He was either an infamous bandit or a Mexican patriot, depending on one's point of view. Whatever the truth of the matter, his name has, for some political activists at least, symbolized resistance against Anglo-American economic and cultural domination in California.
The site of Murrieta's birth is disputed: either Alamos, in the northwestern state of Sonora, Mexico, or in Quillota, Chile (near Valparaiso). Some scholars contend his maternal side had Cherokee ancestors from the southeastern US who migrated to Chile in the late 18th century. Folklore claims Murrieta, a noble landowner supposedly of mainly Spanish criollo blood, sympathized with the struggle of Native Americans as well as that of the Mexicans and Spanish-Americans he encountered in his residence in 1850s California.
It is said he first went to California in 1850 to seek his fortune in the California Gold Rush. Instead of opportunity, though, he encountered racism and discrimination. Unable to make a living legally, Murrieta became a leader of the band called The Five Joaquins, which also included Joaquin Botellier, Joaquin Carrillo, Joaquin Ocomorenia, and Joaquin Valenzuela. Between 1850 and 1853, these men, along with Murrieta's right hand man, "Three-Fingered Jack" (Manuel Garcia), were said to be responsible for the majority of cattle rustling, robberies, and murders committed in the Mother Lode area of the Sierra Nevadas. They are credited with stealing more than $100,000 in gold and over 100 horses, killing 19 people (mostly Chinese mine workers), and having outrun three posses and killing three lawmen. At the time, no one was certain of the name of the leader, so he was simply called Joaquin, and it was further uncertain if it was one or more bands. The band was supposedly supported by Californios, who protected them, even by non-Hispanic Californians like Robert Livermore.
On May 11, 1853, Governor of California John Bigler signed a legislative act creating the "California State Rangers," led by Captain Harry Love (a former Texas Ranger), whose mission was to arrest the Five Joaquins. The California Rangers were paid $150 a month and stood a chance to split a $5000 reward for the capture of Murrieta. On July 25, 1853, a group of these rangers encountered a group of Mexican males near Panoche Pass in San Benito County, about 100 miles from the Mother Lode and 50 from Monterey. A confrontation occurred, and two of the Mexicans were killed%u2014one claimed to be Murrieta and the other was thought to be Garcia. There is now a plaque (California Historical Landmark #344) near the intersection of state highway 33 and 198 that marks the approximate site of his headquarter, Arroyo de Cantua, where he was killed.
The Rangers took Garcia's hand and Murrieta's head as evidence of their death and displayed them in a jar, preserved in brandy. The jar was displayed in Mariposa County, Stockton, and San Francisco, and traveled throughout California, where spectators could, for $1, see the remains. Seventeen people, including a priest, signed affidavits identifying the remains as Murrieta's, and Love and his Rangers received the reward money.
AND, ANOTHER VERSION:
In July of 1853, a group of Love's rangers came across a group of Mexican men near Panoche Pass in San Benito County. (This pass lies some 50 miles from Monterey, in the Costal Mountains--over 100 miles from the Mother Lode region.) A confrontation occurred, and two of the Mexicans were killed. The rangers cut off the hand of one and the head of the other, and later placed them in jars of alcohol to preserve them. They claimed the badly mutilated hand to be that of the notorious "Three-fingered Jack", and the head to be that of Joaquin Murieta.
Despite the fact that no positive identification of the detached appendages could be made--and despite the fact that only one Joaquin was alleged to have been killed, the governor paid a reward of $1000 to Captain Love, and the matter was considered settled. (Later, apparently for no logical reason, the legislature approved an additional $5000 bonus.) Those, are the facts.
In 1854, a San Francisco journalist who wrote under the pen-name "Yellow Bird", published a sensational and highly fictional account of the life of Joaquin Murieta. It tells of a handsome young Mexican whose wife is raped by miners, and whose brother is hung for a crime he didn't commit. As a result of these atrocities, the young Joaquin swears vengeance on all Americans, forms a band of "cutthroats", and proceeds to rain havoc on the hated "Yankees". At least until he is captured and decapitated by Love's rangers. That, is the legend.
The alleged head of Joaquin began a tour of California, being displayed at only the finest establishments specializing in the showing of dismembered limbs. Many viewing the pickled part nodded knowingly, "Yes, that's Joaquin, I worked next to him in the mines." A young senorita, claiming to be Murieta's sister, denied that the head was that of her famous brother bandito. That, was the sideshow.
Throughout Gold Country, the Murieta legend grew and flourished. It seems that the dashing Joaquin stayed in every hotel, drank in every bar, and robbed every town from Grass Valley to Mariposa and beyond--quite often all in the same day. Even the author of Amador's county history, J.D. Mason, got into the act when he wrote in 1881, "This renowned bandit commenced his career in this county." He then proceeds to give accounts of Joaquin stealing a horse and killing the owner of a "public house" in 1852. Talk to any 12 Mother Lode "old timers" and at least 6 will tell you a story of how his or her grandfather, grandmother, or someone their grandparents knew actually met or were robbed by the legendary Joaquin.
In Calaveras County, the Joaquin legend was represented by the one and only alleged photograph ever taken of the bandit. Frequently published over the years, the original image now rests in a display case at the Old Timer's Museum in Murphys. The story goes that the picture is a daguerreotype given to Constable Ben Marshall who came to Murieta's aid during a run-in with whites at a gambling tent in Murphys. It is true that in 1850, when this incident supposedly occurred, portraits were taken by the daguerreotype process, a method that produced a distinctive image on a silver-coated copper plate. The picture in question, unfortunately, is not a daguerreotype (assuming that the one on display in Murphys is the original). It is either an ambrotype or tintype, two similar processes that were invented in 1854 and 1856, respectively. If it could be proven that this image was actually Joaquin Murieta, photographed a year or more after his alleged demise, it would also be proof that Captain Love received an unjust reward. As for the Marshall story, it is not unlikely that the future sheriff of Calaveras County met and befriended a man who called himself Joaquin or even Murieta. Whether or not this was the Joaquin Murieta we will never know.
AND, ANOTHER VERSION:
The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta: The Celebrated California Bandit by San Francisco journalist John Rollin Ridge, gave rise to much of Murieta's legend. According to this unsubstantiated story, he had come to the Stanislaus River near San Francisco to prospect for gold during the great gold rush. However, according to Ridge's work, Murieta's Mexican heritage caused him to be beaten and severely whipped, his wife raped, and his brother-in-law killed in an unprovoked attack by racist Americans working their own claims. (Ridge had witnessed his father and grandfather murdered by racist Cherokee's who did not like their mixing with whites) Vowing revenge, Murieta formed a gang of Mexicans who roamed the frontier towns and terrorized prospectors and new communities.
Ridge's book became popular after the turn of the 20th century and it inspired several copycat works. Murieta was characterized as a Robin-hood type figure, a Mexican rebel leader, or a vicious outlaw, depending on the author's perspective. In the 1997 film Mask of Zorro, Murieta appears as Zorro's brother. In Isabel Allende's Daughter of Fortune, he is a Chilean hero. The legend of Murieta has continued to this day.
ANOTHER VERSION WITH A TWIST:
Joaquin Murieta was born in Sonora, Mexico. His real last name was Carillo. As a young man, he moved to California with his sweetheart, Rosita Feliz. They settled in the Calaveras foothills, where he worked in the mines. He changed his name to Murieta. However, Americans did not like Mexicans working in the mine and beat him as a warning. The couple moved to a remote area and took up farming. They were warned there too. They moved again to Murphy's Diggings, where he worked in a mine and a gambling hall. Things seemed to going okay when his brother joined them there.
Murieta's outlaw career began about 1850, when his brother was beaten and killed for a crime he did not commit. He swore vengeance against those who killed him. Soon after the killing, members of the lynch mob started turning up dead. Within a month, fifteen men were killed. The last five left the country to escape death.
Murieta rode north with his wife to Marysville, where he recruited an outlaw gang to take vengeance on all Americans. Soon he had 50 men. Some of them were Manuel Garcia (a.k.a. Three-Fingered Jack), Joaquin Valenzuela, Pedro Gonzalez, Luis Vulvia, and Claudio. Even Rosita rode with them on occasion.
They began a reign of terror in which they robbed villagers, stole animals, burned houses, and killed people. And he always got away since other villagers had sworn loyalty and held him hide out, gave him supplies, or gave false information.
About 1852, he turned his attention to robbing stagecoaches. With all the gold coming out of the hills, it should be very profitable. He began hitting stages in the Mokelumne Hill area. He never robbed the California Stage Company because the driver, Joe Bryan, occasionally supplied him with provisions. They also killed and robbed several Chinese prospectors. He killed a Los Angeles sheriff named Wilson, who had threatened to bring him in.
Finally Major General Joshua H. Bean, from the state militia, set out after the bandit. He sent men out over a wide area. But Murieta found out about it and ambushed the general and killed him near the San Gabriel mission. Texan captain Harry Love took over and actually captured and killed one of the leaders named Gonzales. They also captured and killed Reyes Feliz, Rosita's brother, for the death of the general. Shortly after that a gun battle followed and 20 more bandits lie dead.
It did not discourage Murieta however. Shortly afterward he and his men robbed a schooner near Stockton. There was a short gun battle in which he lost two of his men. But he got away with $20,000 in gold.
In May 1853, Love was authorized by the state government to take 20 men and kill the bandit. On July 18, 1853, he was able to catch him off-guard, cut off from most of his compadres in a canyon. He tried to escape, but they shot his horse. Then a few seconds later, he was shot dead too, at just 22 years of age. They were also able to kill Three-Fingered Jack. The rest of the band broke up. Love took Murieta's head and Jack's hand back tot own as evidence they were dead.