Joaquin Murrieta, the Gold Rush, and California’s original sin

I live in a neighborhood with streets named for various characters associated with old California – Dana Way (for Richard Henry Dana), Harte Way (for Bret Harte), Helen Way (for Helen Hunt Jackson), Murieta Way (for the famous outlaw, Joaquin Murrieta), and Joaquin Way (for Joaquin Miller, who named himself after Murrieta and preferred to spell the name with one “r”). Dig a little deeper, and we find Rosita Way (for Murrieta’s murdered wife), Carmela Way (his wife’s middle name), and Salvator Way (presumably for Salvador Mendez, the bandit who identified Murrieta’s severed head in court). These, at least, are the associations I see, although it’s possible that whoever named the streets had other people in mind. But the pattern is fairly obvious.

“The Robin Hood of El Dorado”, written by a Chicago journalist named Walter Noble Burns in 1934, seems to be the first serious effort to write a genuinely historical account of Murrieta’s life. Burns cites places, names, and dates, and claims to have obtained hundreds of oral testimonies from those who knew Murrieta or his victims – or were close to those who did. His most important historical claims seem to be specific enough to have been falsifiable in 1932 if they were, indeed, false.  Consequently, I take the general outline of his narrative to be generally accurate. But Burns is no historian: there are no footnotes, and he does a lot of “filling in the blanks” that required some imagination on his part. Which makes for a rollicking good read, if a bit on the gruesome side. But the literary inventions are not what trouble me: the truth of Murrieta’s legend is unsettling on many levels, to the point of shaking one’s faith in humanity, if one ever had any.

After Joaquin Murrieta married young Rosita Feliz in Sonora, Mexico, they fled to the California gold fields and settled in a mining camp called Sawmill Flat. Murrieta was believed to have been a modest, polite, hard-working, all-around decent fellow. He was known to have built a house for his bride, to have staked a claim and done some prospecting, but mostly for “dealing monte” with an honest hand in the town’s saloon. There are no accounts of Murrieta making trouble for anyone before tragedy struck. One day a group of surly American miners came through his front door, uninvited. Amdist a flurry of racist anti-Mexican taunts, they ordered him to pack and leave town. They told him – falsely – that his claim belonged to Americans now since California had just been “sold” to the United States. Murrieta knew his rights and refused to leave. The miners proceeded to beat him unconscious. While the men were attacking Joaquin, Rosita grabbed a knife and tried to kill one of them. The miners left Joaquin for dead and turned to Rosita. After brutally taking turns with her and satisfying themselves, she finally lost consciousness, and the yankee miners left her for dead as well. Murrieta revived and called out for his wife. He found Rosita and laid her on a couch, where she also revived long enough to speak to him – and then he helplessly watched her expire.

Months later, the decaying corpses of five miners from Sawmill Flat were found in a ravine with one bullet through each of their skulls. Their bodies were too decomposed for identification, but somehow everyone knew.

After exacting justice for Rosita’s murder, Murrieta was evidently done with killing and moved on to greener pastures, settling this time in Murphy’s Diggings to be near one of his brothers. He wanted to live a quiet life. But the yankees weren’t about to leave him alone. Anti-Mexican sentiment was high in the American mining camps, some more than others, though it was by no means universal. In any case, this time Murietta was falsely accused by a belligerent miner of stealing a mule. The baffled Joaquin protested that he was borrowing his brother’s recently purchased mule. He and the miner agreed to meet, with Joaquin’s brother, in Murphy’s Diggings the next day to settle the dispute. The miner showed up with a mob of nineteen rowdy Americans, in various stages of inebriation, eager to hang a couple of Mexican thieves. Some of the more respectable Americans showed up, too, vigorously defending the Murrieta brothers and testifying to their innocence. But their protests were futile. In the end Joaquin could only watch helplessly while his brother was crudely hanged by the mob. His own life was spared, but he was flogged into a bloody pulp with thirty-nine yankee lashes on his bare back – while tied to the same tree.

This pushed Murrieta over the edge. He was forever a changed man.

In the weeks that followed, eighteen of those twenty men in the lynch mob were found dead. Their tortured bodies seemed to reveal a pattern – lassoed and dragged by a horse, rope burns around the neck, small stab wounds all over the body, and an “M” carved into the forehead. The remaining two also died violently. The instigator was shot down in the street by an American miner who witnessed the lynching and flogging and was outraged by the injustice.

The rest of the story is a flurry of criminal genius and organization, casual cruelty, and outrageously daring bravado. The idiot who wrote the back cover of my copy of the book – and who obviously didn’t read it – says that Murrieta’s campaign was all about “defending Hispanos against violence and dispossession by rampaging gold rush miners”. On the contrary: Murrieta created a vast network of loyal bandits who killed for gold, for horses, and for fun. It’s true that he had a special contempt for American miners and unleashed his vengeance on them. But it seldom had anything to do with defending Mexicans. He raided peaceful ranches that had little to do with miners or mining or Mexicans, and for some perverse reason, he targeted the most vulnerable miners in the Sierras, the hard working Chinese, who never bothered anyone and who took abuse from all directions, leaving a sea of blood and tears in his wake. Murrieta had acquired a taste for killing, discovered he was very good at it, and found that he enjoyed it. He assembled a band of outlaws known as the Five Joaquins that terrorized the state from one end to the other, though he was the undisputed leader.

Murrieta apparently had a flair for dramatic effect. He often went to town in costume, to gather information about his enemies, or just to have a good time. There are countless stories of his daring and bravado. But what endears certain criminals to the public mind – what makes folk heroes out of them – is their humanity when it shows up in kindness. We love a bad man who has a tender side and does good deeds now and then. While Murrieta avenged every treason against him, he is also said to have rewarded every kindness shown to him, no matter how small. In many of these stories he appears indifferent to the gold and loot, and gladly gives it away. If you gave him lodging and a meal without protest, he was as likely to reward you as to kill you: flip a coin. Honestly, though, from the dozens of stories recounted by Burns in this riveting book, I have to wonder how certain it could be that Joaquin Murrieta is the outlaw of every story. His gang consisted of hundreds of men and dozens of small bands with their own leaders, and there were at least four more Joaquins besides, so I have think that positive identification was not a slam dunk.

A deputized sheriff by the name of Harry Love was commissioned by the new state of California to organize the California Rangers for the purpose of stopping Murrieta and his savage partner, Three Fingered Jack. Love and his men found them in a canyon on the Coast Range, prevailed with gunfire, and for purposes of identification decapitated Murrieta and cut off the hand of Three Fingered Jack. For years these relics were displayed around the state, finally resting in San Francisco, until destroyed by the earthquake and fire of 1906. Legends of Murrieta’s buried gold persist to this day.

What is the reality of Joaquin Murrieta? The folk hero that some Hispanic or “Chicano” activists have tried to make of him is untenable. If he was ever a good man, he definitely went bad and there is no whitewashing this fact. I do think it likely that Murrieta was, at first, not a man with a criminal disposition, and that the injustices he suffered helped to propel him to a life of crime. We applaud the justice he brought to bad men when the law was absent. We are charmed by the mercy he showed, at times, when he could easily have done what by then came naturally to him. Like all criminals, and indeed all men, he was not a one dimensional personality. He was, like most of us, someone who alternated between his better and worst instincts — but his demons won in the end.

In any case, the most disturbing aspect of this book was not the terror inflicted by Murrieta’s outlaws, as awful as that was, or even the idea that a good man could turn so bad due to circumstances beyond his control, but rather the morally depraved milieu of the gold rush itself. This is not news to me, or to any student of California history. However, Burns makes it come alive in a way that caught me a little off guard. Think about it: California’s non-Indian population went from about 12,000 in 1848 to 380,000 ten years later. By some estimates the newcomers were over 90% male. So, the gold rush was an overwhelmingly male phenomenon, lacking the feminine influence that is necessary to tame and domesticate the average man. That’s already a problem. But it might not have been so much of a problem if these were average men. The ’49ers were not average men. They were, by and large, the greediest, the rowdiest, the most ignorant, the least moral, the least religious, the least educated, etc. of the men in the place from which they came. The more respectable among them still found nothing wrong with leaving wives, children, farms and businesses behind in order to undertake a dangerous journey in a fanatical quest for more wealth and riches than they could possibly use. The mining towns were essentially organized for greed and debauchery. It was not uncommon to have multiple brothels and no churches. The overall tenor of the Sierra foothills was greed, violence, debauchery, drunkenness, and very little respect for life. “Fire on the Mountain” by the Marshall Tucker Band is an accurate portrayal.

It’s true that there were good men, too, whose motives weren’t entirely debased. Many were more interested in adventure than gold. Gen. John Bidwell, the founder of Chico, comes to mind. He was well educated and made his fortune mining the Feather River. Once that was done he turned to farming and ranching, married well, treated his Indian workers well, and founded a new city. He was a deeply Christian man, and his disappointed biographers, two hard-bitten cynical journalists, declared that despite all of their research they could find no “dirt” on him to report.

I suppose that, under the circumstances, one should be surprised to find so many remnants of civilization in the mining camps. The vigilante committees are known today for their excesses and injustices, but they helped bring order to chaos, and they included many genuinely fair-minded men. Burns recounts a number of vigilante trials where the accused is acquitted and released despite popular opposition. He also reports many incidents where fair-minded men stopped, or tried to stop, intemperate vigilante “justice” in the mining camps. Although the lawlessness of the gold rush ceded to the forces of civilization, in part because the miners themselves had grown tired of it, the untamed spirit of the ’49ers remains in this state under various guises. You might say that California is still paying for its original sin.

 

 

 

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