A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the story on Joaquin Murieta, the Robin Hood of California?

April 15, 2003

Dear Straight Dope:

Would you help us sort fact from fiction regarding California's version of Robin Hood, the outlaw Joaquin Murieta?

That's not too difficult, Jennifer:

Fact: In the early 1850s, a cattle thief by the name of Joaquin Murieta apparently existed.

Fiction: Most everything else you've heard about him.

Well, it's not quite THAT simple. But almost. I obtained much of the following information from Bad Company: The Story of California's Legendary and Actual Stage-Robbers, Bandits, Highwaymen and Outlaws from the Fifties to the Eighties, by Joseph Henry Jackson, written in 1939. An excellent read.

By the early 1850s, the gold rush in California was in full swing. There were lots of gold mines, mined by lots of gold miners. Where there's smoke, there's fire, and where there's loot, there's bandits, and so it was in California's gold country. Not much was known about even the most notable bandits, save the fact that many of them seemed to be named Joaquin. According to reports, one band of outlaws included at least five Joaquins: Carrillo, Valenzuela, Ocomorenia, Botellier (or Botilleras), and Murieta.

In the spring of 1853, the state legislature got into the picture (and you know how government intervention always helps solve problems). The first proposal was to offer a reward of $5,000 for apprehending "Joaquin," dead or alive. This idea was rejected. But an act was passed authorizing a Texas transplant named Harry Love to form a posse, not to exceed 20 men, in order to attempt to capture the "party or gang of robbers commanded by the five Joaquins" within three months. The act was approved by Governor Bigler, and Mr. Love and his rangers set out on May 11, 1853--spurred on, no doubt, by a reward offered by none other than the governor himself of $1,000 for any Joaquin captured or killed. Sorta makes "three strikes" look like a cakewalk by comparison, don't it?

Harry Love and his posse rode up and down California for a couple of months with no luck. With their 90 days almost gone--and with it the hope of receiving any reward--they met with success. They succeeded in killing a couple of Mexicans, and, as they say, that's good enough for government work. It's hard to know exactly what happened, but it appears that the posse rode up on a band of Mexicans, started talking, and then started shooting. Two were killed: one was Manual Garcia, known as "Three-fingered Jack," and the other was the leader of the group, who was presumed to be some Joaquin or other, though nobody testified that the man ever spoke his name. Since some evidence had to be brought back as proof that Joaquin <insert surname of your choice here> had been killed, they cut off his head and brought it back preserved in a jar of alcohol. (Garcia's head was too badly mutilated by the pistol ball, so they cut off his hand and preserved it in alcohol instead.)

Harry Love and his men received their pay and the reward, after the alcohol-soaked head was "recognized" as belonging to Joaquin Murieta. Although the original idea of a reward had been rejected by the legislature, on the return of the posse they decided that the $1,000 offered by the governor was far too little, and authorized an additional $5,000. Naturally, this raised a few eyebrows. The editor of the San Francisco Alta put it this way in an August 23, 1853 story:

A few weeks ago a party of native Californians and Sonorans started for the Tulare Valley for the expressed and avowed purpose of running mustangs. Three of the party have 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 and held as a trophy. It is too well known that Joaquin Murieta was not the person killed by Captain Harry Love's party at the Panoche Pass. 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.

That's pretty much it when it comes to "fact," and you can see that there's precious little there. But it doesn't take much to build a legend, and so it happened with Murieta.

In 1854, John Rollins Ridge, a part-Cherokee journalist who went by his Indian pen name "Yellow Bird," wrote a book titled, The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, Celebrated California Bandit.  The book was almost entirely fiction, complete with "conversations" between Murieta and his men in secret caves. According to Ridge's book, Murieta had been a young man of excellent reputation who had become an outlaw because a party of American miners had (a) raped his wife Rosita, (b) hanged his brother for a trumped-up charge of horse-stealing, and (c) tied Joaquin himself to a tree and whipped him. I guess I'd probably go Rambo as well, given the circumstances. Murieta then takes to the hills, the story goes on, with his wife Rosita, along with others, including Rosita's brother and "Three-fingered Jack." He proceeds to rob and kill mercilessly, all the while rewarding humble men who aid him and punishing any who would betray him to the law. A Mexican Robin Hood, made to order. The story ends, of course, with Murieta's decapitation at the hands of Mr. Love and his comrades--which came just in time, as Murieta was supposedly about ready to launch a full-scale revolution against the hated Yankees.

Five years later, the editor of the California Police Gazette decided to serialize the Murieta story that Ridge had written, so an anonymous writer changed some names--to avoid any legal problems, no doubt--and the story was published in ten issues as "The Life of Joaquin Murieta, Brigand Chief of California." The reworked story was released in paperback shortly thereafter, and the legend of Murieta was firmly entrenched. The story really takes off from there, being pirated and rewritten in Spain, France, and Chile. A guy by the name of Charles E. B. Howe in San Francisco even wrote a five-act play about Murieta titled Joaquin Murieta de Castillo. Naturally, there were several more changes by that time. When two noted California historians, Hubert Howe Bancroft and Theodore Hittell, decided to write about Murieta, using Ridge's story as their source, the legend was given enough credence that it generally came to be viewed as fact.

So the Joaquin Murieta story boils down to two things:

  1. Some guy named Joaquin Murieta may have been alive in the early 1850s, and
  2. Everybody loves a good story.
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