The Origins of Zorro

Zorro 001Most people in my generation grew up reading about or watching film serials and television programs about western heroes.  We saw these heroes in such programs as The Lone Ranger, Lash Larue, The Cisco Kid, The Durango Kid, Roy Rogers, Gunsmoke, Wild Bill Hickok, Billy the Kid, Tales of Wells Fargo, and many others—including, of course, Zorro the Fox.

To young minds, Diego de la Vega (the real identity of Zorro) was how we ought to judge an actual hero.  The man was roguishly handsome, had a tool chest full of skills and talents that thrilled us.  He was a Robin Hood type outlaw, a man with a hefty price on his head, wanted “dead or alive,” but far too skilled and cunning to allow himself capture by bumbling Mexican soldiers or lawmen (in the time of the story (1769-1820), California was part of Mexico).  Sadly (or not), Zorro existed only in the imagination of his creator, author Johnston McCulley (1883-1958).

McCulley’s first account of Zorro appeared in The Curse of Capistrano (1919).  In the following year, Douglas Fairbanks portrayed Zorro in a film titled The Mark of Zorro.  In total, 15 actors played the role of Zorro.  I do not recall the Douglas Fairbanks portrayal, but I do remember the short-lived television series starring Guy Williams (real name Armando Joseph Catalano (1924-1989)) who was born in New York City, but passed away in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Interesting stuff —made more so by the fact that I’ve discovered that there was an actual character in history that McCulley may have borrowed heavily from in the Zorro stories.  The real-life person was a combination of outlaws, one of whom was named Tiburcio Vásquez(1835-1875).

The Vasquez family arrived in Alta California [1] in the late 1700s as part of the De Anza Expedition [2]Tiburcio’s parents were José Hermenegildo Vásquez and Maria Guadalupe Cantua.  Tiburcio was well-educated, spoke several languages, and was of slight stature, growing to around 5’ 7” tall, and probably weighing around 170 pounds.  Beginning in 1852, Tiburcio fell under the influence of Anastacio Garcia, who was one of California’s more dangerous outlaws [3].  While attending a fandango in Monterey, California, Tiburcio witnessed the shooting of Monterey Constable William Hardmount by Garcia.  Frightened, Tiburcio fled the scene of the shooting, and while he was not involved in the shooting, the fact that witnesses saw him running away fueled the notion that he was a suspect in the crime.  From this time forward, Tiburcio was a wanted man; a man who operated outside the law; an outlaw.

In matters of crime, Monterey, California has hardly changed over the past 170-years.  Crime was out of control in 1850, and it remains so today.  If fighting and shooting people wasn’t enough mayhem in 1850, we can add feuding to the mix. One of these is known as the Belcher-Roach feud.  It began with two friends whose greed led them down the path of self-destruction, taking innocent people with them along the way.  Lewis F. Belcher and William Roach were both fearless in a fight; neither man would back down.  They both defined justice as an eye-for-an-eye, a tooth-for-a-tooth.

What led to their feud was their affections for the same young (and wealthy) widow.  Belcher arrived in California from New York around the age of 22-years.  Belcher acquired wealth and influence by selling meat to the American Army and Navy.  Sergeant William Roach of Company D —an immigrant from Ireland— arrived with the New York Regiment of Volunteers during the Mexican-American War.  After leaving the Army, Roach successfully ran to become the first sheriff of Monterey County.  Both Belcher and Roach relied on Tiburcio Vásquez and Anastacio Garcia as guns for hire during their murderous dispute.  Assassination and mayhem continued until the State of California executed Garcia in 1875.  Note: Today, Monterey, California is among the most crime-ridden/least safe cities in the entire nation [4].

In 1856, authorities arrested and charged Tiburcio with stealing horses.  After conviction, he received a five-year sentence at San Quinton prison.  His time in jail was productive, however; while incarcerated he planned and participated in four bloody prison-break attempts, which left twenty convicts dead in the prison yard.  After his release from prison, Tiburcio returned to a life of crimes involving burglary, cattle rustling, and highway robberies from one end of California to another.  An 1866 conviction sent him back to prison for robbing a general store in Petaluma, California.

After his second release from prison, Tiburcio organized a gang that included Juan Bautista Soto and Procopio Bustamante.  Standing over 6’ tall and weighing in excess of 200 pounds, Soto presented a terrifying figure.  He had wildly crossed-eyes, was heavily bearded, and his face badly pockmarked. Soto’s short temper made him mean and vicious.  He was also quick on his feet and fast with a gun.  Added to this, Soto hated Anglos.

Bustamante was known by several alias.  Born in Sonora, Mexico, Procopio lost his father during an Indian raid and his uncle Joaquin [5] raised him to adulthood, training him as a vaquero.  In 1862, authorities accused Procopio of murdering a local ranger near Rancho Cucamonga. There being no evidence that he murdered anyone, other than the word of a “witness,” who as it turns out was not even present during the shooting, a judged ordered Procopio released.  Deeply angered by the incident, Procopio delved deeper into outlawry.

The Vásquez gang conducted a string of bandit raids, successfully terrorizing white settlers from one end of California to the other.  In 1870, Santa Cruz lawman Robert Liddell seriously wounded Vásquez during a shootout, but despite his wounds, Vásquez escaped capture and returned to the home of his sister, who hid him and nursed him back to health.  He gained state-wide notoriety in 1873 when he held up Snyder’s Store in Tres Pinos (San Benito County).  In the process of robbing the store of $2,200, Vásquez and his gang murdered three innocent bystanders.  The incident so enraged the governor that he placed a bounty of $1,000 on Vásquez’ his head.  San Jose Sheriff John H. Adams led a posse in pursuit of Vásquez into Southern California. Another gunfight ensued, but Vásquez again evaded capture, this time hiding out with his brother Francisco near Lake Elizabeth.

Tiburcio Vasquez 001Despite these depredations, Vásquez remained popular within several Mexican communities, from Santa Rosa to Los Angeles.  There were no shortages of places to hid or people to shield him from the law.  Tiburcio was literate, handsome, and charismatic. He enjoyed dancing, playing the guitar, and fooling about with the ladies —seldom lacking company with the softer side of frontier society.  Much to the thrill of the ladies, Tiburcio was also the writer of poetry.

After several months, Vásquez returned to the San Joaquin Valley where he re-engaged in criminal activity.  After robbing the Jones Store in Fresno County, he and his gang terrorized and sacked the town of Kingston, making off with $2,500 in cash and valuables.  California’s governor increased his bounty to $15,000 and ordered Alameda County Sheriff Harry Morse track him down.  Despite this increased attention from the law, Vasquez raids continued with stagecoach robberies and murder.

On 15 April 1874, Vasquez kidnapped a prominent sheep rancher named Alessandro Repetto and held him for ransom.  Authorities organized several posse comitatus, but he always managed to escape. He hid for a time in the home of Yiorgos Caralambo at Rancho La Brea (near present-day Sunset Strip in West Hollywood).  This was a decision that led to his downfall.  While living in Caralambo’s home, Vásquez seduced and impregnated Yiorgos’ niece.  Someone connected to the Caralambo family, outraged by this behavior, notified Los Angeles County Sheriff William Rowland of the murderer’s whereabouts.  Sheriff Rowland captured Vásquez on 14 May 1874.

While in jail, Vásquez agreed to several press interviews.  He claimed to be an honorable man who simply wanted to return California to Mexican rule.  After several months, he stood trial in San Jose, California, but his pre-trial confinement period made him into a celebrity within Hispanic communities and in the Anglo press.

The Vásquez trial lasted four days; the jury deliberated for just two hours before reaching a guilty verdict.  The presiding judge ordered Tiburcio Vásquez hanged—and it might have been a rapid hanging were it not for the fact that Tiburcio filed an appeal for clemency.  Awaiting a decision, Vásquez entertained scores of visitors in his jail cell, many of these were women, and Señior Vasquez enjoyed his popularity.  He signed autographs, posed for photographs, and sold these from the window in his cell—all proceeds going directly to his attorney, of course.  Ultimately, California governor Romualdo Pacheco denied Vasquez’ request for clemency and on 19 March 1875, Tiburcio Vasquez stepped calmly into the afterlife.  He was 39-years old.

It should surprise no one that Tiburcio Vásquez remains a hero within some California Hispanic communities.  Glorifying a murderer and a thief may have been the intent of Johnson McCulley —but it is not a view that I share.  There is nothing at all romantic or heroic about Tiburcio Vasquez.  If Johnson McCulley based his character Zorro on the life and times of Tiburcio Vasquez, then Zorro can never be a heroic figure.


  1. Yenne, B. The Legend of Zorro.  Mallard Press, 1991
  2. Curtis, S. Zorro Unmasked: The official history.  Hyperion Press, 1998


[1] Also referred to as Upper California, Nueva California, California del Norte, was a province of New Spain from about 1804 (along with the peninsula of Baja California).  Alta California became part of Mexico in 1822, renamed Alta California in 1824, its territory included all present-day California, Nevada, Utah, parts of Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico.  It was mostly a paper territory, however, because neither Spain or Mexico colonized the area beyond the southern and central coastal regions of modern-day California and small areas of Arizona.  There was never any effective control in California above the area of Sonoma.

[2] Juan Bautista de Anza (1736-1788) served as the 55th Governor of the Province of New Mexico (1778-1788).  When the Spanish began colonizing Alta California in 1769, Spanish authorities soon realized that they needed a more direct land route and additional colonies, particularly in the area of present-day San Francisco.  They established additional missions in the Salinas Valley.  The de Anza expedition to Alta California, which began on 8 January 1774.

[3] Apparently, few Mexicans living in California enjoyed the idea of being part of the United States after 1850.  Some of these people moved back to Mexico, others channeled their anger through banditry, and of course, there were people of Mexican heritage that adapted to the new order of politics in California after 1850.

[4] Monterey, California Crime Analytics, Neighborhood Scout Organization.  On a scale of 100 (indicating America’s safest cities), Monterey ranks 6.

[5] Juaquin Murrieta (1829-1853) was a dangerous outlaw who migrated to California in 1849.  During the California Gold Rush Murrieta formed several gangs that engaged in murder, armed robbery, and horse theft.  Johnson McCulley likely incorporated Murrieta, Bustamante, and Vásquez to form the character Zorro.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
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4 Responses to The Origins of Zorro

  1. Kid says:

    We love vigilantes don’t we. Those men who bring justice to a justice-less society. Zorro. Charles Bronson/Death Wish, Clint Eastwood as Inspector Callahan or Josey Wales, Alan Ladd as Shane, Paul Newman as the Hombre, Chuck Connors as The Rifleman, Elliot Ness, Batman, Superman and many others……..
    Seems to speak to the idea that none of us believe there is much justice in our society. That it takes a superhuman presence to bring it about. Sad. Especially in these times when evil is prancing about unopposed and in full view.


    • Mustang says:

      There does appear to be a tradition in the United States where the people have an innate distrust of politicians, including sworn law officers, judges, county officials and the like … born from an awareness of one consistency throughout out entire history: none of these people are trustworthy. Perhaps it comes from our understanding that human beings, by their nature, are corruptible. So, we fantasize about stout fellows who are willing to sacrifice everything for truth, justice, and the American way. Sadly, it is just that … fantasy. Truth has become “relative.” Justice, elusive and heavily dependent on your political status and wealth … rules for them, rules for us. As for the American way … I guess that all depends upon who you’re talking to. Someone who lives in the country is probably more down to earth and sincere than one of those libtards that live inside the city, so perhaps the term “American way” no longer has any meaning.


    • Kid says:

      American Way no longer has any meaning. Between toilet based immigration and the liberal non-education system, it no longer exists.


  2. Andy says:

    As a child, I was enamored with Zorro. Not so much after reading this. Vásquez got what he had coming.


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