered Jack. Based on all of the stories and descriptions of Joaquin Murrieta, Harry Love was confident that he actually found him. He cut off his head, put it in a jar, and charged people $1 to come and see it.

The Story of the Real Life Zorro, Joaquin Murrieta
Artwork from The Mask of Zorro. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Birth of Zorro

The character of Don Diego Vega, better known as his alter-ego, Zorro, first appeared in a short story called “The Curse of Capistrano” by John McCulley in 1919. There was a movie made in 1920, and McCulley went on to publish a full novel called The Mask of Zorro in 1924. People loved the masked Mexican Robin Hood character so much, it was made into a television series in the 1950’s, and eventually became a series of movies starring Antonio Banderas. Few people realize that McCulley was inspired by a real man, Joaquin Murrieta, when he invented Zorro.

Since the legend of Joaquin Murrieta made him out to be a skilled and mysterious figure that disappeared into the night, it only made sense to give the character of Zorro a mask and an all-black outfit, so he could sneak around undetected. Just like Murrieta, Zorro was on a journey to get revenge against the men who killed his brother. He fought with a sword, because of all of the times Murrieta was known for carving up his enemies, rather than shooting them. Until the California Rangers showed up, there wasn’t anyone who was skilled enough to take him down.

The Story of the Real Life Zorro, Joaquin Murrieta
Screen grab from The Mask of Zorro. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Some historians have tried to argue that Joaquin Murrieta was neither patriot or not a hero, and that he was just a criminal leading a gang of bandits who was only out to keep all of the gold for himself. Many of the illustrations of him make him wide-eyed and crazy looking, to fit in with a fearful American stereotype. They claim there is no actual evidence that he gave his money away to the poor, but that version story has still been passed down through word of mouth, and Mexican people loved him like a hero.

Many people consider Zorro to be one of the best fictional depictions of life during the California Gold Rush from the perspective of Mexican people. While Joaquin Murrieta’s original story may be forgotten, his powerful need for justice lives on in the fictional Zorro. Even to this day, he still represents one of the very few Mexican heroes in American culture.


Where Do we get this Stuff? Here are our Sources.

The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit. John Rollin Ridge. University of Oklahoma Press. 1955.

The Revenge Story That Inspired ‘The Legend of Zorro’. Wyatt Redd. 2018