Solomon Pico and the Story of Zorro

By Richard Duree (Col. Richard Dodge, SASS 1750 Life)


Ruth Levin Duree and Richard Duree

U. S. Highway 101 follows the Pacific Coast along the old El Camino Real – the King's Road – which was a heavily traveled path dating from the very earliest of the California Missions. As early as 1770, the Spanish established two presidios or forts: one at San Diego, the other at Monterey, some four hundred miles up the coast, an enormous distance in those days.

The road follows the coast westward from Los Angeles past the lovely, famed city of Santa Barbara, located on a beautiful stretch of coastline just a few miles east of where it makes its sharp turn to the north. A few miles up from that point one passes the small town of Los Alamos. Thousands of cars sweep past Los Alamos every day without a thought or notice. Lying just to the east of the highway lies a line of low, rounded hills – the Solomon Hills, and therein lies a story, should anyone ever consider why the name "Solomon" Hills.

Not the Solomon of Biblical note, but the Solomon of the famous and powerful Pico family, a man whose cousin, Pio Pico, was the last governor of Mexican California before it became American California. The Picos were probably the most influential Californio family in all California – and that is why Solomon is so little known.

Solomon Pico was the proud owner of a rancho in Central California in what is now Stanislaus County along the Tuolumne River, an area with some of the richest soil in California even today. As happened many times when the despised Americanos arrived and ran roughshod over the land in a mindless quest for gold, Solomon lost his rancho to an American who filed title on his land. Unable to provide documentation of his ownership, Solomon was unceremoniously evicted from his home by the not too impartial American courts.

We've all heard of Joaquin Murietta and his vengeance on the Americanos for the injustices done to him and the death of his wife. Joaquin wasn't the only Californio to turn to vengeance. A burning anger seethed in many of the Californios, their Spanish ire driven to maniacal proportions as they drew the blood of their tormentors. The first years of California's statehood were as bloody as any in American history.

Since there was actually little agriculture established in northern California, where thousands of new arrivals were gathered, it became necessary for the merchants in San Francisco to purchase cattle from the plentiful herds of the southern California ranchos and enormous cattle drives followed the El Camino Real over 500 miles to San Francisco. Enormous riches fell to the Californios who had managed to hold on to their land, but the situation also created an ideal situation for Solomon Pico to take his measure of vengeance.

Since gold was the currency of the day, it was necessary for cattle buyers to travel the King's Road, carrying the gold to purchase the herds. It is not recorded how many of them fell prey to Solomon along the stretch between present day Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, but there were many. Solomon was ruthless in his depredations on these hapless travelers, routinely executing them with his knife or pistol and cutting off their ears, which he gleefully displayed on a leather thong hanging from the horn of his magnificent saddle.

At first, Solomon was regarded as a hero by the Californios. He freely distributed his booty to the padres and the poor of the area and – by the only existing account of him – he was a handsome and dashing caballero, splendidly mounted and armed with a brace of Colt Dragoons, no doubt relieved from one or two of his victims, and an enormous Mexican knife..

Many of the old Californio families were not altogether opposed to American statehood. They had been disgusted with the rule of Mexico City for decades, imposed by a series of corrupt and unfit military governors. So it was with the Pico family, who were not pleased by the antics of cousin Solomon. As the American courts and "justice" system, such as it was, became more firmly established, the pressure to end Solomon's career began to grow. Many were the stories of Solomon's narrow escapes and even one escape with outside help from a jail where he had been imprisoned briefly.

In the end, Solomon was forced to reluctantly abandon California for Mexico. He remained near the border and it is said he was even employed as a police officer for a time before he was murdered by a person or persons unknown.

Meanwhile, back in California, the Pico family set out to erase any record of Solomon and they very nearly succeeded. One has to search long and hard to find any record that he even existed, but there are clues – such as the Solomon Hills. Ask any local around Los Alamos and they will tell you of the stories of Solomon Pico and how he may have buried some of his ill-gotten gold in that bucolic range of hills just to the east of town. The will also tell you that he was the original Zorro.

And the odds are that he was indeed the inspiration for the legend of Zorro. Johnston McCulley arrived in the Santa Barbara area probably around the turn of the 20th Century. He would have heard of the stories of Solomon, which were still told and retold in the area and, being a writer, was inspired to write.

He must have been touched by the injustice that caused Solomon's turn to murderous vengeance from being a peaceful Californio. The early 20th Century, however, had not reached a time of enlightenment and political correctness. There was strong prejudice against the Mexican population (and these were not illegal immigrants, but fourth and fifth generation Californios) and McCulley was reluctant to tell it like it was.

And so, he created a time for his hero that never existed.

He placed Zorro in Old California with the cruel Spaniards as the villains replacing the evil Americans in a pueblo in Los Angeles, a pueblo that never existed. Solomon Pico had been in the Mexican army and had developed martial skills with both sword and firearms. He was a skilled horseman, as probably every Californio was; he was a dashing and handsome man by all accounts – and so Zorro became America's first and longest lasting "super hero." Few realized the real tragedy behind the story. He became the inspiration for future heroes who concealed their true identity behind an unlikely alter ego like gentle Diego de la Vega, such as Superman (Clark Kent) and Batman (Bruce Wayne).

McCulley's Zorro was a far cry from the one popularized by Douglas Fairbanks, Guy Madison, Anthony Perkins, and Antonio Banderas. Nor were the other characters of "The Mask of Zorro" anything like the bumbling characters created by Disney. They were mean. Zorro took great delight in grimly tormenting his opponent with tiny sword pricks all over his body before deftly carving his "Z" on the poor fool's forehead. Sergeant Garcia was a cruel and deadly foil for Zorro's blade and is eventually killed in a duel with his nemesis.

So there you have it – the true story of Zorro – one more legend of Early California, embedded into American literature as firmly as that of the American cowboy, reminding us of our sense of justice – and very subtly, of our own past.

The author wishes to express thanks to Professor Paul Apodaca of Chapman University for first uncovering the interesting story of Solomon Pico and for his scholarly research to support the existence and the story of that forgotten desperate and haunted man.

McCulley, Johnston; The Mask of Zorro, The Curse of Capistrano; Tom Doherty Associates, Ind., New York, 1998

Dana, Don Francisco; The Blonde Ranchero; South County Historical Society, Arroyo Grande, California

Tompkins, Walker A; Santa Barbara History Makers; McNally & Loftin, Santa Barbara, California 1983