The Real Life Zorro: The Life and Legend of Joaquin Murieta

Some say he was a good man turned renegade when all he held dear was taken from him. Others claim he was “Robin Hood of the West” who stole from the rich and gave to the poor in Gold Rush Era California. Some even claim he was the real-life inspiration for the fictional characters Zorro and Batman. What we really know about Joaquin Murieta is precious little indeed, but what people think they know about him is considerable and controversial.

The Legend

Separating fact from fiction in early California is not only difficult, but people often preferred “embellishing” the truth in favor of a good story. The widely-accepted tale of Joaquin Murieta’s life has very little actual evidence to back it up, yet seems to have captured peoples’ imaginations for a variety of reasons.

Joaquin Murieta was born in Sonora, Mexico in 1830. When the California Gold Rush began in 1849, Murrieta brought his young wife to California hoping to strike it rich in the gold fields. 

California was ceded to the United States in 1848 following the Mexican-American War, and there were many American immigrants already living there. Sentiments against people of Mexican descent ran high among Anglos in the gold fields. Competition for valuable mining claims conspired with racist notions that what had once belonged to Mexican citizens was now up for grabs. 

Joaquin Murieta’s claim was paying off, so when a group of Anglo miners demanded he hand his claim over to them, he refused. The miners then tied him up and forced him to watch them brutalize and rape his young wife. The only source for this story was a dime novel titled “The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta” by John Rollin Ridge published in 1854, nevertheless, it got peoples’ attention and gave wings to the rest of a story that may be more fiction than fact. We do know his wife died shortly thereafter.

Murrieta supposedly left the area and tried to make a living as a card dealer. He’d borrowed a mule from his half-brother, but again, Anglos accused him of stealing it. This time Murieta was whipped and his half-brother (real owner of the mule) lynched. Enraged and bitter, Murieta wanted justice and revenge. He quickly found his way back to NorCal, and things began to get interesting.

The Anglos involved in brutalizing Murieta’s wife were mysteriously ending up dead, and in peculiar fashion. Legend has it Murieta dressed all in black when he snuck into the Anglo camps by night to grab the guilty parties. Their remains were then neatly cut up with a sword and spread over the area for the others to find. Notice how Murieta was then portrayed as a mysterious swordsman dressed all in black?

Soon enough Murieta found other like-minded Mexicans (probably friends and family) to form a gang that became well-known in the gold fields. One gang member was Manuel Garcia (called “Three-Fingered Jack”) and their gang became notorious for lassoing miners, pulling them from their horses, robbing and killing them. His gang was rumored to give their spoils to poor Mexican natives, earning a reputation as “Robin Hood of the West.” His gang was known as “The Five Joaquins.”

The California legislature authorized hiring twenty California State Rangers led by Captain Harry Love to hunt down and vanquish Murieta’s gang. In July 1853 the Rangers supposedly encountered The Five Joaquins near Coalinga killing both Murieta and Three-Fingered Jack. Of course, no one really knew what Joaquin Murieta actually looked like, so there is some speculation over who Captain Love actually killed. Nevertheless, Murieta was never heard from again, and today there is a California Historical Landmark plaque at Arroyo de Cantua marking the spot of the killings.

Murieta’s Head

As proof the deed had been done (and to collect a handsome reward) the Rangers severed Murieta’s head and Jack’s three-fingered hand, preserving each in jars of alcohol. Love traveled around California for years charging $1 for a peek at Murieta’s preserved head.

What happened to Murieta’s head after that remains an item of speculation. One version is that it was destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Another version can be seen by Peabody Award-winning filmmaker John J. Valadez (The Head of Joaquin Murrieta LLEAD on Vimeo) who claims to have found the head and taken it on a literal and metaphorical journey across the country. 


For some people the bizarre story of Joaquin Murieta might be “Much Ado about Nothing.” Yet there might be a few kernels worth maybe more than just a passing thought. One is the undeniable fact that there was much racism in early California, particularly against Mexicans, Native Americans and people of Asian descent. 

We also know that Californians have always enjoyed a good story. Is it any wonder Hollywood is located here? Even the name “California” comes from a 16th century novel (Las Sergas de Esplandián, The Exploits of Esplandián) in which Queen Calafia rules over an Island called “California.” 

While the real Joaquin Murieta may have been little more than a robber and a murderer, once he was romanticized in The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murrieta: The Celebrated California Bandit by John Rollin Ridge in 1854, he captured the imaginations of many. Today he is often seen as a crusader fighting against the racism California Mexicans endured. The image of a dashing swordsman dressed in black fighting oppression certainly has universal appeal, even if they are figments of someone’s imagination.

Active NorCal

Telling the Stories of Northern California

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