Miller, Mark James

Astride a big horse, the handles of two Colt revolvers prominently displayed, a knife in his boot and a double-barreled shotgun in the scabbard of his saddle, Salomon Pico must have resembled an avenging spirit come to Earth to the travelers he terrorized on the El Camino Real.

But Salomon Pico was no ghost. He was after the gold these people were carrying as they made the trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles to buy cattle, beef for the miners who had swarmed into California after gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill.

Much of Salomon — or Solomon — Pico’s life is shrouded in mystery. We know he was born into the wealthy and powerful Pico family in 1821. His cousin, Pio Pico, was the last Mexican governor of California.

Like Robin Hood and the other semi-legendary figures he resembles, Pico turned to crime only after being terribly wronged. His wife is believed to have died at the hands of the Americans, and his 58,000-acre land grant was taken from him by the invading Yankees, who did not recognize his ownership of the property. Vowing vengeance, Pico became a highwayman.

What he did next is the stuff of legends. Robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, Pico became a folk hero to the Californios who saw him as a symbol of resistance to the American invaders. He may have killed 39 men during his crime spree — years later in Baja California he boasted that this was his total — and he may have cut the ears off his victims and strung them on a piece of leather that hung from his saddle.

Legend has it he left a fortune behind in the Solomon Hills — which are named for him — south of Santa Maria.

Throughout the ages, Robin Hood-like characters such as Pico have appeared in nearly all parts of the world. They become romanticized, and the line between what they actually did and what was attributed to them disappears.

In Lithuania they tell the story of Tadas Blinda, a young man who battled the rich and powerful and gave what he had to the poor and helpless. Like Pico, Blinda is believed to have hidden a treasure which has never been found.

India has the tale of the highway robber Ahimsaka, who turned to crime after being unjustly expelled from school.

From Australia comes the story of Ned Kelly, a notorious bandit of the 19th century.

Switzerland gave us William Tell, who defied the Austrians ruling his country in the 14th century and became the inspiration for Rossini’s “William Tell Overture,” made famous as the introduction to another legendary character, the Lone Ranger.

From his base near Los Alamos, Pico robbed the Americans who passed by. It is widely thought local Californios sheltered Pico from the authorities who pursued him. But his life of crime, which began in 1849, was short-lived. Captured by vigilantes in 1851, he soon escaped and fled first to Los Angeles, then to Baja. There he evidently continued his criminal ways, for he was executed in 1860.

Pico remains a mysterious figure from our past, seen by some as a noble character who fought for the poor, and as a cold-blooded killer by others. But his legend lives on, part of our Central Coast heritage, and it is said that people still search the Solomon Hills for the treasure he may have left there. If it is ever found, the name of Salomon Pico will once again be famous.

Mark James Miller teaches English at Allan Hancock College. He can be reached at mark@pfaofahc.com.

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