California's mythical bandit Joaquin Murieta

He left his mark from Mariposa in the Southern Mines to Nevada City in the Northern District.

Special to The TribuneMay 4, 2013 

California’s first superstar was a bandit who may have been more fiction than fact.

Today, we call him Joaquin Murieta.  During the early 1850's, he was known chiefly by his given name, “Joaquin.”

“Joaquin” was reputedly a Mexican bandit from the Mother Lode region.  He had been grievously wronged by Yankee racism. He swore vengeance against all Americans.

John Rollin Ridge, a half Cherokee journalist, glorified Joaquin’s story in “The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, The Celebrated California Bandit.”  The book quickly became a bestseller after its publication in 1854.

Ridge depicts Joaquin as a person of “generous and noble nature...gracefully built and active as a young tiger  . . . beloved by all with whom he came in contact.”

In Ridge’s account, Joaquin turns to a life of crime only after greedy American miners seized his claim and either (take your pick) tied him up and beat him to a pulp or hanged his half-brother and/or raped, and in most accounts, killed his sister and/or girlfriend or wife.  After this wickedness, Joaquin vowed that he would “live for revenge, and that his path should be marked with blood.”

He left his mark from Mariposa in the Southern Mines to Nevada City in the Northern District.  He was seen in San Juan Bautista, San Jose and San Fernando on the same day!

“Joaquin” was in all probability the romanticized hero of many legends and oral histories, rather than a real person.

 There were many robberies and killings during the early Gold Rush era.  Many of these were conveniently attributed to a man named “Joaquin.” Authorities in the various counties knew Joaquin by a number of surnames such as Ocomorenia, Valenzuela, Botilleras, Carrillo, and Murieta.

 This was a time when Mexican miners were evicted from the goldfields either by force or by “Gringos” enforcing the notorious “Foreign Miners tax.”

Some of the dispossessed miners turned to stealing horses and cattle. Lone miners and travelers in the Mother Lode and elsewhere were robbed, beaten, and often killed.  Shops and saloons were burglarized.

The surname "Murieta" wasn’t referred to when the California Legislature offered a sizable reward for a “gang of robbers commanded by the five Joaquins.” Governor Bigler approved the act on May 11, 1853, and then personally posted a $1,000 reward for “any Joaquin captured or killed.”

 A former Texas Ranger, Captain Harry Love, formed a posse of miners from the Southern Mines.  Calling themselves the “California Mounted Rangers,” they hunted Joaquin down to a bloody, gruesome fate.

Two months later at a site northwest of Coalinga near Panoche Pass now known as “Joaquin Rocks,” Love’s posse shot and decapitated a “Joaquin.” The head was preserved in a large jar of whiskey and exhibited throughout the west.

 "Joaquin" was reputedly accompanied by a bandido named “Three-fingered Jack.” The putative “head of Joaquin” was accompanied by the hand of a notorious bandido named “Three-fingered Jack,” who presumably had lost two fingers at an earlier time.  Some skeptical observers noted that the two missing digits were freshly severed, perhaps by Love’s men at Joaquin Rock.

Ridge’s “The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta” was beautifully illustrated by Charles Christian Nahl, a German immigrant to San Francisco. Nahl was the first successful lithographer in the West. He also designed the California State Seal.

Nahl’s lithographs as much as Ridge’s words made “Joaquin” larger than life. The illustrations were reprinted in virtually every pulp magazine and journal. Reproductions were put up in bars and hotel lobbies.

Family Reader’s note: In Sid Fleischman’s “Bandit’s Moon,” a 12-year old runaway girl joins Joaquin for some of his grand adventures.

NEXT WEEK: Did “Joaquin” threaten San Luis Obispo?

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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