Photos from the Vault

Soldier, lawyer, vigilante: Meet the man who founded The Tribune 150 years ago

Editor’s note: The following is a Photos From the Vault column that ran in a slightly different form 10 years ago.

For employees at The Tribune, it all began 150 years ago — Aug. 7, 1869.

Technology has changed the ways we deliver news but readers still care about the story of their community.

The story of the Tribune’s founder begins over four decades earlier and half way around the world.

By any measure, Walter Murray had a remarkable life.

Born on a winter day in London on Dec. 9, 1826, Murray was trained in the law as a young man but options were limited in the rigid class system in England. One story is told that a club of articled clerks financed emigration for two of their members chosen by a drawing.

Murray departed Suffolk Place traveling steerage on a three-masted barque and arrived Boston in 1843. He was 17.

The only light aboard the ship came from two tiny windows in the stern and a hatchway. A false step would dump the steerage passenger into the cargo deck below.

He outlined his dreams in a letter home to his sister shortly after arriving.

“You ask me when I first thought of going to America? Long ago – 3 years at least & I would then have gone if I had the money tho’ I should have got on I dare say very badly, at first,” he wrote. “However I believe even then had I gone I should have been by this time much better off than I am now. I should have learnt some business by this time and that is what I do not now possess. Ever since then I have cherished the idea & every book I have read about America has confirmed me in the belief that I shall get on there or nowhere.”

Murray was surprised at the bigotry expressed by white American sailors.

“My pointing to two men on board the vessel who altho’ black were better men than the whole 6 of the sailors were, even if all their good qualities had been separated from the bad & fused into one lump, had no effect. They seemed to value their colour by its cheapness. It was a cheap kind of pride indeed. Many people have to pay a deal for pride, but these sailors inherited it.”

Murray was introduced to the printing trade as a compositor. He worked in Boston, then New York, and in August 1846 enlisted as a volunteer in the Stevenson Regiment near the end of the Mexican-American War.

President James K. Polk said the United States had a manifest destiny to control the continent from coast to coast.

Murray applied to Stevenson three days before departure and was put on the waiting list of volunteers. When the deadline arrived, there were enough faint-hearted no-shows that Murray was added to the roll.

Sailing from New York around the horn of South America, one man was tossed off the ship and drowned in the violent waters off Cape Horn. Another died of “apoplexy” during the rescue effort.

Murray arrived in California on Oct. 21, 1847.

He was involved in a series of skirmishes at La Paz, Mexico, in November. The war would end in February 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

His regiment disbanded just as gold was discovered in California and, like many, Murray found his way to the mines.

There, Murray met San Luis Obispo resident Romualdo Pacheco. Pacheco would become the 12th governor of California, the first California-born governor and the first of Hispanic decent.

Neither struck it rich digging for gold and soon moved on to other pursuits.

In 1851, Murray put his print training to use as the co-owner of the Sonora Herald. However, it was not long before he tired of the gold country and moved to San Luis Obispo. He had spent time during the Mexican-American War stationed in Santa Barbara and found the Central Coast an attractive area.

His friend, Pacheco, had begun a political career, and was elected San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge in 1853.

About the same time, Murray married the widowed Mercedes Espinosa of Chile and moved to San Luis Obispo, establishing a law practice.

He worked out of an office in his adobe home next to Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, which at about that time housed the court and jail. You may have seen the Walter Murray Adobe; it’s the small building in Mission Plaza.

It was a lawless time for California. The new state’s explosive growth following the gold rush and poor law enforcement institutions lead to a fair number of outlaws looking for easy money.

San Luis Obispo County’s first sheriff quit after a year because the job was too dangerous. Cowboys returning from selling their animals up north were easy prey for thieves.

The bones of robbery victims could be found bleaching in the sun along El Camino Real.

From Marysville to San Francisco to San Luis Obispo, vigilante committees formed that decade in response to ineffective, underpaid or corrupt law enforcement of the era.

Vigilante organization in some communities were expressions of racism, and in all cases worked outside the legal system of judge and jury.

The San Luis Obispo Committee of Vigilance was formed in 1858.

Featuring 100 to 150 members, it included members of the Hispanic community such as Pacheco. Murray’s name was near the top of the list.

Pio Linares was a leader in the Jack Powers gang, which had the practice of murdering their victims. They lived life according to the pirate motto, “Dead men tell no tales.”

Linares lived in town and often attended civic events but his ruthless reputation made it unlikely a jury would convict.

After a lurid series of crimes, the gang scattered.

Linares was traced to the Canada de Los Osos Rancho, his childhood home, and vigilantes mounted up in pursuit.

In a two-day skirmish, Murray was wounded and fellow vigilante John Matlock was killed.

In a letter to his sister, Murray wrote:

“I offered to follow up the trail with six men but was over ruled. It was getting late and it was agreed to guard the wood till morning. Guards were placed on all sides.

“That night one of our guards received a shot through the instep. No other shots fired. Next morning we went into the woods again following up the trails. It was so dense that we were obliged to crawl on our bellies. We found the saddle bags of Pio Linares, the man whose roof had been burned off.

“In them we found a spy-glass, used to spy out the whereabouts of his victims, some powder, balls and shot, his frock coat and clean linen, needles and thread, and his wife’s daguerreotype. While the rest were overhauling these things, I and another man pushed [on] a few more paces and as luck would have it received the first fire.

“I got shot through the fleshy part of my left arm, and my companion had the whole back of his coat ripped open with a rifle-ball. I could only see what I took to be a man’s head, at which I fired three shots from my revolver.

“One shot went through Pio Linares’s leg, slight wound, and another through his coat, and another through the hat I was firing at. The two last shots I fired after being wounded. The robbers fired about 6 or 8 times. We were only about 15 yards from them and in good sight.

“I then began to feel faint from my wound and backed out. This led to the retiring of the whole party, who then took up a position on the outside to prevent egress.

“I went home and wrote letters all over the county. By night the wood was surrounded by over 100 men. In the morning Capt. Mallagh with 24 men entered again and after crawling over a mile again drew fire.

“They had a bush fight of about ten minutes, resulting in the death of one of our party, an American, and the severe wounding of two others, one by accident. Pio Linares was killed, shot through the head, and two others, Miguel Blanco and Desiderio Grijalva, were taken prisoners.”

The gang was broken up, some gang members were hung, and Jack Powers fled to Mexico.

Murray was a founding member of the Masonic Lodge in 1861 and his friend Pacheco joined that year as well.

As Murray’s family grew, he felt pressure to provide for a wife and six children. (Another child was from Espinosa’s previous marriage, and they also raised two orphaned girls.)

Murray regretted the decision to abandon a business in the gold country and move to a dusty cow town but decided to build his future here.

By the end of the 1860s, Murray was San Luis Obispo County district attorney. The salary was not enough and his advertising at the time said he also was notary public and offered his services as attorney.

Murray wanted to be a judge and needed to get the word out. One local newspaper, The Pioneer, supported Democrats but Murray held Republican views.

He launched The Tribune on Aug. 7, 1869, about a year after the Pioneer began. Some sources say the first copies of the paper were printed in his adobe by the misson.

By 1873, the Pioneer was out of business and Murray was a judge.

In December 1873, he was appointed by Gov. Newton Booth as district judge of the First Judicial District (Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties), filling the vacancy on the death of Pablo de la Guerra.

Ambitious, hard-working and with no shortage of personal courage, Murray had come a long way from London. He was described as articulate and having strong political views.

The end came quickly. The first sign of trouble came in May 1875.

He had several attacks of what was termed gastritis, and though his doctor advised rest, he continued with his court calendar as often as he could, riding to Ventura and Santa Barbara hold court.

In Santa Barbara, he presided over a notorious murder trial and returned home exhausted.

While conducting business at the office of Judge Venable, Murray was struck with a violent chill and taken to the nearby Cosmopolitan Hotel on Sept. 21.

Murray died October 5, 1875, in a room at the hotel at the age of 48.

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