By Thomas K. Pendergast
It is said that Joaquin Murieta inspired the fictional character of Zorro. In at least two respects, there does seem to be a strong similarity. Murieta obviously had every bit as much nerve as Senior Zorro and they both seemed to always be just a few hoof beats ahead of the law.
Then again, another fictional character has a superficial but factual similarity to whomever had his cabeza paraded up and down California in 1853. That would be the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow fame.
To place Murieta in revolutionary terms, his stature as a folk hero for the resistance of the Mexican people against the Yankee gringo cannot be overrated. In the 150 years or so since he terrorized the gold mines along the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, countless Mexican mothers have put their children to sleep with tales of the daring bandito. It’s not just the usual Hollywood hype; He’s called “The Robin Hood of El Dorado” for a reason. It seems he fills the same role as the 13th-century English robber to those who brought the oral history of his infamous crime spree into modern posterity, the people who claim him as their own.
But what of the facts that lie beneath the legend? Are they not as important, perhaps even more important than the legend?
It seems that facts are in short supply when it comes to Murieta. There are, however, reports of the day, from those days, that ran in newspapers across the state. Taking these into account, along with the many books written about his life, published many years after the fact, plus the movies he inspired, the songs sung about him, the tales around campfires, anyone can see that the facts often move like shadows just behind his legend. That they are there cannot be denied. Where they end and the legend begins, on the other hand, is where the real mystery lies.
In the 1850s the Gold Rush was at its peak and the new state of California was already well on its way to becoming a raucous mix of races and cultures. Native Americans, Mexicans, whites and Chinese made up the bulk of the population. Yet racial harmony was not the zeitgeist of this era: collectively, that would be competition, mistrust, hatred and frequently lethal violence. The one thing the Mexicans, whites and Chinese had in common, gold fever, only added fuel to the fires bringing this ethnic stew to a boil.
In 1853 Murieta became a focal point of racial antagonism, though at the time nobody was sure exactly what was his true last name, so they simply called him Joaquin.
In January of that year newspaper stories appeared about a specific gang of bandidos, led by an hombre named Joaquin, robbing mining camps up and down the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. By early March this gang was credited with having outrun at least three posses, stolen more than 100 horses, killed at least 19 people, most of them miners and many of them Chinese, and gotten away with perhaps as much as $100,000 worth of the miner’s gold.
At the time Joaquin’s pursuers had a less impressive score: Two of his gang had been shot, one of the them dead and the other wounded, then hanged. A third was hanged without the benefit of a bullet. One posse member claimed to have shot Joaquin’s horse out from under him, while another claimed to have grazed his cheek with a bullet. Then again, nobody was really sure if they were chasing just one Mexican gang with a leader named Joaquin or several gangs, all with leaders of the same name.
A Joaquin at every convenient location
Regardless of the facts, the legend of Joaquin Murieta had already begun.
“In the conscience of this bloodthirsty villain there appear to be no qualms, no mercy or reproach,” said an editorial in the San Joaquin Republican, a Stockton paper, on March 2, 1853. “He rides through settlements slaughtering the weak and unprotected, as if a mania for murder possessed his soul. So daring and reckless is he that he marches in the day time ... and actually corrals the Chinese by the score, and yet so fertile is he in expedients, and so accurate in his knowledge of that wild region, that he baffles his pursuers and defeats the plans of the many thousands who are lying in wait for him.”
The paper was so vexed with his exploits that it offered this solution.
“The opinion is fast gaining strength that the only way in which (Calaveras) county can be cleared of the ruffians is to banish the entire Mexican population from these parts. ... Violent diseases require violent remedies.”
It was in this racially charged atmosphere that comparisons between Joaquin and Robin Hood emerged. Newspapers of the day were full of rumors that a network of Mexican communities was assisting him, providing his gang refuge, information and supplies in return for a share of the spoils. Hard evidence of this was hard to come by, nevertheless, enough people believed these rumors to keep them circulating on the printed page.
There are many stories about how Joaquin began his life of crime: that he was a miner unlawfully deprived of his claim, that either his sister or his wife was raped by white men or that his brother was falsely accused of a crime and hanged. Another version of that story has him rescuing his brother from a lynch mob at the last minute. None of these stories are conclusively verified or disproved in contemporary accounts.
What is known from those news reports is that at least one and possibly more gangs with a leader named Joaquin were riding up and down the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, robbing and terrorizing the miners in their camps.
It’s all about the hype
An incident published in the San Joaquin Republican on Feb. 23, 1853, gives a clue as to how Joaquin Murieta’s legend was so quickly established. A posse of men chasing a gang believed to be Joaquin’s around Calaveras County thought they had the gang surrounded in the high grass of a chaparral but even when reinforcements of 150 men showed up the next day and helped them search, they came up with nothing. When Joaquin’s gang stole some fresh horses and saddles about six miles away, the posse was hot on the trail again.
Soon after, the gang raided a Chinese mining camp on the Calaveras River, making off with an estimated $30,000 worth of gold, killing three, wounding five and ransacking the camp store for provisions. The next day the posse learned of the raid when it bedded down at Foreman’s Ranch, near the north fork of that river. Before they slept, the men planned on closing ground the next morning.
But Joaquin also had a plan.
As the posse slept, his gang crept into the ranch and was stealing the posse’s horses when a night watchman raised the alarm. The gang took off on its own horses with the posse in hot pursuit. On the other side of a nearby mountain, the gang apparently had enough of a lead to stop at another Chinese mining camp and take about $3,000 worth of gold, shooting eight miners and killing four. Hearing the shots, the posse arrived to find the miners “weltering in their own blood,” according to Undersheriff Charles Clark.
They lost the gang in the dark that night but finding it the next day was easy. All they had to do was follow a trail of Chinese mining camps, one after the other, that had been plundered and shot up. Then at about 5 p.m. the posse got a break, coming upon the gang in the middle of a robbery.
Clark would later write: “As we arrived on the summit of a hill, we saw them about three quarters of a mile distant, robbing some Chinamen. They turned and saw us advancing but they stirred not an inch until we were within a half mile of them, when they rode off at the speed of the wind. We attempted pursuit but our horses were worn out and we found it impossible to continue the chase.”
A fired-up mountain lion or copycat caballeros?
Whether it was one or more gangs, consistent descriptions of Mexicans with a leader named Joaquin, bearing a scar on his face and riding the finest horses, showed up in gold-country newspapers again and again as the shootings and plundering of mining camps continued throughout March and April of 1853. Soon the state Legislature, which at the time was in Benicia not Sacramento, was talking about putting a price on his head.
There was a big problem, however, because they weren’t exactly sure who they were after. There was substantial skepticism that they were only looking for one gang, as this minority report from the Legislature’s Committee on Military Affairs expressed, referring to the many rumors floating around at the time:
“Unless the said Joaquin be endowed with supernatural qualities, he could not have been seen at the same time in several places, widely separated from each other. The offer of such a reward would be likely to stimulate cupidity, to magnify fancied resemblance and dozens of heads similar in some respects to that of Joaquin might be presented for verification.”
But Governor John Bigler had an election coming up and he was counting on the miners’ support to win it. He was in no mood to wait for verification, so he pushed through a scattershot approach, a proposal to post a $1,000 reward for the capture of “the five Joaquins” : Botellier, Ocomorenia, Valenzuela, Carillo and Murieta. All these were names that had appeared in press reports related to the bandido named Joaquin.
The hunt begins
On May 28, 1853, the Legislature gave 21 men, led by a Texan named Harry Love, the task of capturing Joaquin. They were named the California Rangers and received an expense account of $150 a month with a promise that they would split $1,000 if they caught Murieta within three months.
Throughout June and most of July they searched the gold country and the San Joaquin Valley in vain, capturing a few horse thieves who had nothing to do with the gang they were supposed to find. They went as far west as San Juan Bautista, then south into the coastal mountain range. Riding east through that range, they reached the edge of the Tulare plains on the morning of July 25, in an area called Arroyo Cantua, more or less southwest of Fresno, where they spied the smoke of a campfire about three miles out on the plain unfolding before them.
An August 4 letter from Love to Bigler details his version of the encounter that followed as they rode up to the Mexican’s camp:
“Joaquin was immediately recognized and on his being aware of the fact, immediately sprang to his horse and endeavored to escape. He was closely pursued ... and his horse shot from under him. When he took flight on foot and he being wounded, some of the men shot him dead before going far ... the remaining part of the band, who fought bravely while retreating, each of them being armed with two six shooters and three of their numbers killed, while the remainder escaped, some badly wounded. Immediately after returning from the pursuit we beheaded Joaquin and one of his principal men, and I dispatched Captain Burns and John Sylvester to Fort Miller (being the nearest point) with the heads, in order to be put in liquor for preservation.”
This would seem to have ended the career of Joaquin, except that this isn’t the only version of the gunfight. While some evidence supports the idea that the Rangers had the head of at least one Joaquin, perhaps the one responsible for most of the robberies and killings, other equally compelling evidence and speculation suggests they could very well have gotten the wrong Joaquin entirely, including clear discrepancies in facts given by the Rangers themselves.
At the time only one Ranger, Captain Bill Burns, claimed to have seen Joaquin before the July 25 gunfight, though this claim only became public after the gunfight, according to Remi A. Nadeau, author of The Real Joaquin Murieta. Announcing this only after the gunfight was over might have been done to keep Burns’ presence a secret from Joaquin. On the other hand, the purpose might have been to add credibility to the Ranger’s claim that Joaquin was really dead.
Joaquin’s gang had a reputation for being excellent marksmen, yet not one of the Rangers was wounded, though it appears the gunfight was fought at close range. If the Mexicans were indeed the gang of Murieta, they seemed to have suddenly become inexplicably bad shots.
Another oddity was the fact that the Rangers reported they found no money or gold on the Mexicans. Possibly the Rangers took the money themselves and didn’t want to tell anyone or a gang member who got away took it. Gold dust would have been particularly strong evidence but was not reported to have been found.
Before the gunfight, descriptions of Joaquin gave him black hair and black eyes, yet the head Love presented to the public as Joaquin’s had blue eyes and brown hair with a “golden tint,” according to the San Francisco Herald. Under the right cheek was a scar, however, which was the same place Joaquin was rumored to have been wounded in a previous gunfight.
Two members of the gang were captured, yet they never made it into a court to stand trial or publicly identify the head as Joaquin’s, which could have settled the matter. One was said by the Rangers to have drowned in the San Joaquin River “while attempting to escape,” and the other was said to have been lynched in Martinez, just across the strait from Benicia, by a mob of angry Mexicans who didn’t want him to talk. This explanation of the second prisoner’s fate came from Ranger Bill Howard.
On July 12 Love wrote to Bigler that Joaquin’s brother-in-law would show Love where to look for Joaquin, yet this brother-in-law was never mentioned again even though his testimony could have settled the matter.
As early as July 30, newspapers hostile to Bigler began attacking the claim. One of the most skeptical was the Los Angeles Star, which dropped a bombshell on August 18 :
“A few weeks ago a party of native Californians and Sonorans started for the Tulare Valley, for the express and avowed purpose of running mustangs. Three of the party have since returned and report that they were attacked by a party of Americans, and that the balance of their party, four in number, had been killed; that Joaquin Valenzuela, one of them, was killed as he was endeavoring to escape and that his head was cut off by his captors as a trophy. It is too well known that Joaquin Murieta is not the person killed by Capt. Harry Love’s company. ... The head recently exhibited in Stockton bears no resemblance to that individual and this is positively asserted by those who have seen the real Murieta and the spurious head.”
The head tour, sans horseman
Love knew there would be skeptics. So, after preserving the head in alcohol at Fort Miller, he brought it to Mariposa County where he found a glass jar big enough to hold it for people to examine.
In the next two weeks he held public displays of the gruesome artifact (charging each person $1) in at least three locations: Mariposa County, Stockton and San Francisco. The purpose was presumably to attract people who had known Murieta and would sign an affidavit saying it was his head. Seventeen people signed, including a priest, all of them claiming to have known Murieta or seen him before and that he was the same Murieta who was the terror of the Sierra Nevada.
But of those who signed, none wrote that they’d actually seen the owner of the head in the jar rob or kill anyone. One person who signed, supposedly the prisoner captured and hanged in Martinez, who had been a member of the gang, might have been able to positively identify the head had he not been hanged. All the others just said they knew it was Murieta without offering any evidence that the individual they called Murieta was actually seen committing a criminal act.
Had Love bothered to take the head to any of the mining camps that were robbed, he might have found such witnesses. But he didn’t. Instead he took it to larger towns, well away from the mining areas, even though about $3,000 in reward money was waiting for someone to claim it in those mining areas had he bothered to show up and collect.
When Love arrived at Benicia on or just before August 27, 1853, to pick up the reward, the election was only eleven days away. Governor Bigler accepted the affidavit as proof and gave Love and the rest of the Rangers the $1,000. The timing was perfect if the miners believed Joaquin was dead, but might have been disastrous if they didn’t. On September 7, 1853, by a difference of about 1,500 votes, Bigler squeezed out a narrow victory.
Years later Love said he knew Murieta before the gunfight and knew he was dead, though he didn’t explain why he waited that long to say so. Meanwhile, alleged sightings of a very much alive Murieta were still being reported for decades, particularly in Sonora, Mexico, where it’s suspected Murieta was born.
The only man who publicly claimed to have known Murieta in 1853, Ranger Burns, was asked on numerous occasions if it really was the outlaw Joaquin Murieta’s head in the jar. On at least one such occasion, his answer was reported to have been: “One pickled head was as good as another if they was a scar on the face and no one knew the difference.”
From the story of Joaquin Murieta, for that matter from any legend, comes one great truth with no mystery or ambiguity about it: Facts are not as important as what people want to believe. Between the reality and the legend, in the final analysis, it’s the legend that counts -- as long as no one knows the difference.
History of California, Volume IV, by Theodore Henry Hittell, 1898, N.J. Stone & Company, San Francisco, CA
The Real Joaquin Murieta, by Remi A. Nadeau, 1974, Crest Publishers, Third Printing, P.O. Box 22614, Santa Barbara, CA 93121-2614
The Horrifying History of a Highwayman’s Head, The Californians magazine, by William B. Secrest, Nov./Dec. 1986.
The Robin Hood of El Dorado, The Saga of Joaquin Murrieta, famous outlaw of California’s Age of Gold, by Walter Noble Burns, 1932, Coward-McCann, New York, NY.
Letter, Harry Love to Governor John Bigler, San Juan Bautista, CA, July 12, 1853, California State Archives.
Letter, Harry Love to Governor John Bigler, Quartzburg, CA, August 4, 1853, California State Archives.
Certification of $1,000 reward to Harry Love from Gov. John Bigler, Benicia, CA, August 27, 1853, California State Archives.
Comptroller’s Warrant No. 362, August 29, 1853, California State Treasury to Harry Love, $1,000 reward “for capture of Joaquin,” California State Archives.
Minority Report of the Committee On Military Affairs, April, 1853, California State Archives.
The San Joaquin Republican, newspaper of Stockton, CA, Feb. 2, 16, 19, 23, 26, Mar. 2, 30, Apr. 2, Jul. 30, Aug. 2, 4, 6, 11, 13, 25, 27, 1853.
The San Francisco Herald, newspaper, Aug. 19, 20, 26, 1853.
The Daily Alta California, newspaper of San Francisco, CA, Jul. 3, 30, 31, Aug. 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10, 12, 13, 16, 23, 1853, Mar. 24, 28, 1855, Nov. 10, 1879.
The Sacramento Union, newspaper, Jul. 30, Aug. 2, 4, 6, 9, 11, 12, 13, 17, 23, 1853.