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Joaquin Murrieta -
Patriot or Desperado?
Depending on a
pioneer’s point of view in the mid 19th century, Joaquin Murrieta
was described by some as a Mexican Patriot, while others would say he was
nothing but a vicious desperado.
Thought to have been born in either Alamos, Sonora, Mexico
or Quillota, Chile in 1829; Joaquin
traveled with his older brother, Carlos and his wife, Rosita, to
in 1850 to seek his fortune in the gold fields of
California. The three immigrants soon set up a small farm and the brothers began to
work a claim near Hangtown. However, in the same year as their
arrival, a Foreign Miners Tax was imposed in
and their Anglo-Saxon neighbors tried to run them off by telling them that
it was illegal for Mexicans to hold a claim. Reportedly, the Murrieta
brothers tried to ignore the threats as long as they could until they were
finally forced off their claim.
Angry and unable to find work, Joaquin
turned to a life of crime, along with other disposed foreign miners,
who began to prey upon those who had forced them from their claims.
Murrieta soon became one of the leaders of a band of
The Five Joaquins, who were said to have been responsible for
cattle rustling, robberies, and murders that occurred in the gold rush
area of the Sierra Nevadas between 1850 and 1863. Comprised of
Joaquin Botellier, Joaquin Carrillo, Joaquin Ocomorenia, and Joaquin
Valenzuela, and Murrieta's right hand man Manual Garcia, known as
"Three-Fingered Jack," the tales of their crime spree included
stealing over 100 horses, making off with more than $100,000 in gold,
and killing 19 men.
With posses trailing after them, the bandits were able
to avoid the law for several years, killing three
in the process. When travel through the goldfields was made
nearly impossible by the Five Joaquins, a bounty was placed on
head for $5,000. Finally having had enough of the
Five Joaquins as well as the rest of the lawlessness in
its Governor, John Bigler, created the "California
Rangers” in May, 1853. Lead by former
Love, their first assignment was to arrest the
On July 25, 1853, the rangers encountered a group of
Mexican males near Panoche Pass in San Benito County. In the
inevitable gunfight that ensued, two of the Mexicans were killed, one
of whom was thought to have been Murrieta,
and the other -- his right-hand man, Manual Garcia.
As evidence of the
deaths, they cut of Garcia’s hand and
head and preserved them in a jar of brandy. Seventeen people,
including a priest, signed affidavits identifying the head as
and the Rangers involved received the $5,000 reward.
grisly remains then began to travel throughout
displayed in Stockton, San Francisco and the mining camps of Mariposa
County, to curious spectators willing to pay $1.00 to see the "sight”
of the dead bandit’s head.
But not long after he was killed, speculation began to
arise that it had not been Murrieta
who had been killed, especially when a young woman, who claimed to be
his sister, viewed the head and said that it did not have a
characteristic scar that her brother had. Others began to make
reports that Marietta was seen in various places in
after his alleged death.
If his legend wasn’t
enough during his short life time, it would soon grow larger when in 1854,
the first "fictionalized” account of his life appeared in a San Francisco
newspaper and a book by John Rollin Ridge. In
The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murrieta.
as a folk hero who had only turned to a life of crime after a mob of
American miners had beaten him severely and left him for dead, hanged his
brother, and raped and killed his wife. According to Ridge’s
was a dashing, romantic figure that swearing to avenge the atrocities
committed upon his family, committed his many crimes only in an effort to
"right” the many injustices against the Mexicans.
According to the tale,
Murrieta fled from his claim
only to set up a saloon in nearby
Hangtown, where miners began to go
missing. One by one, the dead bodies of the miners, all who were
said to have been part of the killings at the
claim, turned up with their ears cut off.
supposed death, advertising posters were displayed where the head could be viewed, 1853.
miners had been found dead or missing, a
Hangtown settler identified
who fled once again. Before long, he had gathered up his
gang and began to take out his vendetta against the white settlers
through robbery and mayhem. However, to his Mexican compatriots he was
generous and kind, giving much of his ill gotten gains to the poor, who in
turn helped to shelter him from the law.
There is no
evidence that Ridge’s version of the tale is accurate; however, similar
atrocities were committed on both Mexicans and Chinese who were living in
at the time.
years, the telling of the tale continued to grow until the dead Mexican
began to be called the Robin Hood of El Dorado and take on a symbolized
resistance of the Mexicans to the Anglo-American domination of
California. And all throughout Gold Country, tales were told of how the outlaw had
stayed at this or that hotel, drank in various
those who claimed to have actually met or was robbed by the man.
As to what
head, it was finally placed behind the bar of the Golden Nugget Saloon in
San Francisco, until the building was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake.
itself would become yet a part of another legend – the ghost of
Joaquin. Even today, the tales continue of
ghost riding through the old gold fields, crying like a banshee –
"Give me back my head.”
of America, updated December, 2013
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