(ca. 1832–ca. 1853)
Accounts of Joaquín Murrieta (sometimes spelled “Murieta” or “Murietta”) vary as much as the people who tell them. Also known as the Mexican Robin Hood or the Robin Hood of El Dorado, he is variously described as a coldhearted murderer or a social bandit fighting for the rights of the oppressed. Most say he came from Sonora, Mexico; others claim he is from Chile. Some say he didn’t exist at all but was a composite of many who experienced discrimination and victimization by Anglos during the California gold rush of the 1850s. Typical accounts say Murrieta left Mexico to seek his fortune in California in 1850 at the age of 18. Instead of riches, he found social injustice. The most common story, first printed in Cherokee author John Rollin Ridge’s fictionalized account in 1854, describes a brutal attack on Joaquín’s family by Anglos who raped his wife and hanged his brother. Murrieta’s passion for revenge fueled his growing disillusion, leading to a violent crime spree. With his companion “Three-Fingered Jack” (Manuel García), and possibly four other men named Joaquín, Murrieta roamed the Sierra Nevadas, stealing gold and horses and killing nineteen people (most were said to be Chinese mine workers).California governor John Bigler assigned Captain Harry Love to lead the posse that would hunt down Murrieta and his band. On July 25, 1853, the “California Rangers” encountered a group of Mexican men. In the battle that followed, two of those Mexicans were killed: the rangers said one was Murrieta, the other García. They took the head of one and the hand of the other as evidence of their identity and displayed them in jars of alcohol. As much controversy swirls around Murrieta’s death as around his life, with some claiming he was killed by Love while others insist the head belonged to someone else.