Few Mexican-American folk heroes loom as large as Joaquín Murrieta. An outlaw of the California Gold Rush era, Murrieta and his exploits were posthumously fictionalized in The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta (sic) by novelist John Rollin Ridge in 1854—one short year after Murrieta was allegedly killed by California rangers in a gunfight in Fresno County. In the years after his death, the legend of Murrieta grew: He was the protagonist of a play by Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda, and he’s been credited with inspiring fictional vigilantes from Zorro to Batman.
His blood-soaked story lives at the murky intersection of history, myth and folklore. According to the legend—first compiled in Ridge’s book—Murrieta was just a teenager when he left Mexico for California with dreams of cashing in on the Gold Rush. But the young Mexican was subject to a litany of racist injustices shortly after entering the country: tied up and whipped, then made to watch his wife gang-raped and his brother hung from a tree after a crowd of white people falsely accused him of stealing a horse. Vowing revenge, Murrieta turned to a life of banditry, stealing from Anglo Americans until he was tracked down by law enforcement and killed.
But while most of the fictionalizations about Murrieta contain those story elements, there’s a lot of debate about Murrieta’s real life—starting with whether or not he existed in the first place. California rangers did kill someone—maybe Murrieta, maybe not—and then had that person’s head pickled in alcohol and paraded around the state to celebrate their ability to catch such a storied outlaw. But debate about the veracity of the Murrieta story persisted from his banditry days until well after the beheading. It was clear that someone had lost their head. What was far less clear was who it was, and what crimes could be pinned to him.
Why 1850s California Was a Hotbed of Racial Tension
Beneath the Joaquín Murrieta story lies the racially charged atmosphere of 1850s California, where violence frequently flared between incoming (mostly white) settlers to the new state and the Mexican and indigenous people who had long lived there. Whether Joaquín Murrieta existed or not, that racial tension most certainly did. It grew out of the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, which ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, an agreement that ceded California to the United States.
Between 1848 and 1850, non-Hispanic settlers poured into California, with their population growing from 15,000 to 93,000 in that time, according to Becoming Joaquín Murrieta: John Rollin Ridge and the Making of an Icon (2011) by Blake Michael Hausman. Meanwhile, the Foreign Miners’ Tax Law of 1850 effectively shut Hispanic people out of the Gold Rush. In response, many left the state even as white settlements boomed. Many so-called Californios—Spanish-speaking people who were in California when it was still part of Mexico—found themselves economically marginalized, and some turned to banditry as a result.
How the Legend of Joaquín Grew
As early as 1850, newspaper reports told of outlaws named "Joaquín" terrorizing California, according to Ireno Paz’s The Life and Adventures of the Celebrated Bandit Joaquín Murrieta. But there's no way that all the crimes attributed to "Joaquín" were committed by the same person, since sometimes crimes would occur hundreds of miles apart on the same day.
Joaquín Murrieta’s full name first appeared in the Los Angeles Star on November 27, 1852—although the "Joaquín" bandit would continue to have multiple surnames in the press right up until the infamous beheading. A story in the San Francisco Daily Herald on April 18, 1853 was the first to explore Murrieta's vigilante origin story: He'd been flogged and robbed of $40,000, and his outrage at that injustice inspired his subsequent career in crime, according to a white rancher interviewed for the story, whom Murrieta had allegedly spoken to. But the Daily Herald story isn’t exactly credibly sourced: Both the rancher in the story and the reporter who wrote it withheld their names.
Still, dozens of unsolved bandit murders piled up: a general in San Gabriel in November 1852; six Chinese gold miners near Big Bar in February 1853. Anglo fears of the mysterious "Joaquín" grew to a fever pitch, and people demanded that the California rangers bring the outlaw to justice. And while much debate raged as to whether "Joaquín" really existed (or was just a mash-up of outlaws, narratively blended into a singular bogeyman), fear won out: In the spring of 1853, the California legislature put a $6,000 reward out on Joaquín's head. A team of California rangers, led by Los Angeles Deputy Sheriff Harry Love attacked an outlaw camp in the early morning hours of July 25, 1853, killing eight men—Murrieta allegedly among them.
John Rollin Ridge, the Native American Novelist Behind the Joaquín Story
The entirety of the Murrieta narrative—starting with his vigilante story—would never exist if not for the fictionalized biography by John Rollin Ridge. But Ridge wasn’t just a writer—his life is a noteworthy part of history itself, with many details in his biography dovetailing with the Murrieta legend. A Cherokee Indian, Ridge (tribal name Yellow Bird) is considered the first Native American novelist, but his legacy with indigenous people is complicated.
When Ridge was still a child, his father John Ridge sold tribal land to the federal government, explicitly defying the law of the Cherokee nation. In turn, Ridge's father was stabbed to death by other members of the Cherokee tribe in 1839—in front of Ridge, then only 12 years old. Ridge’s grandfather and uncle were also killed. In 1849, Ridge killed a Cherokee judge, David Kell, over a horse dispute. Ridge successfully argued self-defense, although it bears mentioning that Kell was an ardent supporter of the Cherokee group that killed several members of Ridge’s family. After Kell’s murder, Ridge left for California, where he tried his hand at gold mining. Finding the work unsatisfying, he turned to a life of letters instead.