The Wild West of Yester-Year

Joaquin Murrieta

By Rachel Kovaciny

Who was Joaquin Murrieta? A “Mexican Robin Hood” who robbed from rich miners to support poor Mexican workers? A common bandito who stole whatever he could from whomever he encountered? Did he even exist or did dime novelists invent him? According to the legends and folklore surrounding him, Joaquin Murrieta was born in Sonora, Mexico, in the 1830s. In his late teens, he married his childhood sweetheart and moved to California during the Gold Rush of 1849. Thousands of Mexicans migrated to the gold fields, so many that white miners urged the California government to pass a Foreign Miners Act to limit them, just as they later tried to stop the flow of Chinese immigrants.
Legends say Murrieta’s success at gold mining enraged a group of miners, so they attacked him, his wife, and his stepbrother. Some accounts claim the miners falsely accused Joaquin and his stepbrother of stealing a mule, hanged the stepbrother, and flogged Joaquin. In others, the miners attacked Joaquin’s wife, then beat him when he tried to protect her. Either way, the legends depict Joaquin Murrieta as a wronged man who took revenge not only on his attackers, but on all who were like them.

Murrieta supposedly formed a criminal organization composed of several “gangs” that roamed California, stealing gold and horses, and punishing the men who originally attacked Murrieta. They drove herds of stolen horses to Mexico and sold them there. Some reports state that Murrieta’s followers killed both white and Chinese miners for their gold, while some folktales say that they only robbed and killed white miners, but would help Chinese, American Indian, and Mexican miners with the money they stole.

Throughout the early 1850s, there were dozens of robberies, holdups, and burglaries reported in and around the gold fields, all attributed to Mexican bandits. Newspapers blamed these on Joaquin Murrieta and his gangs, though it is difficult to find any evidence to prove who was responsible, or if they attached Murrieta to the crimes because he had been accused of similar crimes already. The known facts are these: in 1853, the California legislature listed a Joaquin Murrieta among many bandits they wanted hunted down and captured. On May 11 of that year, the governor of California created the California State Rangers and appointed Captain Harry Love to lead them. Love was a former Texas Ranger and a veteran of the Mexican War.

In July 1853, the California State Rangers confronted a group of Mexican bandits and killed three of them in a gun battle. They identified one of the dead bandits as Joaquin Murrieta and brought back his head, preserved in a jar of alcohol as proof of his death. If that sounds familiar to you, yes, the movie The Mask of Zorro (1998) featured similar details.

In real life, the California State Rangers got paid a reward of $1,000 for killing Murrieta and two of his associates. However, there were rumors they had actually killed some innocent Mexican vaqueros and passed them off as the bandits. Over the next two decades, although Murrieta’s preserved head was on display for anyone to see for the price of a dollar, people claimed they had seen Murrieta alive and well in the California mountains.
A Cherokee gold miner named John Rollin Ridge wrote a dime novel in 1854 called The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, [sic] the Celebrated California Bandit. That book perpetuated the Robin Hood-style legends that made Murrieta a folk hero for the people of Mexico. Ridge’s book is considered the first novel written by a Native American, and it is one of the earliest books about the California Gold Rush actually written in California. But its historical accuracy is dubious.

Whether Joaquin Murrieta ever existed, and whether he robbed from the rich to aid the poor, John Rollin Ridge’s book about him had a lasting impact on American culture. In the early 1900s, Ridge’s book and The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy inspired novelist Johnston McCulley to create a new fictional hero: Zorro. And, not only has Zorro been an enduringly popular fictional character on page and screen ever since, but he inspired artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger to create a superhero they named Batman.

We know for certain that Joaquin Murrieta had something in common with Robin Hood: whether he ever existed, his legend has inspired and entertained people for generations.