Thought to have been born in Alamos, Sonora, Mexico, in 1830, Joaquin Murrieta (sometimes spelled Murieta or Murrietta) traveled with his wife and older brother to California in 1850 to seek his fortune in the gold fields. Soon after their arrival, they established a small farm and began to work a claim near Hangtown.
Unfortunately for them, that same year California imposed a Foreign Miners Tax, and the Murrieta’s Anglo neighbors tried to run them off, telling them it was illegal for Mexicans to hold a claim. Eventually, they were forced off their claim, and being unable to find work, Joaquin turned to a life of crime.
He became the leader of a band of ruffians locally known as the Five Joaquins and rustled cattle, robbed goldminers, and committed murders in the Sierra Nevada area. Tales of their crime spree included stealing more than 100 horses, making off with at least $100,000 in gold, and killing 19 men.
Other tall tales have Murrieta leading a band of 80 outlaws; raiding mining camps up and down the High Sierra; and tying Chinese working men together by their queues and making them dance to the tune of his revolver before shooting their eyes out. In one story, he lured a schooner to beach, boarded it, and then somewhere downriver killed the captain and crew and made off with $20,000 in gold and dust.
The gang avoided the law for a few years, but eventually a bounty of $5,000 was placed on Murrieta’s head. In May 1853, the Governor of California created the California Rangers (led by former Texas Ranger Harry Love), and their first assignment was to arrest the Five Joaquins.
On July 25, 1853, the Rangers met up with the gang near Panoche Pass in San Benito County. A gunfight ensued, and two of the bandits were killed. One was thought to have been Murrieta; the other was said to have been his right-hand man, Manual Garcia (a.k.a. Three-Finger Jack because two fingers on his right hand had been severed).
As evidence of the outlaws’ deaths, the Rangers cut off Garcia’s hand and Murrieta’s head and preserved them in a jar of brandy. Seventeen people, including a priest, signed affidavits identifying the head as Murrieta’s.
Murrieta’s head and Garcia’s hand traveled throughout California and were displayed in the cities of Stockton and San Francisco and the mining camps of Mariposa County. Curious spectators paid $1 each to see them.
However, soon after the gunfight at Panoche Pass, rumors that Murrieta had not been killed sprang up. Some reported that he had been seen in various places in California after his alleged death.
The Mexican Robin Hood
Even before Murrieta’s supposed death, his life of crime had been turned into folklore. By some accounts, prior to being forced off his gold claim, a mob of miners had beaten him severely and left him for dead, hanged his brother, and raped and murdered his wife. Swearing to avenge the atrocities committed upon his family, the dashing Murrieta committed his crimes to “right” the many injustices against Mexicans. To his compatriots, he was generous and kind, giving much of his ill-gotten gains to the poor, and they in turn sheltered him from the law.
According to author Lea F. McCarty, Murrieta may have been California’s first fast-draw artist, whipping out his French cap-and-ball revolver or a Colt Dagroon from a brightly colored sash worn around his waist to rob and kill.
Over the years, the telling of the tale grew until the dead Mexican outlaw began to be called the Robin Hood of El Dorado. He has also been called the original Zorro, and he became a symbol of resistance to the Anglo domination of California.
The head itself would become a part of another legend—that of Joaquin Murrieta’s headless ghost galloping through the old gold fields, screaming like a banshee, “Give me back my head!”