Was Zorro based on a real figure?
Zorro is a well-known fictional character and is instantaneously recognizable. He was a fighter for justice and protected the weak against the strong, a Robin Hood figure. This character has become something of a cultural figure, especially in California.
Moreover, the character has been very influential in the development of the ‘super-hero’ genre. Zorro was one of the characters that inspired the creation of Batman. He also inspired many other well-known figures in ‘pulp fiction’ works, cartoons, and comics. Like many popular fictional heroes, Zorro was based on several historical figures. Below is a discussion of the candidates that inspired the creation of Zorro.
The evolution of Zorro
Zorro was created by the pulp-fiction writer Johnston McCulley (1883-1958). He was a prolific author and wrote hundreds of short stories and novels. In 1919, he wrote the book The Curse of Capistrano, which introduced Zorro, to the world. McCulley did not intend to write any more works based on the Californian character. The book was bought by a Hollywood studio who made a movie based on the novel, called the Mark of Zorro, starring Douglas Fairbanks, a superstar at the time. 
This Mark of Zorro was a hit, and Hollywood executives persuaded McCulley to write more stories based on the dashing outlaw. McCulley wrote Zorro stories for almost 40 years. The novel The Curse of Capistrano has sold over 50 million copies and is one of the most commercially successful novels of all time. Zorro has appeared in countless books, movies, and theatrical productions.  In recent years there have even been video games based on the famous character.
The biography of the character
The name Zorro comes from the Spanish for fox. The character lived in the Pueblo of Los Angeles in what was Spanish California (1760-1821). The territory now part of the state of California was then part of the Spanish Empire. However, the Spanish neglected California until 1767, when they took direct control of the region. Spain was concerned that one of their European competitors would seize the area. 
As Spain asserted control, the colonial authorities were incredibly harsh and oppressed the native peoples in particular. This is the setting for the adventures of Zorro. Although some later versions of the story set his story in Mexican California (1812-1850). He is typically portrayed as an extraordinary masked swordsman, who also used a whip. Zorro is the champion of the poor and the exploited and a friend to the native tribes. He is shown fighting for their rights against the Spanish officials and army.
The character is shown as wearing a black cape and a sombrero. He often publicly humiliated officials and soldiers as punishment for their treatment of Californians. Zorro marked the oppressors of the people with a Z, his personal mark. Because of his struggles with the colonial government, he is outlawed and has a bounty placed on his head but is loved by the common people, who help him.
However, Zorro was, in reality, the alter-ego of a young Californian aristocrat Don Diego de la Vega. He is the only son of the richest man in all California, whose mother died many years ago. Diego went to university in Spain where he studied swordsmanship. He returned home after he hears of the oppression of the Spanish in California.
Diego adopted the persona of Zorro to fight the cruel and corrupt officials in California. To avoid suspicion, he acted like a spoiled playboy with no interest in the troubles and injustice of his times. He also pretended to be a coward who was afraid of fighting and became widely despised in California.
Zorro stories often mixed swashbuckling and romance. Diego was in love with Lolita Pulido, a poor noblewoman, but who disliked him but loved his alter-ego. In the stories, Zorro is shown as being pursued by the local Caballeros, but over time he wins them around to his cause, and they offer him invaluable help. In some iterations of the story, Zorro would pass the mantle on to younger men who would assume his identity and carry on his fight for justice.
Literary origins of Zorro
There are many fictional works that may have inspired the creation of Zorro. He can be likened to the semi-legendary Robin Hood, the English bowman who fought the corrupt and cruel Sheriff of Nottingham and was a champion of the poor.  There are also similarities between Zorro and the character created by the Baroness Orczy, the Scarlett Pimpernel. This character, like Zorro, leads a secret life and helps the innocent, in this instance, French aristocrats during the French Revolution. The Scarlett Pimpernel also pretends like Diego to be a selfish pleasure-seeker to conceal his real activities.
Another possible inspiration for the character of Zorro was the work of Vicente Riva Palacio y Guerrero. He wrote a fictionalized account of William Lamport, an Irish soldier an adventurer who lived in Mexico in the 17th century. The novel by Palacio y Guerrero narrates the many remarkable adventures of Lamport and how he attempted the raise a rebellion against Spanish rule in Mexico.
Joaquin Murrieta Carrillo
Joaquin Murrieta Carrillo is a legendary figure from the history of California. He is regarded as a folk-hero and the Robin Hood of the Old West. Joaquin Murrieta was born in Sonora, Mexico. He was a vaquero or a cowboy, and he traveled to California during the gold rush of 1849 with his young wife and brother. Joaquin Murrieta was by all accounts a hard-working family man. He became a prospector, but he ran afoul with a group of white miners. Joaquin Murrieta’s wife was also attacked and murdered by these men. Joaquin somehow survived, and he went on to become a card dealer in a saloon. His brother joined him, and the two prospered.
One day some white settlers accused him of stealing a horse or a mule. Then settlers horsewhipped him and murdered his brother. Joaquin swore revenge and one by one he killed those who had killed his brother and wife. There is no agreed version of the story, but it seems that he then formed a gang of Mexican bandits who preyed on miners and others in California. This gang became known as the ‘Five Joaquins’ gang, and they terrorized a large area of the territory and are believed to have killed up to 40 people in only two years.
In 1853 the California state legislature put a bounty on the head of Joaquin. In 1853 a troop of California State rangers ambushed him and his gang. The bandit was killed, and the rangers claimed and received the reward. However, a later legend arose that Joaquin had escaped alive from the ambush.
There are certain similarities between Zorro and Joaquin Murrieta Carrillo. They were motivated by a burning sense of injustice and a desire to fight injustice and corruption. However, the bandit began to prey upon on innocent Californians after he killed the men who attacked him. Unlike Joaquin, Zorro was always shown to be scrupulously fair and a protector of ordinary people. Moreover, he was active during the early history of American California, while Zorro is always shown as the sworn enemy of the corrupt colonial Spanish authorities.
Salomon Pico (1821-1860) came from a wealthy Californio family, that was well-established in the territory. He was a cousin of the last Mexican governor of California. Pico fought in the Mexican American War and after the American victory he returned to his native California. He lived quietly for some time, but the Gold Rush of 1849 forever altered the territory. His land was overrun by prospectors and it appears that this led to the death of his wife.
Pico swore revenge against the prospectors’, and he formed a gang of outlaws. They preyed upon lone travelers’ and soon became feared and reviled by the local Anglo community. Pico was seen as a protector of the Hispanic community and many sheltered him and his gang. In 1851, he and some of his gang were captured by vigilantes. He escaped and made his way to Mexico. Here he once again turned to banditry but was later captured and executed. There are undoubted similarities between Pico and Zorro, including their popularity with the common people.
Vasquez was from a well-established Californio family. He came under the influence of a local bandit and chose a life of crime. It seems that he was what some historians call a ‘social bandit’ and he took to crime as a way of protesting at the treatment of Hispanics by the Anglo community in California.
Vasquez was a romantic figure who was very handsome and even wrote poetry. Like Zorro, he became very popular with many of the people, who regarded him as a Robin Hood figure. Vasquez claimed that he had never killed a man. He also claimed that he wanted California returned to Mexico. In 1874, he was betrayed to the authorities, imprisoned and later executed. He was hanged because he participated in a robbery, during which a man was killed. Vasquez is still a controversial figure and regarded as a folk hero to some, and people still seek out his grave.
The native people of California suffered greatly during the Mexican and later the American occupation of the area. The Spanish decided to Christianize and ‘civilize’ the natives by forcing them on to Missions that were run by religious orders.  In these missions, the native people suffered greatly, and many died of abuse and disease at the missions.
Many Indian tribes revolted against the missions including the Yokut. Estanislao was a member of the Yokut tribe, that lived in modern California. He raised a rebellion against the Missions and Mexicans. He led a gang of Yokuts who raided the settlements and ranches of the Mexicans. The Mexican government sent soldiers to suppress the revolt but Estanislao could not be apprehended. There were four campaigns to crush the revolt of Estanislao. During his raids the rebel leader would carve his initials into pieces of wood, to show the attack was his work, which is reminiscent of Zorro. Eventually, the Mexicans wore him down and Estanislao eventually sought the pardon of the governor. He became a teacher and later died in an epidemic.
The character of Zorro is a much-loved fictional figure. His character has been very influential in popular culture. Undoubtedly many of the characteristics of the hero were created by the author. He was partly inspired by previous works and figures such as Robin Hood. However, there is a great deal of evidence that shows that Zorro was based on at least one historical figure.
McCulley was familiar with the story of Joaquin Murrieta Carrillo and in many ways, this character can be considered to be the chief source of the character of the original caped hero. Murrieta Carrillo was probably the main model for the character of Zorro. However, McCulley was almost certainly inspired by other bandits and rebels from a turbulent period in Californian history.
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Benjamin-Labarthe, E. (2000). American Cinema: The Mark of Zorro and the Chicano Canon. Lomelí and Ikas, 81-98.
- Curtis, Sandra. Zorro Unmasked: The Official History (LA, Hyperion, 1998), p. 12
- Curtis, p. 19
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- Alexander, p 89
- McCulley, Johnston. The mark of Zorro (London, Penguin, 2005), p 19
- McCulley, p 34
- McCulley, p III
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- Alexander, p. 113
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- Starr, p. 131