I am immersed in research. The project began over five years ago out of curiosity and has grown sufficiently to become the infrastructure for a historical novel, or maybe even a biography. History, I’ve found, is like an artichoke; a cultivated thistle with a flower of tough outer layers that protects a tender heart. My research might never have taken so long had I settled for the first outer layer of understanding.
History treats us badly. Born of human beings, history tends to remember what it wants to remember, not necessarily what really was. It remembers historical figures according to the way the person doing the telling thinks that figure should be remembered. Not surprisingly, history works in a similar way to human memory, that is, we recollect unpleasant memories with difficulty but return frequently to pleasant ones, and each time we visit we slightly alter that memory in accordance with the emotion we are experiencing at that moment. In other words, we shape reality to fit our needs.
I am researching Zorro. Yes, Johnston McCulley’s Zorro, the Zorro of Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, the Zorro of Douglas Fairbanks, the Zorro of George Hamilton (well, maybe not that Zorro!). I am researching the life of Salomon Pico, one of ten or so historic characters posited to be the inspiration for Mr. McCulley’s so very successful novels. The Salomon Pico Zorro roamed the very valley where I live, reportedly buried his ill-gotten gains in these very hills and left skeletons of his alleged victims in a canyon just behind my house. And so I feel compelled to write about him.
Salomon Pico was just one of the many bandits who enjoyed the freedom of these hills shortly after the American Incursion and during the Gold Rush which followed immediately thereafter. During this transition, law enforcement wasn’t very effective, centers of civilization were scattered, and local Californios looked upon their own who had turned to banditry with a certain amount of sympathy (as long as you didn’t steal their gold). Among the better known of these bandits were Salomon Pico, Joaquin Murrieta, and Tiburcio Vasquez (the latter was Salomon’s wife’s cousin). But other bandits of the time were decidedly not Spanish and took full advantage of the opportunity. The best known of these was Jack Powers, an Irish Gang member from the City of New York who found the California of the time ripe for the plucking.
But back to Senor Pico. Salomon’s story is told as local color in a host of advertisements about the valley; local real estate, golf courses, ranch movie locations, and chambers of commerce. The story is essentially the same; a man born to pioneer Spanish stock loses his land and family to the grasping greed of newly arrived Americans, vows vengeance, and sets off on a path of robbery and murder throughout Alta California until the area becomes too hot to hold him and he flees to Baja California where he is eventually executed.
That is the first layer of understanding.
But my research has revealed that there is much more to the story. It strikes me that we tend judge others not by a simple deed but by the justification for that deed. If there is enough justification, there is often pardon. Delving into the second layer of understanding of the bandit Salomon Pico, I have found increased potential for justification. As a former Dean of Students in a prep school of privilege, I see a similarity between Salomon Pico’s response to events and the response of my students when I found it necessary to discipline them; the stunned disbelief that such a thing could happen to them.
The climate of the time among the Californios was one of rebellion. But not just against the Americans; there had been considerable unrest in the period that followed the Mexican Revolution. Mexican governors were appointed, plotted against, and chased away. In fact, Salomon Pico’s own sister actively supported rebellions against two Mexican governors. And there was great divisiveness even among those in power. Californios found themselves on a roller coaster that yo-yo’d between power and powerlessness. Just before the American incursion Salomon was on top of the roller coaster: one of his brothers was Alcalde of the San Jose Pueblo, another was a general in the army, and his cousin Pio Pico was the governor. It all fell apart with the arrival of the Americans. Salomon had a long way to fall.
But like many of his countrymen, Salomon did try to adjust. He returned to his family and his ranch life, bitter, no doubt, but apparently conciliatory. Then came the Gold Rush and every able-bodied American male sailed to San Francisco, bought supplies, and joined a non-ending line of miners tramping across the San Joaquin Valley to the gold fields – right across Salomon Pico’s land. Soon his land was lost and his family injured. Enough was enough.
My point is this: every justification that I have found and continue to find for Salomon’s actions has come only with hours of digging into the inner layers of the artichoke. I have not yet reached the heart; there is much more to be found. But if I had settled for the outer layer, I would now have much less sympathy for Salomon. History tends to be cut and dried, a simple recitation of fact, and it has little time for human emotions and no patience for human frailty. But as I move closer to the heart of the flower I wonder from whence the bandit Salomon Pico sprang: was it from a natural evil and shallowness of soul? Or was he shaped unwitting on the potter’s wheel of events?