Mexican patriot or vicious desperado? It depends on who you ask, but one thing is certain, Joaquin Murrieta was a dashing, romanticized figure from history who became a Hispanic folk hero for many. Just like a Mexican Robin Hood, Murrieta spent his days using criminal methods as a way to avenge the misdeeds of corrupt America and gain revenge against the white settlers who killed his loved ones and committed injustices against his fellow patriots. Along with Jesse James and Billy the Kid, Murrieta is considered to be one of America’s most fascinating wild west figures. His story is a rich blend of historical fact and popular myth, but one that delights its audience either way. So, was the original Zorro a true hero to his people or just a hypocritical Bandido bent on murder and destruction? No matter what you decide, there’s no doubt he lived life on his own righteous terms.
Thought to have been born in the southern Mexican state of Sonora around 1830, Murrieta traveled to California to seek his fortune in 1849 with his young wife Rosita and his brother Carlos. The record also suggests Rosita may have brought a few of her brother along as well, although they were not described in the tragedy that ensued. With the arrival of the Gold Rush, it was the perfect time to arrive in those rugged mountains if you were looking for treasure and adventure. Many people were moving west to find their own slice of heaven, and Murrieta, a hard worker and brave traveler, was determined to find the high road to prosperity. The three ambitious immigrants soon set up a small farm in the foothills of Sierra Nevadas, and the brothers began working a claim in a nearby town. At just 21 years old, Murrieta had already started on a promising path of happiness and success.
Unfortunately for the Murrieta family, a Foreign Miners Tax was imposed that same year in California, and their white neighbors angrily reminded them it was illegal for Mexicans to hold any claims to gold in the area. In fact, their demanding neighbors not only told them but often came to the Murrieta’s farm to threaten him and demand he take his family and leave what they considered to be “American” land—immediately. They had zero interest in sharing any wealth that may be found with immigrant Mexicans from across the border. The Murrieta brothers tried to ignore the threats as long as they could, but it became increasingly difficult to carve out a life for themselves in this hostile and racist new territory.
As the story goes, Murrieta’s white neighbors lost their patience one afternoon and decided it was time for the intruding Mexicans to learn their lesson, once and for all. A group of white men arrived at the peaceful farm, and when Murrieta addressed them to leave, the situation turned violent. The brothers were considerably outnumbered, and the white neighbors used their advantage hang Murrieta’s brother Carlos from the nearest tree. They then tied up Murrieta and proceeded to gang rape his wife Rosalita in front of his eyes, finally slitting her throat. They horsewhipped Murrieta to a bloody pulp and left him alone to die. But he did not die. Murrieta survived and attempted to seek justice through legal means in the death of his two family members, but he was soon to learn there would be no justice for a Mexican without the right to press charges against a white man.
Suffice it to say, Murrieta was incensed and determined to find revenge against those who had tortured and murdered his family. If the law wouldn’t give him the justice he deserved, he would find it elsewhere. Seeking more creative reparations, he and a nasty group of Bandidos formed the “Five Joaquins” who agreed to bring down the six culprits who had killed his family. According to legend, they tracked the men and successfully gunned them down. And although he had temporarily satiated his thirst for retribution, Murrieta and his crew found it difficult to give up such liberating and lucrative life of crime—so they headed for the hills in search of more adventure… and mischief.
During the Gold Rush era in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the wild west was in full swing. Murrieta’s gang of outlaws found plenty of trouble to distract themselves from the rampant racism and corruption they perceived around them. Murrieta and his band of ruffians, including his right-hand man “Three Fingered Jack” rustled cattle for money, robbed banks and trains, and murdered anyone (particularly any whites and Asians) who stood in their way.
And while Murrieta had been a victim of racism himself, it is said he favored killing Chinese miners in particular, as they were often unarmed and docile. It seemed racial hatred was an equal opportunity employer, and Murrieta was thought to have taken some degree of pleasure in slitting the throats of these Chinese workers. But Murrieta’s face was becoming too well known in the mining camps to be safe, so the gang soon vanished into the wilderness of the remote San Joaquin Valley. With posses trailing after them, the bandits were able to avoid the law for several years, even killing three lawmen in the process.
When travel through the goldfields became nearly impossible due to the fierceness of the Five Joaquins, the Governor of California decided to handle the situation (and the general lawlessness of the state) by creating a group of men called the “California Rangers,” led by a former Texas Ranger named Harry Love. A bounty of $5,000 was placed on Murrieta’s head, and the rangers set off to find the Five Joaquins and bring in the reward money.
On July 25, 1853, the rangers encountered a group of Mexican outlaws near Panoche Pass in San Benito County, the exact territory where Murrieta was known to hang out. A lengthy gunfight ensued and two of the Mexicans were shot and killed, one of whom was believed to be Murrieta and the other, his closest cohort,”Three-Fingered Jack.” The Chinese community of San Francisco was so grateful for this capture, they even raised $1,000 and presented it to Love in appreciation for finally killing the brutal Murrieta.
To prove their job had been successfully completed, the rangers made a grisly trophy by cutting off Murrieta’s head and preserving it in a jar of whiskey. The famous bandit was now forever captured for all to see, and many people identified him through his pickled body part. Seventeen people, including a priest, signed affidavits swearing the man was, in fact, Murrieta and the rangers received their hefty reward.
The gory memento proceeded to tour California for many years and was displayed for curious onlookers in places like Stockton, Bakersfield, San Francisco, and the mining camps of Mariposa county. The rangers not only brought in the bounty but continued to line their pockets on the death of Murrieta, charging people $1 each to see the grim remains of the infamous outlaw. But there was one problem—a woman who claimed to be Murrieta’s sister claimed outright it was not him, and she had heard witnesses admit to having seen him recently. Whether true or not, these suggestions sowed the seed of doubt in many and kept the legend of the notorious bandit alive and well.
While it was true Murrieta was known to have killed and robbed many people, he was also famous for his generosity to those Mexicans in need, often giving the money he earned through crime to poorer immigrants who were desperate to carve out a life in this new territory. And in turn, they often sheltered him from the law. But while he was a man terribly scorned by an unjust and violent environment, it is said he was driven more by greed than social injustice.
Over the years, Murrieta became a popular legend of the wild west—known as the “Robin Hood of El Dorado”—and symbolized the resistance of the Mexicans against rampant “Anglo” oppression. As for his severed head, it made the rounds in mining towns until it was finally placed behind the bar of the Golden Nugget Saloon in San Francisco where it sat until it perished in the great fire of 1906.
And the rest is history.