History: Joaquin Murrieta

History: Joaquin Murrieta

If you went through the American school system it's very likely you weren't taught about the California bandidos. All you're going to learn in your watered down Chicano Studies classes in High School and college are stories of Cesar Chavez, Frida Khalo, the Zoot Suit Riots, and if you're lucky a bit on Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. Most Mexican and Mexican American history you're going to have to dig up on your own. So if you're unfamiliar with Joaquin Murrieta, the Mexican Robin Hood you're going to learn something today.

Joaquin Murrieta Carrillo was born in Sonora, Mexico. While still a teenager he married his wife Rosita and emigrated along with his older half brother to California during the Gold Rush in the 1850's. The popular legend of Joaquin Murrieta is that of a hard working man driven to seek revenge after his brother was hanged and his young wife was gang raped by their Anglo neighbors. Swearing revenge, Joaquin embarked on a violent career that brought death to his white tormentors. 

Before his traumatic experience; his half brother Jesus, Rosita, and Joaquin set up a small farm and the brothers began to work a claim in Northern California. During the California Gold Rush a mining claim was the claim of the right to extract minerals from public land and where public property was granted by the United States government to the first individual to put it to beneficial use. 

However, in the same year as their arrival, and in the absence of effective government and law, a Foreign Miners Tax was imposed in California and on the Murrietas. As if this wasn't enough, Joaquin's neighbors, envious of their mining success tried to run them off through threats and with the argument that it was illegal for Mexicans to hold a land claim. Reportedly, the Murrieta brothers tried to ignore the threats as long as they could until they were finally forced off their claim after Murrieta was severely beaten and whipped, Rosita was gang raped and killed, and Joaquin's brother was hanged.

Murrieta decided he’d had enough. He wanted justice, not just for himself, but for all the other mistreated Mexicans in California. And like all great vigilantes, he was going to have to break the law to get it. Over the next few weeks, the Americans who were in the mob began turning up dead and mutilated. Murrieta was getting his revenge. With his half-brother and Rosita's killers dead, Murrieta took to the hills once again to find gold, but this time he wasn’t going to dig for it.

Murrieta assembled a gang of like-minded Mexican misfits; together, they targeted white American miners, pulling them off their horses with lassos, murdering them, and stealing their gold. Murrieta’s gang became infamous throughout the territory. Ranchers complained to authorities that the gang was descending from remote hideouts in the hills to steal their horses. Miners lived in fear of being taken on the roads by the gang. No American in the territory was safe from Murrieta’s revenge.

Stories soon spread of Murrieta taking his gold and giving it to poor Mexican natives and targeting the people who were taking advantage of them, making him a sort of Robin Hood of the West.

Over the next two years, Murrieta delivered his brand of justice throughout California. Finally, the U.S. Army dispatched celebrated lawman Harry Love to deliver their own justice to Murrieta. Love had fought in the Mexican-American War, engaging guerrillas in the mountains of Mexico. Now he turned that expertise to leading a group of California Rangers in hunting down Murrieta.

Harry Love's rangers captured the Murrieta gang on July 25, 1853 and killed Joaquin during a gunfight near today's intersection of Interstate 5 and Highway 33. Harry Love cut off the head of Murrieta and preserved it in a bottle of alcohol. In the days before DNA, fingerprints, or mug shots, this was the most practical means of proving identification. The head was carried through the mining camps where Joaquin Murrieta's face was well known. There was near universal agreement that it was in fact Joaquin. The preserved head was on display in San Francisco until 1906 when it was destroyed in the great earthquake and fire.

There’s some dispute over whether or not Love actually killed Murrieta. In a time before photography was widely used to identify suspects, Love would have had a hard time identifying the body of a man he’d never seen. Twenty five years later; however, Murrieta's sister claimed that the head was not her brother's. At around the same time, numerous sightings of old man Murrieta were reported. It was even alleged by an anonymous Los Angeles based correspondent to the San Francisco Alta California Daily, in August 1853, that Love and his Rangers murdered some innocent Mexican mustang catcher and bribed people to claim it was actually Murrieta.

Many saw the tale of a Mexican miner who turned to crime after the murder of his family members as a heroic one. This Murrieta fought against an injustice that the California Mexicans who were now foreigners in their own land were struggling against every day. In many ways, they needed someone like Joaquin. Murrieta lived on as a symbol of resistance against oppression and injustice for the people of the region. Or at least his legend did.

The popular image of Murrieta as an aggrieved, avenging crusader remained so long after Murrieta’s death. So when a pulp writer named Johnston McCulley was looking for a heroic figure to base a new book around, Murrieta seemed like a good fit. The Curse of Capistrano told the story of a Mexican native of California named Don Diego Vega, who takes on the masked persona of Zorro to fight for the poor and downtrodden with a sword around the time of the Gold Rush. And while McCulley probably drew on a lot of sources for the idea, the setting and character do seem to have been inspired in part by Murrieta.

The re-imagining of Joaquin Murrieta’s life has always been popular, serving as a basis for books, television series, and movies for decades. Ultimately, it’s not a bad legacy for a "criminal" to accidentally leave behind.

Sources:

Redd, W. (2018, June 10) Joaquin Murrieta And The Revenge Story That Inspired "The Legend of Zorro." Retrieved From: https://allthatsinteresting.com/joaquin-murrieta.

Weiser, K. (2017, May 1) Joaquin Murrieta - Patriot or Desperado? Retrieved From: https://www.legendsofamerica.com/ca-murieta/.

Mero, W. (2019) Joaquin Murrieta: Literary Fiction or Historical Fact? Retrieved From: https://www.cocohistory.org/essays-murrieta.html.

 


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