By Julie Etra
Joaquín Murieta Carillo was a Mexican miner, cowboy, and legendary ‘California’ character baptized in Álamos, Sonora, Mexico, in 1829. At that time the capital of northern Mexico (Alta California) was Monterey (originally named Bahía de Monterrey by the Spanish maritime explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno) in what is now the U.S. state of California – California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona, and parts of Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico were part of Mexico until the Mexican-American war (1848). California became a state (non-slavery) in 1850.
Murieta is a bit of a folk hero and symbol of Mexican resistance to Anglo-American dominance, and, depending on the source, has been called the Robin Hood of Mexico. He continues to be the subject of many myths and controversy. Evidently, he did not steal from the rich and give to the poor, but due to life’s circumstances his resulting character became a famously hunted outlaw.
According to historian Susan Lee Johnson, “So many tales have grown up around Murieta that it is hard to disentangle the fabulous from the factual. There seems to be a consensus that Anglos drove him from a rich mining claim, and that, in rapid succession, his wife was raped, his half-brother lynched, and Murieta himself horse-whipped. He may have worked as a monte dealer for a time; then, according to whichever version one accepts, he became either a horse trader and occasional horse thief, or a bandit.”
In 1849 he and family members arrived in what was then the U.S. at the beginning of the California Gold Rush, where gold was found at Sutter’s Mill (now Coloma, between Auburn and Placerville) as did thousands of fortune seekers. Not surprising, they encountered racism and hostility from other “forty-niners,” as they were called. These men came from eastern United States as well as other parts of the globe, including Europe, China, Mexico and South America. The population in and around Sutter’s Mill soared to more than 300,000.
According to historian Frank Forrest Latta, Murieta organized several gangs and bands within the gangs, made up and led by his relatives from Sonora. Latta’s research revealed that a core group of these men had helped Murieta avenge the lynching of his stepbrother by killing at least six of the Americans involved, who had also whipped Murieta himself; the Americans had trumped up a charge of mule theft to explain their actions.
The gang then took up horse trading, regularly trading stolen horses and legal wild mustangs, driving them south to Sonora from as far north as Contra Costa County, the Central Valley, and the mining camps in the Sierras down the remote Mountain Trail (La Vareda del Monte) trail through the Diablo Range along the California coast.
Bands of Murieta’s gang engaged in the horse trade, horse theft, and marauding the countryside surrounding the gold camps. Victims of their murderous raids included miners and settlers of Anglo and Chinese origin. Finally, by 1853, when Murieta was in his thirties, the state legislature resolved to stop his gang and created a special force, the California Rangers, led by Los Angeles Deputy Sheriff Harry Love. On July 25, the Rangers encountered a band of armed Mexican men near Arroyo de Cantua near Coalinga, California. Of three Mexicans killed, one was purported to be Murieta, and another Manuel Garcia, aka Tres Dedos or “Three-Fingered Jack,” another notorious gang member. To prove their success and to receive the promised reward Love and the Rangers preserved Murieta’s head and Jack’s hand in a jar of alcohol (whiskey) and presented them to the authorities. Numerous individuals confirmed and swore to their identities as these grisly objects were taken on tour by Love and displayed, for a fee, in Mariposa County, Stockton, and San Francisco. For the next 25 years myths persisted regarding the true identity of the head, which fortunately or not was destroyed during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
Ironically in the 1960s the master-planned community Rancho Murieta, southeast of Sacramento, was named for the outlaw, and includes Laguna Joaquin and a 27-hole golf course. The Mexican Robin Hood may also be memorialized at Murieta’s Restaurant and Cantina in Reno, NV (a not very good Mexican restaurant the last time I was there).