Times Past

Historic figure from SLO’s early days may have inspired the ‘Zorro’ character

Shortly after Helen Hunt Jackson’s best-selling novel “Ramona” was published in 1884, American authors began to search for heroes based on real-life characters in the history of Spanish and Mexican California.

Carlos Antonio de Jesus Carrillo was one of the role models for the Zorro character played by Douglas Fairbanks in the heyday of the silent screen and more recently by Antonio Banderas.

While our only portrait of Carrillo is from shortly before his death, his elegant and costly dress suggests his life-long reputation as a Californio version of Regency England’s Beau Brummel. Historian Hubert Howe Bancroft, who knew most of the Californio families, said “In all Cal[ifornia] there was no more kindhearted, generous, popular and inoffensive citizen than he... distinguished for his gentlemanly and courteous manners.”

Carrillo was a legend in his own time.

The legend was disseminated and perpetuated by his daughters who married into prominent Yankee families, including the Danas of San Luis Obispo County. Carrillo was born at the Santa Barbara Presidio, the Spanish fortress that guarded the strategic harbor, in 1783. His entire life was interwoven with virtually every significant event in California history until his death in 1852.

If you’ve been in California for any length of time, you might recall Don Carlo’s lineal descendent, Leo Carrillo. Carrillo was an actor on the stage and in silent films. He gained lasting fame when he played the role of Pancho on early television’s “The Cisco Kid.” Leo Carrillo was also a regular fixture in virtually every parade and early California type celebration from the late 1890s until his death in 1961.

Leo Carrillo often spoke of his grandfather as embodying the very best traits of the California Dons. There is also literary evidence pointing to Carlos Carrillo serving as the prototype for the mild mannered “Don” who secretly became an always gentlemanly and fastidious Robin Hood-type named Zorro in Johnston McCulley’s picaresque romances.

The “Mark of Zorro” became the basis for a series of films that first starred Douglas Fairbanks in the title role. There’s been a number of versions of Zorro filmed since the 1920s. One starred Duncan Reynaldo, who would later play the Cisco Kid with Leo Carrillo playing his sidekick Pancho.

There’s even been a spoof titled “Zorro, the Gay Blade” featuring George Hamilton. This well placed, highly regarded Californio, for a few brief months in 1837-38, held the title Gobernador de Alta California. Carrillo’s political ambitions were quickly shattered by his own indecisiveness.

When his brother-in-law, Captain José De La Guerra, challenged his authority, Don Carlos withdrew from an armed confrontation at Santa Barbara. Humiliated, he spent the remaining years of his public life in the shadow of his powerful relative by marriage. Yet in terms of family power nurtured through diplomatic marriages, Carlos Carrillo was peerless. He was related to virtually every important figure in Hispanic and Mexican California.

In San Luis Obispo County, we know him best as the father-in-law of William G. Dana of the Nipomo rancho. Carlos Carrillo’s father was Captain José Raimundo Carrillo, the Commondante of the Santa Barbara Presidio. His mother was a daughter of Francisco Salvador de Lugo, the progenitor of a family whose land holdings included the present cities of Lynwood, Bell, Vernon, Maywood, Montebello, San Bernardino and the vicinity in and around Gonzales in the Salinas Valley.

Lugo’s other daughters married into the powerful Cota and Vallejo families. In early California, where government was usually weak, family connections meant that you had considerable social, economic and political power. And if you got out of line in a minor rebellion, you were usually forgiven and welcomed back into the interlocking family fold.

Dan Krieger is professor of history, emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is Past President of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.
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