Legend-making: Joaquín Murieta
Digital History ID 581
Joaquín Murieta Account by John Rollin Ridge
A Californio newspaper published in Los Angeles, El Clamor Público, denounced violence against California's Mexican population. "It is becoming a very common custom to murder and abuse the Mexicans with impunity," the newspaper reported in July 26, 1856. A week later it declared that the Anglo-Americans "not content with having plundered" the property belonging to California's Mexicans, were subjecting the people "to a treatment that has no model in the history of any nation conquered by savages or by civilized people." Reports of lynchings filled California's newspapers. "Mexicans alone have been sacrificed on ignominious gallows which are erected to hurl their poor souls to eternity. Is this the freedom and equality of the country we have adopted?"
Following the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill, prospectors from Sonora, Mexico, found at least half the gold discovered in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Eager to eliminate their competitors, Anglo-American miners tried to drive them out of the gold fields, through legal measures--like the Foreign Miners Tax--and illegal violence. The Sonorans did not respond passively. During the early 1850s, reports flourished in California about a horseman staging raids on Anglo American miners and avenging injustices committed against the Mexican population. The horseman's name was Joaquín Murieta and he was called the "the Napoleon of Banditry" and "The Ghost of Sonora."
In fact, it is almost impossible to separate myth from fact; and California authorities were uncertain of the identity of the man who was attacking the gold mining district. In the spring of 1853, the legislature authorized a temporary contingent of state rangers to capture bandits known as the five Joaquíns: Joaquín Valenzuela, Joaquín Ocomorenia, Joaquín Carillo, Joaquín Beotllier, and Joaquín Muriati [sic]. Under the leadership of a Texan named Harry Love, the rangers were to capture the Joaquíns within three months and receive a $1,000 reward. Since there was little information about the identity of the five Joaquíns, the rangers were free to pursue any Mexicans they wished. In July 1853, as the three-month period was ending, the rangers encountered a small group of Mexicans and killed two men. They identified one as Joaquín Murieta and the other as three-fingered Jack Garcia. They cut off Garcia's hand and Murieta's head and placed them in jars of alcohol (the head was destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.) To this day, no one knows for sure whether the rangers actually captured and beheaded Murieta.
In 1854, a popular novelist, John Rollin Ridge, published a fictionalized life of Joaquín Murieta, "the brigand chief of California," whom he depicted as an avenger of the wrongs inflicted against the Californios. According to local legend, Murieta was born in Sonora, Mexico, of either Indian or Spanish and North African ancestry. In 1848, he and his wife moved to California, where he worked as a ranch hand--until Anglo-American miners raped his wife, leading him to launch his "acts of revenge" against the Anglos.
In 1927, a California ranger named Horace Bell declared that far from being viewed as a bandit, Murieta should be seen not as a bandit but as a defender of his people. "In any country...except the United States," he wrote, the operations of Joaquín Murieta would be dignified by the title of revolution, and the leader with that of rebel chief."
He had been brought in contact with many of the natives of the United States during the war between that nation and his own, and had become favorably impressed with the American character, and thoroughly disgusted with the imbecility of his own countrymen; so much so that he often wished he had been born on the soil of freedom....
His meditations were suddenly cut short by the wild shouting and yelling of hundreds of miners in the streets, intermixed with cries of "hang 'em!" "hang 'em!" "string 'em up and try 'em afterwards!" "the infernal Mexican thieves!" Joaquín rushed out, and was just in time to see his brother and Flores hauled up by their necks to the limb of a tree. They had been accused of horse-stealing by the two Americans from San Francisco, who claimed the animals as their own, and had succeeded in exciting the fury of the crowd to such an extent that the doomed men were allowed no opportunity to justify themselves, and all their attempts to explain the matter and to prove that the horses were honestly obtained, were drowned by the fierce hooting and screaming of the mob....
The country was then full of lawless and desperate men, calling themselves Americans, who looked with hatred upon all Mexicans, and considered them as a conquered race, without rights or privileges, and only fitted for serfdom or slavery. The prejudice of color, the antipathy of races, which are always stronger and bitterer with the ignorant, they could not overcome, or would not, because it afforded them an excuse for their unmanly oppression. A band of these men, possessing the brute power to do as they pleased, went to Joaquín's cabin and ordered him to leave his claim, as they would not permit any of his kind to dig gold in that region. Upon his refusing to leave a place where he was amassing a fortune, they knocked him senseless with the butts of their pistols, and while he was in that condition, ravished and murdered his faithful bosom-friend, his wife.
The soul of Joaquín now became shadowed with despair and deadly passion; but still, although he thirsted for revenge, he... would not endanger his freedom and his life in attempting to destroy single-handed, the fiendish murderers of his wife and brother.... Then came a change, suddenly and heavily, and Joaquín was at once hurled into the deep and dark abyss of crime. He had gone a short distance from camp to see a friend by the name of Valenzuelo, and returned...with a horse which his friend had lent him. The animal, it was proved by certain individuals in town, had been stolen some time previously, and a great excitement was immediately raised. Joaquín found himself surrounded by a furious mob and charged with the theft. He informed them when and where he had borrowed the horse, and endeavored to convince them of Valenzuelo's honesty. They would hear no explanation, but tied him to a tree and disgraced him publicly with the lash. They then went to the residence of Valenzuelo and hung him without allowing him a moment to speak. Immediately there came a terrible change in Joaquín's character, suddenly and irrevocably. His soul swelled beyond its former boundaries, and the barriers of honor, rocked into atoms by the strong passion which shook his heart like an earthquake, crumbled and fell. Then it was that he resolved to live henceforth only for revenge, and that his path should be marked with blood....
It became generally known, in 1851, that an organized banditti was ranging the country, and that Joaquín was the leader. Travelers were stopped on the roads and invited to "stand and deliver"; men riding alone in wild and lonesome regions, were dragged from their saddles by means of the lasso, and murdered in the adjacent chaparral. Horses were stolen from the ranches, and depredations were being committed in all parts of the State, almost at the same time.
Source: John Rollin Ridge, Life of Joaquín Murieta (San Francisco: California Police Gazette, 1859).
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