Joaquin Murrieta: Literary Fiction or Historical Fact?

By William Mero

The popular legend of Joaquin Murrieta is that of a peace loving man driven to seek revenge when he and his brother were falsely accused of stealing a mule. His brother was hung and Joaquin horsewhipped. His young wife was gang raped and in one version she died in Joaquin's arms. Swearing revenge, Joaquin hunted down all who had violated his sweetheart. He embarked on a short but violent career that brought death to his Anglo tormentors. The state of California then offered a reward of up to $5000 for Joaquin "dead or alive." In the end Joaquin was hunted down, killed and mutilated by a drunken brute of a man, Harry Love.

This is the tale that a sometimes newspaperman and poet, John Rollin Ridge, wrote in 1854, a year after Joaquin's death. John Ridge was a part Cherokee Indian who fled to California after killing a man in Arkansas. Borrowing from newspaper reports from the gold camps, he created a romantic story of lust and revenge starring the recently dead bandit, Joaquin Murrieta, as the victim of biased society.

After Ridge's book was published, it was rumored that Joaquin had not been killed but returned to Mexico. Even more fantastic was the story that he returned mortally wounded to Niles Canyon (part of Contra Costa County in 1853) where he died and was buried beneath the family adobe. In 1986 the adobe floor was even excavated in an unsuccessful attempt to find Murrieta's bones.

On one hand we have the popular belief exemplified by the famous histories of Hubert Howe Bancroft who legitimized the Ridge version of Joaquin as a daring Mexican Robin Hood. We also have modern historians who charge that the real Murrieta was a vicious killer and thug.

What can we make of all this? Can we find a general consensus after examining the known facts? Joseph Henry Jackson in his book, Bad Company (1949), carefully traced the evolution and growth of the Joaquin Murrieta legend around the world. Later researchers including Frank Latta, William B. Secrest, Remi Nadeau, James F. Varley and John Boessenecker uncovered original source materials that clarified this violent chapter in California history.

The Known Historical Record

Interesting historical parallels exist between the Murrieta – Feliz family and the James – Younger gang. In both cases close relatives formed the core of the outlaw gangs. Both bands were spawned in the economic and political upheaval of a society disrupted by war. The gangs were sheltered and protected by citizens who were threatened by the new economic and social order. Strangely, in both cases, it was also newspapermen who built these outlaws into sympathic victims of an unjust society.

What are the generally accepted and verified historical facts about Joaquin Murrieta? We know from Church records that Joaquin was born in the southern part of the Mexican state of Sonora in 1830 to Joaquin and Rosalia Murrieta. His mother had been previously married to a man named Carrillo. In later years Joaquin sometimes called himself Joaquin Carrillo, which led to much confusion and helped create the "many Joaquins" theory. The young Joaquin eventually married Rosa Feliz of Vayoreca. They, along with Jesus Murrieta and Rosa's three brothers, went to California upon news of the gold strike. Rosa's brother, Claudio Feliz, began gold mining with Anglo partners near Sonora while Joaquin and his bride eventually moved to Niles Canyon, then part of Contra Costa County. In these early years there is evidence that Joaquin worked as a vaquero near Oakley and Brentwood in 1850 and as a mestenero (mustang catcher).

From court records and newspaper accounts, the first we hear of the Murrieta - Feliz clan's brush with the law was in 1849 when Claudio was arrested for stealing another miner's gold. The evidence of his guilt proved overwhelming. However Claudio was able to escape from the Stockton jail and launch a new career. By 1850 he was the leader of one of the most vicious bands of outlaws to have ever preyed upon the Anglo, Oriental and Hispanic inhabitants of California.


The midnight attack by Claudio Feliz's outlaw band on the Marsh Rancho, December 5, 1850.


The first known attack by Claudio Feliz's gang occurred in Contra Costa County at the John Marsh Rancho (Los Meganos) during the night of December 5, 1850. Under the cover of darkness, twelve armed men sacked the Marsh rancho. William Harrington, an unarmed Anglo visitor, was run down, shot and then lanced to death. Surprised by the sudden onslaught Marsh and his servants were quickly subdued and robbed.

Ten days later the ranch of Digby Smith near San Jose was hit. After everyone was tied up, Digby's skull was crushed, another settler had his head split open by an axe and the cook's head was severed. The ranch house was burned to the ground. In the ashes were found the blackened corpses of his victims. Over twelve desperadoes including seven Anglos formed this band of vicious killers.

In February Claudio struck again at the rancho of a native Californio, Anastacio Chabolla, only two miles from San Jose. This time his intended victims were on guard and the well-armed vaqueros fought off the outlaws. Claudio's band of killers retreated to the gold country of the Sierra foothills where they committed numerous robberies and murders. They specialized in robbing and murdering lone travelers. They followed a very successful, proven criminal plan of "dead men tell no tales."

We know that by 1851 Joaquin along with Reyes Feliz, Claudio's brother, had joined the gang and were learning the killers trade. Although the group was now composed mainly of Hispanics, for a time three Anglos also participated in the bloody business. After a series of misadventures, Claudio carried on as an equal opportunity killer. He was never shy about robbing and murdering fellow Hispanics. Other victims included Chinese, Anglos and even one hapless Black. As pressure from the Law mounted, Joaquin left the Feliz gang for the relative safety of Los Angeles where he warmed the bed of Ana Benitez, a young woman from New Mexico.

Meanwhile, in September 1851, Claudio raided John Kottinger's ranch in Pleasanton but was repelled by John's suspicious wife. Feliz next made a fatal mistake by leaving alive a robbery victim; a Monterey County Californio named Agapito. In this part of California, the old Hispanic Californio families were politically powerful and deadly serious about enforcing the law. By robbing a fellow Hispanic, Claudio lost the protection of his fellow countrymen and his gang was quickly cornered. During the ensuing gun battle Claudio Feliz was shot to pieces and killed.

Leadership of the remaining members of the gang soon passed to Joaquin Murrieta. Claudio's brother, Reyes Feliz, had joined Joaquin in Los Angeles. Joaquin and Reyes were soon implicated in the shooting death of General Joshua Bean, a major general in the state militia. Enraged, the Los Angeles vigilance committee arrested Reyes Feliz along with several members of the notorious southern California Salomon Pico gang. Joaquin abandoned Reyes to his fate and immediately returned to the gold camps. Reyes Feliz was hung for the murder of General Bean and shortly afterwards in January 1853 there began the short, bloody crime spree that was to make the name of Joaquin Murrieta infamous throughout California.

Because they tended to be unarmed and docile, Chinese miners were a favorite target of Joaquin's gang. There also appears to have been racial hatred associated with many of these crimes. Many Chinese were killed; apparently just for the pleasure it gave the outlaws. Usually the Asians had their throats slit. Protected by the large Hispanic population, the Mexican bandits killed 22 men in two months, most of them Chinese. By now Joaquin's face was too well known in the mining camps for his personal safety. During March 1853 the gang vanished into the wilderness of the remote San Joaquin Valley.

A corps of state rangers was organized to track down Joaquin under the leadership of Harry Love, a hard fighting frontiersman. They had little success until they captured Jesus Feliz, the youngest and last remaining Feliz brother. Jesus informed on the Murrieta gang's hideout. Some have speculated that he may have blamed Joaquin for deserting his older brother, Reyes, in Los Angeles. There is some evidence that Joaquin may have been the real killer of General Bean. Based on the information from Jesus Feliz, Harry Love's rangers captured the Murrieta gang on July 25, 1853 and killed Joaquin during a running gunfight near today's intersection of Interstate 5 and Highway 33. Jesus Feliz was released, settled in Bakersfield, raised a family before dying in 1910. Harry Love cut off the head of Murrieta and preserved it in a bottle of alcohol. In the days before DNA, fingerprints or mug shots, this was the most practical means of proving identification. The head was carried through the mining camps where Joaquin Murrieta's face was well known. There was near universal agreement that it was in fact Joaquin. The preserved head was on display in San Francisco until 1906 when it was destroyed in the great earthquake and fire.

Growth of the Legend

John Rollin Ridge's little 90-page book, "The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, The Celebrated California Bandit," was published in 1854 about a year after the outlaw's death. Filled with florid, imaginary conversations between Joaquin and his men, this tiny book proved wildly popular. Five years later an anonymous writer for the California Police Gazette, plagiarized Ridge's little work and republished it under the title "The Life of Joaquin Murieta, Brigand Chief of California." This new book was even more popular than the original. However the changes in the story allow us to trace the evolution of the Murrieta legend across continents.

In the new book Joaquin's wife is called Carmela rather than Rosita (her real name was Rosa). Now, after she was ravished, American miners killed her. Also Joaquin has acquired a beautiful mistress, Clarina. The stolen book soon appeared in Spain where the story of a brave Joaquin fighting personal injustice became nearly as popular as in California. Then the French plagiarists picked it up. From there it appeared in Chile where it was translated from French back into Spanish by Roberto Hyenne. Under the new author Murrieta loses his Mexican citizenship and becomes a Chilean, "El Bandito Chileno." In fact Joaquin becomes so popular among his "fellow countrymen" that a statue was erected in Chile dedicated to the memory of this brave "Chilean" fighter against injustice.

Spanish publishers plagiarized the Chilean version and republished the book as El Caballero Chileno, by a "Professor" Acigar. Then the Mexicans issued the book and changed Joaquin back into a Mexican. A stage drama of Ridge's "Rosita" version was written by Charles Howe and added to the legend by having San Joaquin County offer a $5000 reward for Joaquin, dead or alive. Later writers reported as a "fact" that the state of California had made the offer and that Joaquin had written on the wanted poster, "I will give $10,000" and signed it. Great drama but no such public rewards were ever offered by either the state or county.

Cincinnatus Hiner Miller wrote a long and very amateurish poem, Joaquin. In the poem Miller gave Murrieta a deep knife-scar across his forehead. The general public picked up this imaginary scar from the poem and later pioneer "eye witnesses" describe the fictional scar in great detail. In the 1880's this poem by "Joaquin" Miller as he is now commonly known became popular on the East Coast. There the Murrieta legend grew in strength and his story was republished in numerous dime novels such as Joaquin, the Saddle King and Joaquin: The Claude Duval of California.

Herbert Howe Bancroft legitimized the Ridge's fictionalized version of Joaquin as a daring Mexican Robin Hood. He (or his paid note takers and writers) uncritically used Ridge's "Third Edition," published soon after John Ridge's death in 1871 as a primary source. Bancroft added new quotes from newspapers concerning Joaquin's pickled head and the damage to California history was done.

Another historian contemporaneous with Bancroft, Theodore Hittell, also wrote about Murrieta but using Ridge as only a secondary source. Hittell warned the reader that the sources Ridge used were "to a great extent unreliable." Hittell wrote that Murrieta was, "Never anything but a vicious and abandoned character, low, brutal, and cruel, intrinsically and at heart a thief and a cut-throat." Unfortunately his words were too little and too late. The public only saw that the tale was in the famous Bancroft histories so therefore it must be true.

Now with the apparent scholarly blessing of Herbert Bancroft, magazines picked up the Joaquin legend and soon created an "old timer's" explosion of recollections. In the 1890's every pioneer writing about his adventures in early California had "recollections" of Murrieta and his nonexistent, fearsome scar, the disfigurement invented by "Joaquin" Miller. Even Charles Fremont wrote that Joaquin Murrieta was a member of one of his early California expeditions-clearly a historical improbability given Joaquin's established age. In the numerous stories told by the old Forty-niners, details were often contradictory with many "facts" drawn from the popular Ridge story or its many variants. In some tales the old timers swore Murrieta was blue eyed and blonde and in others he was brown eyed with curly black hair. Many local pioneer families in Contra Costa and Alameda counties have fascinating (but suspect) stories of various handsome, mysterious strangers who appeared at their ranch house doors but everyone's astonishment later turned out to be none other than Joaquin himself. Nearly every Eastbay hill with a cave or hollow is credited with once being a Murrieta hideout.

Documented Facts

What we do know is that Joaquin began his outlaw career in the footsteps of his brother-in-law. Greed, not social injustice, was responsible for his turning outlaw. There was no evidence from either court records or newspaper clippings of whipping, ravishing of his bride or loss of a mining claim. Women and rape were extremely rare in the gold fields and was extensively reported when it occurred. We know that Joaquin's brother was never lynched as commonly reported. He returned to Mexico and, according to family records, was still alive in the 1860's.


A drawing of Joaquin Murrieta's severed head.


During his lifetime Joaquin was recognized as a cold-blooded killer of both Anglos and Orientals. The Chinese community in San Francisco even raised $1000 and presented it to Harry Love in appreciation for killing a notorious murderer of their fellow citizens. In 1980 Frank Latta reinforced the Murrieta myth when he published a 685-page book, Joaquin Murrieta and His Horse Gangs. Frank Latta did some valuable research in Mexico and conducted the first interviews of the Murrieta family. However most the California oral interviews were recorded in the 1920's and never checked for accuracy. By not critically examining his sources, Latta produced a badly flawed document, which conflicts with the historical record.

One of his primary sources was an old man, Avelino Martinez, who claimed to have ridden with Murrieta. In later interviews Martinez doesn't mention being a gang member but only that he met Joaquin in 1877 - 24 years after Joaquin's death! Martinez had a well-known reputation as a teller of tall tales. Latta also relied heavily on the unverified diary of Ben Marshall for pushing the myth of Murrieta's whipping and the miners' treatment of Rosa Feliz Murrieta. Historians have since discovered that those widely quoted entries were actually copied from the 1869 fictionalized poetry book by "Joaquin" Miller.

The tradition in Latin cultures of the bandit as a social revolutionary is well known. Eric Hobsbawm in his classic, Bandits, discusses the social implications of the Joaquin Murrieta legend and how it fits into the traditional Hispanic view of rural banditry. In fact the Chicano movement of the 1970's adopted Murrieta as a symbol of the fight against "Anglo" oppression. Sadly, because of protests from a few in the Mexican- American community, Harry Love's burial site has been denied a proper historical marker while Tiburcio Vasquez, convicted leader of the infamous Tres Pinos massacre, in a nearby graveyard has his final resting place marked by an elaborate monument.

Joaquin Murrieta along with Jesse James and Billy the Kid is one of America's most interesting examples of myth creation. In contrast to the original Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest fame, enough written material remains to enable scholars to trace the evolution of a short lived, violent outlaw into a defender of the oppressed and downtrodden. A scholarly investigation of this phenomenon probably tells us more about ourselves than it does about the real Joaquin Murrieta.

The Murrieta controversy does contain another lesson for us all. Historical truths are often elusive. The general public usually prefers a good story over verifiable facts from primary sources. Most popular histories are commonly viewed through the lens of current social and political prejudices. Perhaps that is another good reason why history should be studied and analyzed with as much care as any of the physical sciences.


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