During the 19th century the "wild west" was replete with the names of infamous gunmen, including Billy the Kid, the Dalton Gang, Jim McKinney, Wild Bill Hickock, Black Bart the Bandit, our homegrown bandits Sontag & Evans, and the subject of this essay, Joaquin Murrieta.
Dozens of books and magazine articles have been written about the famous bandit, and yet there is little agreement on any but the most basic details of his life. As his short criminal career progressed, some thought of him as a California Galahad, a romantic figure fighting against the tyranny and discrimination of the Americans; a Robin Hood. (Although there is no evidence of his robbing the rich to give to the poor.) Others were convinced that he was a sadistic killer, preying on unarmed miners, primarily the Chinese, who were unable to defend themselves.
Joaquin was probably born in Sonora, Mexico. By 1851 he was in Los Angeles, a mud-walled village of 2000 Mexicans and Americans, described by some at that time as a "hell-hole". He was a suspect in the ambush and murder of General Joshua Bean of the California State Militia and the older brother of Roy Bean, the "hang'n judge" of Langtry Texas. He left L.A. with about 30 stolen horses with the intention of herding them through the Central Valley to the gold mines in the Sierra foothills. Caught in Tejon Pass, the pursuing posse reclaimed the horses and horse-whipped Joaquin. On the way north to the mother lode country he might have passed very close to the future town-site of Tulare.
After Joaquin's arrival in Calaveras County he tried digging for gold but soon found it easier and more profitable to take what others had sweat to obtain. His outlaw career started in January 1853, robbing miners of thousands of dollars of their hard-earned gold, stealing hundreds of horses, and shooting those miners who tried to resist. As he continued to terrorize the mining camps, posses ranging in size from three to fifty were formed, some motivated by the $7000 total reward for his capture, dead or alive. But whenever it appeared that he was about to be caught, he always managed to escape.
Captain Harry Love led the principal posse, the only one authorized by the 3rd governor of California, John Bigler. Ranging far and wide they pursued leads over much of central and southern California. Finally on July 25, 1853 they rode in to a Mexican camp on Cantua Creek in western Fresno County just northwest of the future Coalinga. The Mexicans claimed they were in the area innocently hunting wild horses, but the Americans were not fooled and started shooting. One Mexican sprinted for his horse and was shot in the back as he tried to escape. Love identified him as Joaquin even though he had never seen the bandit or his picture. Another of the dead Mexicans was identified as a sadistic killer known as "Three-Fingered-Jack"(actually Manuel Garcia), a member of Murrieta's gang. The desperado's criminal career lasted less than six months.
The posse cut off Garcia's deformed hand and head as well as the head of the Mexican assumed to be Joaquin. The trophies were deposited in a flour sack and the party started east across the valley in the summer heat. By the time they reached their goal at Millerton, Garcia's head was very "ripe" and was discarded. The other two pieces of evidence were pickled in a small wine keg until Love obtained a large glass jar - tickets to view the grisly remains sold for $1. The head was lost in the 1908 San Francisco earthquake.
It's now impossible to divine what is real and what is myth popularized by the "Dime Novels" and "Penny Dreadfuls" of the day. These, and other imaginative authors, wrote to titillate eastern audiences, who then demanded more stories of the heroic adventures of the dashing caballero. The real Joaquin Murrieta will never be fully known.
A 1936 movie, "The Robin Hood of El Dorado", told a romanticized version of the bandit's life - his sweetheart is gang raped by a party of Americans and his brother is lynched. Joaquin vows revenge. Warner Baxter played the title role while J. Carrol Naish portrayed three-fingered-Jack.
Baxter was an accomplished actor having won the Oscar as best actor in 1929, the second year of the Academy Awards. That movie was "In Old Arizona", one of the 28 "Cisco Kid" movies filmed between 1914 and 1950. Both the Zorro and Cisco Kid films seem to have been inspired by the legend of Joaquin Murrieta.
Finally, a melancholy note - as he lay dying, western folklore has Joaquin pleading "No despares mas. Espoy muerto." And then he died riddled with more bullets.
This drawing was reportedly made
while Joaquin’s head was in its
Derryl Dumermuth is a retired TUHS mathematics teacher, author of "A Town Called Tulare", and with his wife, Wanda, co-author of "Tulare Legends and Trivia from A to Z". Both books were written as fund-raisers for the Tulare Historical Museum and can be purchased in the museum's gift shop.