In the Series Finale, the Time Team Meets the Gold Rush Bandit
The NBC show Timeless follows a group of time travelers who are desperately trying to stop a shadowy organization named Rittenhouse from changing history for the worse. In the series finale the Time Team visits the Old West, and there they encounter the Gold Rush Bandit known as Joaquin Murrieta.
Recently, a community of Timeless fans (#SaveTimeless) reached out to me to answer some historical questions that the show brought up. They asked about Joaquin Murrieta and the elements of his story that relate to the inspiration of Zorro. Here are the questions, and my answers, which were posted to Twitter.
-1. We saw a bit about Zorro in Timeless special, but how did it expand into the story/movie we know today? How much truth is in the myth?
Zorro, which means “fox” in Spanish, is a fictional character first created in 1919 by a pulp writer named Johnston McCulley (1883–1958). McCulley published the first Zorro novel in serial form in the All-Story Weekly magazine. Since that time, Zorro has appeared in dozens of novels, short stories, major motion pictures, a Disney TV series, cartoons, and comics. He’s become an iconic character. His black costume, hat, and duel identity — by day, the foppish Don Diego de la Vega, by night the masked crime fighter — set a blueprint for the modern American superhero genre. Batman, The Shadow, and scores of other comic book superheroes were influenced by Zorro. Thus, before Batman (1939), Superman (1938), and Wonder Woman (1941), there was Zorro (1919). In one sense, then, Zorro is purely a fictional character. However, there is reason to believe that McCulley drew on the history and legend surrounding Joaquín Murrieta (c. 1824–1853) as inspiration for the Zorro character.
McCulley never wrote explicitly that Zorro was based on Murrieta. Yet there are clues that tell us the Murrieta legend inspired McCulley. When McCulley wrote his first Zorro novel, the Murrieta legend was part of the California landscape. In one interview in 1923, McCulley said he read California history avidly. Among that history was the 1854 novel, Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta: Celebrated California Bandit by John Rollin Ridge. Ridge, a Cherokee Indian, crafted the first legendary portrait of Murrieta (notice the name change…Murrieta became Murieta, with one “r”). From Ridge’s novel the Robin Hood aspects to Joaquin Murrieta become more pronounced than they were in Murrieta’s actual lifetime. (Although, they were there, see below). Consider one passage from the Ridge novel: “As soon as their eyes met, the young fellow [Murrieta] drew the rim of his hat over his face, and, flinging his cloak a little back from his shoulder, dropped his arm down carelessly toward the butt of his pistol.” (Ridge 114) (Also of interest, John Rollin Ridge’s novel about Murrieta was the first published novel by a Native American). The legend of Murrieta grew over time. In a novel published by Carl Gray (pseudonym for Charles Caldwell Park) Joaquin Murrieta is even depicted as having both a Nobel Spanish father and an indigenous mother. So, for instance, McCulley drew less on the actual history of Murrieta than on the legend that had begun to grow around him. Murrieta was California’s first folkhero. He was an antihero, who embodied the hopes of an avenger against the wrong perpetrated by Anglos against Mexican settlers. Zorro is thus a whitewashed version of the Murrieta legend, set in Spanish California instead of Mexican California.
2. Is the idea of Joaquin Murrieta as a Robin Hood figure helping others just legend, or is there some truth to it?
Yes, there is some truth to it. Certainly, the Robin Hood aspects of Joaquin Murrieta (a “good thief”; robbing from the rich; avenger of the poor) increased over time and increased after Ridge published his novel about Murrieta in 1854. But, even in Murrieta’s lifetime newspaper accounts claimed Murrieta was discriminating in who he robbed. For example, The Placer Herald on May 21, 1853 wrote that “He speaks English fluently, and in his foraging expeditions, has always a fresh horse at hand. He was heard to say that he would never kill a Spaniard.” Here, we can see that Murrieta apparently had a mission, and he would not kill those of Latino descent.
-3. In the movie, we see Joaquin Murrieta say that the Sonorans found gold first, and that the Americans drove out the Sonorans after the war. Which war? What were the circumstances behind that?
The war that is being referred to is the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). Before that time California territory was part of Mexico. In the aftermath, Mexico ceded almost half of it’s territory to the United States. So, communities in Sonora could and did travel to the San Joaquin valley. But they were traveling within Mexico. Think about it this way. You live in one area of the United States and you’re accustomed to traveling to another area. You do this for resources, whether gold or horses, but then you travel back to your home. Then, a war intervenes. It means the area you used to travel to is now a part of an entirely different country. You’re considered a foreigner in that area now. Such was the experience of many native Californios of Mexican descent, as well as frequent migrants from Sonora. All of a sudden, you’re a “stranger in your own land.”
4. Was Murrieta attacked in his camp? Was his family harmed? Was he motivated to avenge this? And did he?
The discovery of gold, and the transition of California to the United States, brought hundreds and then thousands of new people. Anglo Americans, Mexicans, Indigenous people, and Chinese immigrants. All of them fighting for land and resources. Gold put a new negative incentive into all of this. Fights over resources quickly became fights about race. Consider another newspaper account from the time of Joaquin Murrieta. Again The Placer Herald on February 5, 1853 reported that “The entire Mexican population has been driven from San Andreas and the forks of the Calaveras. The greatest excitement prevails in every direction. If an American meets a Mexican, he takes his horse, his arms, and bids him to leave…We understand that a mass meeting was held at Double Springs on Wednesday morning, and resolutions passed approving of what had been done, and making it the duty of every American citizen at all events to exterminate the Mexican race from the country. The foreigners should first receive notice to leave, and if they refused they were to be shot down and their property confiscated.”
The story about Joaquin Murrieta, his wife raped, his brother whipped and killed — all of this gets its start with the John Rollin Ridge novel. It’s very hard to know if these events actually happened or if they were merely part of the legend about Murrieta. Yet, the Murrieta story became a symbol of racism and mistreatment of all Mexican people in California. Richard Rodriguez, a famous essayist, wrote this: “the Robin Hood part of the legend has persisted so long among Mexicans because Mexicans felt they had a share in Murrieta’s victimization…thus, perhaps, a share in Murrieta’s revenge.” There were 871 documented cases of Mexicans who were lynched in some 13 states in the American West after the Civil War. In proportion to their numbers, there were more Mexicans who died by lynching in the Old West than African Americans who were lynched in the American South. So, even if the accounts about Murrieta are not true, it is very true that similar abuses were experienced by many Mexicans in California. Murrieta became a symbol for that victimization. Finding the origins to Zorro is about dealing with the ghosts, uncovering the painful history of the Old West, which might allow us to see American culture as a product of Mexican and Latino contribution.
-5. Did Murrieta have a horse named Tornado? Where did that legend come from?
From the primary documents we have, Murrieta did not have a horse named Tornado. Even the original McCulley stories did not have a horse named Tornado. McCulley wrote about a “black horse,” with a lot of speed. The origins to Tornado are actually in the Disney TV series (1958–1959). That’s the first time Zorro’s horse gets a name.
However, in John Rollin Ridge’s novel, Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta (1854) there are several passages that seem “Tornado-esque.” For instance, in a description of Three-Fingered Jack (Murrieta’s famed bandit colleague) we read: “To see this man, with his large and rugged frame in which the strength of a dozen common men slumbered — his face and forehead scarred with bullets and grooved with the wrinkles of grim thoughts, and his intensely lighted eyes glaring maliciously, like caverned demons, under his shaggy brows — to see such a man mounted upon a raven-black horse whose nostrils drew air like a gust of wind into his broad chest, whose wrathful hoof pawed the ground as if the spirit of his rider inspired him, and whose wild orbs rolled from side to side in untamable fire — would aptly remind one of old Satan himself, mounted upon a hell-born beast, after he had been ‘let loose for a thousand years.’”
That seems pretty Tornado-like to me!
-6. I think Murrieta was one of a few sources for Zorro. Who were the others? What were their stories?
Yes, there is a debate about whether Murrieta is the only inspiration for Zorro. If we go even farther back, we find William Lamport (1611–1659) an Irish-born adventurer who entered the Spanish court and then traveled to Mexico. He was captured and imprisoned by the Mexican Inquisition for more than a decade for a plot to overthrow the Spanish Crown. He was burned at the stake. Some scholars have pointed out similarities in the life of Lamport and the fictional Zorro. Closer to California, two other bandits often are mentioned. The first is Salomon Pico (1821–1860), a bandit who had a wealthy background, which some have said seems more a match with the aristocratic heritage of the Zorro legend. The other is Tiburcio Vasquez (1835–1875), a bandit who was active in California slightly after Murrieta. Both Murrieta and Vasquez have natural parks and geographies named after them.
The Murrieta legend stuck because of the Ridge novel. Murrieta became a symbol for the wrongs done to Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the years after the Mexican-American War. Pico and Vasquez also enjoyed fame, but Murrieta’s legend continues to grow and change. Even now, there is an annual Horse Ride and celebration of Murrieta in the Fresno area. There is an International Association of the Descendants of Joaquin Murrieta that promotes the memory of the folk hero. The enduring story about Murrieta makes it more likely that Johnston McCulley drew from the more well-known tales of Murrieta in crafting Zorro.
And there is a larger issue. Joaquin Murrieta’s head was supposedly cut off by California Rangers and put into a jar. For years after, the head was displayed for the morbidly curious to see. The legend has it that the head made it into San Francisco museum, but was lost after the 1906 earthquake. Murrieta symbolizes the racial violence that characterized the Old West, but also the way in which this violent history has been cut off from the broader stories we tell of American history. In the same way the history of Murrieta has been cut off from the history of Zorro and popular culture, the history of Mexican-Americans has been lopped off from the story of America. It’s time we tell better stories.