The life, legend of Joaquin Murieta
The story of Joaquin Murieta
A Cherokee Indian named Yellow Bird, who wrote under the name John Rollins Ridge, wrote a book in 1854 entitled "The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit."
The first print run was 7,000 copies and it was illustrated by Charles C. Nahl, the noted California artist. Nahl had created the attractive, official Bear Flag from the concept of the amateurish banner with its pig-shaped bear raised by the Bear Flaggers in Sonoma, as well as the illustration of the eloping Josefa Carrillo which appeared in a recent Index-Tribune.
It is not entirely surprising that Yellow Bird (Ridge) was a literary pioneer since he was a Cherokee. The Cherokees were the most literate of all Indian nations. Their great genius, Sequoia, devised an alphabet so that their language could be written and read. When the Cherokees were forced out of Kentucky to trek to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), they carried in one of their wagons a printing press.
Well educated for the era, Ridge, the son and grandson of Indian chiefs, was the editor and part owner of The Grass Valley National. Unfortunately he died when only 40. Only two original copies of his book are known to exist. One is owned by the University of Oklahoma, and the other was auctioned on Feb. 5, 2003, for $86,250. Poitin Press has published a replica which can be purchased for $14.95, including shipping, at www.poitinpress.com.
Ridge's tale was the first of the paperback dime novel, western adventure book format ever published in California. The dramatic story he related was mostly fiction, or at best a grand exaggeration. Even so, the story became the source of the legend of the bandit, rather than the real life of Murieta. In Ridge's depiction, Murieta was a Californio who became a desperado after he was forced off a mining claim (probably true), followed by a florid tale of the horror of witnessing his beautiful girlfriend, Rosita, being raped and his brother murdered by miners. These incidents were actually based on atrocities inflicted by whites on Cherokees back in Kentucky.
Murieta was not a Robin Hood, taking from the wealthy to help the poor or wreaking revenge on those who stole from the Californios. He was actually from Sonora state in Mexico and attacked wherever there was gold or other items of value to be had. His most frequent targets were the Chinese, since they were least likely to be armed. A body count from one of his purported raids totaled 13 Asians killed.
Murieta was quick to use his guns and the trail of blood that followed him was extensive. He roamed over a large area and drew a considerable band of young men to his gang. The northern mining towns, the central valley, the coast and even Los Angeles County were visited by Murieta. Several years ago, a cache of jewelry was found in a cave above Carpentaria, south of Santa Barbara, supposedly Murieta's loot. A one-time rider with him was shot while resisting arrest in San Luis Obispo in 1884.
One difficulty in tracing the extent of Murieta's crimes is that there were five different bands of robbers led by men with the first name Joaquin - Botellier, Carrillo, Ocomorenia, Valenzuela and Murieta. Murieta's reputation grew because many unsolved roadside killings, robberies, shootings or stabbings were ascribed to him or his compatriots. Whether he ever drank at the bar in Sonoma's Blue Wing saloon is an open question. In 1852, he began waylaying stagecoaches since their routes were expanding and they often carried gold. He became increasingly bold, robbing $20,000 in gold from a ship tied up at Stockton.
California was virtually lawless for a decade after 1848 since there was often little or no local law enforcement. Vigilantes and hastily organized posses were faced with numerous outlaw bands like the "Gang of Five," made up of former American soldiers from New York, that intimidated Santa Barbara County for several years.
A Los Angeles deputy sheriff vowed to bring in Murieta, but was shot and killed when he tried. State militia General Joshua H. Bean headed a large number of soldiers who tried to capture or kill Murieta in Los Angeles County, but Joaquin ambushed Bean and killed him near San Gabriel Mission.
On May 11, 1853, the Governor signed an act authorizing Capt. Harry Love, a former Texas Ranger, to form a troop of 20 men, at $150 a month each, to hunt down "the five Joaquins," but especially Murieta, with a $5,000 reward for his capture or death as an added inducement. Two months later, Love's Rangers tracked a group of four Mexican bandits to Cantua Creek near Panoche Pass on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley not far from modern-day Fresno. After quietly encircling their camp, Love called for them to surrender. The reply was a fusillade of gunfire. One Mexican leapt on his horse and tried to ride up a steep canyon side. Before the rider could make his getaway, Love's men shot his mount from under him and then gunned him down, along with the other three.
Certain that this was Joaquin Murieta, Love cut off the head to provide proof for receiving the reward. He also cut off the hand of one of the other dead bandits, who turned out to be Three Fingered Jack Garcia. Garcia had hurriedly left the Sonoma area in 1846 after his participation in the slaying of two young Bear Flaggers. Love had the head and the hand preserved in jars of alcohol and charged $1 apiece to visit the exhibit. In 1856 the head was sold to an exhibitor and became a permanent attraction of the Pacific Museum in San Francisco in 1881. It was destroyed in the 1906 great earthquake and fire.
But the legend of the dashing, glamorous underdog hero, who died when only 22, lives on, mainly thanks to Yellow Bird. And however fabricated that legend may be, within the fiction there is an essential truth: The grievances that formed the basis for the tale of Joaquin Murieta were real. Young California Mexicans resented the fact that they had fared badly after the 49er invasion in the gold rush, and following California statehood, losing their inheritance, land and dignity.