Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Real Joaquin Murieta- Fact Is Better Than Fiction

When you hear the name Joaquin Murieta, what comes to mind?
Maybe you think of a bandito who stole from the rich and gave to the poor? One who waved his pistols in the air, shooting and screaming “Viva Mexico” while riding his noble steed into the sunset? Or perhaps, you think of a debonair Mexican vaquero who won the ladies hearts and magically eluded the authorities from capture. 

In some areas, Joaquin Murieta is a hero. Someone who was treated badly by the “Anglos” and was wrongfully given a bad reputation. To others he was a heartless killer who sought only treasure, no matter what it meant he had to do to get it. There have even been claims by people who say they are his descendants and that his whole operation was his way of fighting for the land that once was Mexico. 

Whatever you choose to believe, is probably based on stories and legends heard or read in books throughout the years. Unfortunately, much of the stories have been fabricated or overindulged in great detail. The real story has been covered over and forgotten for so many years that I almost thought I couldn’t find it, but I did.

The story of Joaquin Murieta (also sometimes spelled, Murietta or Murrieta) had been romanticized after a writer by the name of “Yellow Bird” (John Rollin Ridge) decided to write a dime novel about Murieta. That is when he took some fact and overindulged his own ideas of fiction to bring a fantasy story to life. What many people don’t realize is that the real story was better than fiction. 


First things first, there are NO photos of Joaquin Murieta in circulation. Many people claim to have photos of him, however the most circulated of photos (found in the Murphy’s Museum) that is alleged to be of Joaquin was a photo that belonged to a man named Frank Marshall. Again, there is no evidence whatsoever that this is the real Joaquin Murieta. All other photos are just drawings depicting Murieta, published in various newspapers during that time period.


So, as the story goes- Joaquin Murieta was up in the gold country with his wife and brother when American’s came upon their camp. They raped and killed his wife and murdered his brother while they beat and horsewhipped Murieta. He fled and came back with a vengeance going from town to town, raiding and pillaging for gold and loot, killing anyone in his path.

As the State reported, they hired a man by the name of Harry Love, a former Texas Ranger who formed a posse and hunted down Murieta, killing and beheading him. His friend “Three-Fingered Jack”was also killed and his hand cut off. 

According to the June 18th, 1893 edition of the Los Angeles Herald, it says that Love and his posse snuck up on Murieta and Three-Fingered Jack while they were at camp. The posse shot Jack and chased Murieta who had jumped on a horse and fled. One of the men shot Murieta in the wrist and he fell off the horse and surrendered with his hands raised. The rest of the posse came up and shot Murieta to death without a fight.

They then cut his head off with a knife and threatened the other two captured men in the group to tell them where the rest of their group was or they would cut their heads off too. It was reported that one of the men smiled and motioned to slit his throat because he was loyal to Murieta, even if it meant death. It was claimed that the very same man later threw himself off of his horse, landing in a slough and drowned due to his hands being bound with rope behind his back. Now, they only had one man left from the party. They brought the head of Murieta and the hand of Three-Fingered Jack back to Millerstown where they jarred the two body parts in jars of Brandy and charged people to view it like some sort of side-show attraction.

The last man that had been captured was killed by a mob of Mexicans in jail because they thought he was a traitor and would reveal “evidence” at court. The men who assisted in the capture of Murieta and his men, including Love received their reward for capture of Murieta and the case was closed…..or was it? Murieta’s own sister claimed that the head of the decapitated man was not that of her brothers. After that, the State gave another $5,000 in reward money to Love and his posse for no apparent reason.

I was contacted by a distant relative of one of the men in the group who were attacked by Harry Love and his men, and given a few more details into the story.  Terri Smiley, is a direct descendant of one of the men in the group, Antonio, the one who drowned. He was one of two men captured alive and were being taken to Fort Miller.

According to Smiley, as they were crossing the Sanjon de San Jose Slough, Antonio's horse got tangled in the swamp grass, drifted into deep water and both Antonio and his horse drowned. The Rangers claimed he jumped from his horse trying to escape and drowned, but a man named Juan Mendez found Antonio's body, still tied to his horse so the Ranger had lied.

Antonio's sons worked for Henry Miller of Miller & Lux Ranches for many years. His grandson also worked for Henry Miller and became Constable of Firebaugh, California for approximately 13 years. Smiley said that there is no way to know for certain if Antonio could not speak, but that he was described as "not wired for sound," which gave the family the impression he was mute. Either way, Antonio was not a criminal, and he was the uncle of the owner Juan Jesus Lopez of El Rancho de Tejom and whose Spanish lineage came to this continent with Cortez.  Throughout the entire story being retold, it is obvious to Antonio's descendants that the group attacked by Harry Love's men were victims of mistaken identity. 


Now, what I am going to tell you about Joaquin Murieta is going to be a shock to you. After hearing this new version and the facts supporting it, I hope you come to the same conclusion I did.

According to the Los Angeles Herald dated May 14th, 1905, it states that Murieta came from Mexico to California during the “gold rush.” At the age of 19, Murieta eloped with a daughter of a wealthy Mexican rancher. After staking out a claim in the golden hills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, he was visited by lawless Americans who told him that Mexicans were not welcome and threatened him to leave. One of the men made disrespectful remarks against Murieta’s wife and so a fight ensued.

Due to the fact Murieta was outnumbered, his wife was assaulted and Murieta was beaten severely. Afterwards, Murieta collected other Mexicans to join him in seeking revenge against the men who dishonored his wife.

Sadly, some of this story is true. According to a childhood friend of Murieta’s, Manuel Marquez (who knew Murieta since Marquez was 16 yrs. old) stated that Murieta did elope with a young lady and they did stake a claim up in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. He also confirmed that an event similar to the story above did take place. He also dropped a bomb on the world in this interview, that has long since been covered up. Murieta was disabled and therefore could never have done all the things the media has claimed for over 150 years.

“Joaquin Murietta was a peaceful man. He was a cripple. An American, who came here and imposed on us, insulted him and the two got in a quarrel. This stranger struck the cripple and threw him into a well. He was rescued with many injuries.
Then the cripple challenged the stranger to a duel and the stranger was killed. It was ended for Joaquin, He was not used to the “new way.” They made him an outlaw, and what could he do?
It was death for him if he was caught so he said “death to those” who sought him, and
many there were whom he sent to the finish.”- Manuel Marquez (Los Angeles Herald, 10/27/1909)

Marquez confirmed that Murieta’s wife had been assaulted, though he never indicated whether she was killed or not. Perhaps Murieta, knowing his life hopes were over, sent his wife back to her family. Many other articles indicated that Murieta was in fact a quiet mannered man and very peaceable.

Unfortunately, the life he was thrust into as a new “outlaw” forced him to survive any way he could. Being captured would mean sure death to him. According to Marquez, Joaquin Murieta’s sister lived at San Gabriel Mission. On many occasions Marquez admitted to helping Murieta evade the authorities and even hid him in his own home. When Murieta would visit San Gabriel Mission he would travel down the coast from San Buena Ventura.

Murieta wasn’t the hard, mean and vicious bandito that many made him out to be. In fact, he was a very loving, peaceful and poetic man. Murieta used to sing a song as he travelled down the coast to see his sister and Marquez was familiar with the tune in Spanish that translated meant:

“As I ride alone by the ancient sea,
No tears are shed for me,
For my only consolation and greetings,
Are the songs of the birds”-

Joaquin even had a poem that he would sing outside his sister’s window, to let her know he was there.
Translated it reads:

“Bright star of the morning,
You look like a grain of gold,
A blossom of filigree,
First cousin to the moon,
Star of morning,
Joaquin, your brother arrives”

According to Joaquin Murieta’s sister, Murieta fled to Mexico and was not the man who was hunted down and killed by Harry Love and his posse of men. Manuel Marquez did not comment on whether he knew if Murieta survived or not, but being that he didn’t say anything at all about his death leads me to think he wasn’t killed at all. Of course, Marquez wasn’t about to admit his friend was alive and well when he knew that the State had stopped searching for him. They had “found their man” according to the papers, so he wasn’t about to give away the fact his friend was very much alive in Mexico now would he?

Famous writer, Joaquin Miller (Cincinnatus Hiner Miller), dubbed the “Poet of the Sierras” even adopted the name Joaquin due to his sympathetic view on Murieta. He believed Murieta was given a bad reputation built on lies and even believed that Murieta had evaded the authorities and escaped to Mexico. San Francisco Attorney, O.P. Stidger stated in 1879 that he heard Murieta’s sister claim that the displayed head was not that of Murieta’s. So if Murieta didn’t die that day, who did?


In the Daily Alta California newspaper, dated August 24th, 1853 there was a very interesting article that read:

“The citizens of Los Angeles have a curious story among them, that the capture and decapitation of Joaquin Murieta did not take place on the person of the bandit. It is stated that the portion of Joaquin’s gang is alleged to have been surprised and routed, was none other than a party of native Californians and Sonorians who had gone to the Tulare Valley for the express and avowed purpose of “running mustangs.”

Three of the party have returned to Los Angeles and report that they were attacked by a party of Americans and that the balance of their party, four in number, had been killed. That Joaquin Valenzuela, one of the party was killed and his head cut off by his captors!”

If you think about it for a second, this story you just read has to be true. You know why? Because it makes perfect sense with the original newspaper article I showed you in the beginning about Harry Love’s account of capturing and killing Murieta.

Think about it, if they had killed Murieta why would they be questioning the other two men in the group about “the rest of the party”? They wouldn’t be. The Governor put a reward on Murieta, and ONLY Murieta. He was the “brains” of the operation, according to the authorities, so if they had really captured and beheaded Murieta they would have just killed the rest of the men. They were questioning them and threatening them because they wanted to know where the REAL Murieta was. They only cut off Joaquin Valenzuela’s head so they would have some sort of proof of killing someone in order to get their reward. Harry Love and his posse were liars and claimed to have killed Murieta just so they could get their money and satisfy the State for their bloodthirst.

I believe that the man killed by the angry mob at the jail was killed because the Mexicans knew Murieta was still alive and they didn’t want him telling the authorities that they killed the wrong person. Harry Love killed a Joaquin that day, but it wasn’t the Joaquin he was supposed to have hunted down. It was obvious the Governor eventually figured it out, thus the extra pay off of an additional $5,000 to Love and his men- to erase any doubt in the public’s mind about Murieta’s death and relax knowing their villain was dead and gone.

You see, before the media frenzy of Murieta’s death, the public had made the legend and stories of Murieta take on a life of its own. I read dozens of paper clippings in newspapers all over the State of California claiming that Murieta robbed them, some were accounts on the same day but hundreds of miles away from the other.

The point I am making is, anytime a person was robbed by a Mexican, Joaquin was blamed for it. He became that omnipresent entity that was everywhere at all times and always seemed to be one step ahead of the authorities. When the Governor appointed former Texas Ranger, Harry Love on the job to hunt down Murieta he became the hero hunting down the villain and thus an example had to be made of Murieta (whether it really was Murieta or not).

An article in the 1893 Los Angeles Herald states:

“ Joaquin Murietta, became as famous from one end of the State to the other as was the King of the Sherwood Forest in the merry daps of old England. Joaquin Murietta , completely terrorized the dwellers in the valley. So great was his fame that eventually ALL crimes committed between Los Angeles and Sacramento, Sierra Nevada and the Coast were charged to his account. Ubiquitous Mexican demon sent to torment the hated intruders- los gringos.”

So as you see, Murieta didn’t stand a chance against the State and the media to which blamed him for each and every crime committed by a Mexican across all of California. He then became a villain that had to be stopped, even though that made up Murieta they had built up so big and so infamous really didn’t exist. Yes, the real Joaquin Murieta did exist, but not the one they wrote about and made into a monster.

Whether Murieta truly robbed the rich and gave to the poor we will never truly know for sure. He may have sought out revenge on the men who attacked him and his wife, after getting some of his friends together and thus his group of “Banditos” were created. We will never really know to what extent of crimes he really committed besides killing men who had attempted to capture him at times. Personally, I believe the only reason he had a group of men with him at all times was because he was crippled or disabled in some way and needed help to protect him.

There were always rumors that Murieta robbed various American camps and gave back to the poorer Mexican camps throughout the Sierras and surrounding valleys. There were even rumors that he had a hidden treasure along the Feather River, that was assumed to be worth millions of dollars back then. Of course, whether any of that is true is unknown.

I would like to imagine that if Murieta did live on and fled back to Mexico, perhaps any treasure he had went back to Mexico with him. Maybe he went back to the ranch of his father-in-law, where his beloved wife may have fled after her attack. Perhaps she was there at her father’s ranch, waiting his return. All we know is that according to Murieta’s sister, he left and never came back to the U.S. There were never any sort of newspaper clippings or evidence that Murieta’s wife was killed, thus it is possible she survived that fateful event that changed her husband’s fate indefinitely.


The February 9th, 1900 edition of the Amador Ledger states that Harry Love, the former Texas Ranger and man who claimed to have killed Joaquin Murieta met his demise after a shoot out with Chris Ericson. Love’s wife, had hired Ericson to work on her house and while Love was away he suspected that the two were having an affair. When Love came home and saw Ericson leaving the property a shootout ensued. Ericson shot Love, injuring him severely. During an amputation surgery, Love died on the operating table. 

One by one, the men who assisted Love in the capture and killing of their alleged “Murieta” and “Three-Fingered Jack” were hunted down and killed or died suspicious deaths over the years. Some were killed by Mexicans who claimed it was revenge for the death of Murieta, while other’s deaths were just unknown circumstances but questionable.

In conclusion, I hope that the facts I have brought before you today persuade you to understand that Joaquin Murieta was not a bad man, nor was he the wild and ever eluding outlaw that many have actually idolized as a huge part of Mexican American folklore. He was just a man, a man who was wrongfully discriminated against, just as so many other men who immigrated from their homelands in those days,(ex; Mexico, Ireland, Scotland, etc.).

Joaquin became a man who was hunted down for being someone he actually wasn’t. He was a framed man, a fugitive living his life on the run. He didn’t have a hidden agenda for winning back the land of Mexico, he was a man who had hopes and dreams of making a better life for himself and his new bride up in the mountains of the Sierras. He had this vision of striking it rich with gold, during a time when you could become anyone overnight. This was a time, where dreams of changing your life ran rampant. In a place where people from all over the world flocked to Northern California in the hopes of the “American Dream.”

Joaquin’s story is a sad one, one of pain and tragedy and one that never found complete justice. Whether he survived or not, he was forced to leave the land that he had every right to be living on.  I hope that this blog opens your eyes to the truth about history. Sometimes the stories that are hidden are just waiting for you to search for and uncover them. They are more often very much different than the legends you may have grown up hearing, but the truth is always better than fiction. I hope this encourages you to research history and not always believe what you hear or read, unless you have real facts backing it up.

J'aime Rubio (Copyright) 2012
Thanks for stopping by and reading!

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