- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 23, 2003

By Bruce Thornton
Encounter Books, $26.95, 185 pages

At dawn on July 21, 1853, 20 California Rangers led by Capt. Harry Love stormed into a sleepy camp of outlaws on Cantua Creek in the San Joaquin Valley and killed several. The bandit leader, Joaquin Murieta, initially escaped, but was fatally shot off his horse nearby. Love, to better identify his prize when he reported to his superiors, had the head of Joaquin Murieta cut off.
Perhaps no part of the 19th-century West changed as rapidly as California. Unlike the gradual settlement of neighboring Oregon, California just after the 1846 Mexican War which ceded it to the United Statesonly retained its sedate Spanish colonial flavor until the 1848 discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill near Sacramento.
That California "changed overnight" might seem a cliche, but that's what happened. For instance, the quiet village of Yerba Buena quickly evolved into bustling San Francisco, with accompanying murder, mayhem, gambling, prostitution, and inflated prices for goods shipped in from around the world. An abundance of gold dust in many pockets fed the skewed economy and soaring crime rate.
The criminal element sprang up long before there was formal law enforcement to contest it. Vigilante justice was common ("Popular justice is an improvement over no justice", said one magistrate), and every backwoods gold camp had its hanging tree (Placerville was humorously nicknamed "Hangtown".). Armed robbery was endemic. Large shipments of gold leaving the region via pack train or stagecoach were subject to theft.
The early 1850s saw an international influx to the Sierra goldfields. Hopeful prospectors came from the eastern United States, Europe, South America, even China. San Francisco Bay was covered with empty ships abandoned by their crews. Thousands emigrated north from Mexico, among them young Joaquin Murieta. In "Searching for Joaquin: Myth, Murieta and History in California," Bruce Thornton chronicles the Golden State's initial bloody period by examining the Murieta legend.
The bandit was a Sonoran who arrived in California in 1850, where he fell in with a gang headed by his brother-in-law, Claudio Feliz, immediately taking up criminality.
The Feliz-Murieta group (numbering a half dozen) raided the ranch of a Dr. John Marsh east of San Francisco in 1850, ransacking the house and killing a visiting American named William Harrington. From there they moved on to the Sierra gold country, indiscriminately robbing and murdering travelers on the roads (one man for a mere $34), and raiding the town of Campo Seco, where they stole a safe from a general store. In the village of Chinese Camp they robbed and murdered a fellow Sonoran. The Sheriff of Marysville, Robert "Buck" Buchanan, tried to arrest them and was shot in the back for his trouble, though he survived his wound.
Mr. Thornton doesn't apologize for this, but does speculate as to whether much of the crime seen in this period of California history can be blamed on the "Foreign Miners Tax," passed in April, 1850, by the new state legislature (California achieved statehood in 1850), which taxed non-American citizens $20 for the privilege of working in the gold diggings. This hardship drove thousands from low paying menial jobs, and created an underclass of Mexican and Chinese transients, many of whom embraced crime, especially the Mexicans.
Soon a number of loosely confederated Sonoran gangs operated in the Sierra gold country. As Mr. Thornton states in his title, "Searching for Joaquin: Myth, Murieta and History in California," his man comes to us shrouded in myth. Later Hollywood creations such as "Zorro" and "The Cisco Kid" seem to be loosely based on him. The truth is quite a bit more heinous. Murieta was a vicious and charismatic prototype of a modern mass murderer like Charles Manson. In the gold country, banditry was so prevalent that Murieta was blamed for most of it, but it was logistically impossible for him to have been responsible for it all. Still, in the California press his three-year reign of terror made him the poster boy for endemic lawlessness. Hence, when Murieta was killed at Cantua Creek in 1853, what followed wasn't surprising. His aforementioned severed head became a well-traveled grisly trophy.
Along with the hand of a dead associate named "Three Fingered Jack," Murieta's head toured the gold country in a covered jar full of alcohol. Large crowds greeted it in Stockton, Marysville, Sacramento and San Francisco, where in the latter city it passed a number of days on display in a saloon. After a ceremonial trip to the governor's office and passing through a number of private hands, in 1865 it found a home at "Dr. Jordan's Pacific Museum of Anatomy and Science" in San Francisco. The museum later was destroyed by the famous 1906 earthquake, and despite myths and rumors as to its whereabouts, the head of Joaquin Murieta hasn't been seen since.
Oddly enough, many members of the famous California Rangers posse who killed Murieta themselves died violently in the following years, including Harry Love, shot by his wife's lover in 1868, and dying of a botched amputation.
By the 1960s Murieta's legend reemerged as he became a Leftist icon, sort of a 19th-century Che Guevara. In 1966, the Chilean Marxist poet Pablo Neruda authored a "crude" play entitled "Splendor and Death of Joaquin Murieta." And the agricultural labor union, "The United Farm Workers" (UFW), transformed the outlaw into a figure who died fighting for social justice. His likeness (wholly invented, because only a few old rough sketches exist based on descriptions of what he may have looked like) appeared on posters and murals along with UFW founder Cesar Chavez, making Murieta an effective propaganda tool.
Joaquin Murieta like Jesse James and Billy the Kid seems to exist in the American imagination in equal parts fact and fantasy.
Bruce Thornton mixes scholarship with some provocative and fascinating sleuthing, to tell us a compelling and inherently American story.

Bill Croke is a writer in Cody, Wyoming.

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