On the wintry morning of February 20, 1853, more than a hundred Chinese miners were working their claims near Rich Gulch.  Without warning, five mounted and gun-brandishing bandidos swept down upon the Chinese.  Taken by surprise and without arms themselves, the Chinese could do little but comply when ordered to hand over their gold.  An American who happened to be in the Chinese camp refused and made a rush for the bandidos.  He was joined by two Chinese.  The bandidos opened fire, killing the three men instantly.  Stray bullets wounded five others.  The bandidos collected some $10,000 worth of gold dust and nuggets and left as suddenly as they had come.  Two days later, the same gang hit another Chinese camp with equally bloody, if less profitable, results.  The robbers killed three Chinese, wounded five more, and got away with $3,000 worth of gold.

Charlie Clarke, the leader of a small posse on the trail of the killers, described them as “five well dressed Mexicans, well armed and mounted on beautiful animals.”  Their leader was Joaquin Murrieta.  Probably the most mythologized figure in California history, Murrieta has been portrayed as a social bandit who waged war against the hated gringos by robbing and killing them.  In truth, there was nothing social about his banditry.  He robbed and killed those who had money, be they American, Chinese, or Mexican.  He killed more Chinese than whites and robbed and murdered several of his fellow Mexicans.  His cause was his own.

Most of what people think they know about Murrieta comes from a wildly fictional tale created by John Rollin Ridge.  In 1854, the part-Cherokee Ridge published The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit.  Ridge says that Americans drove Murrieta from his claim, flogged him and raped his wife, and hanged his brother.  Murrieta then set out on a course of revenge, killing all the gringos responsible.  The tale seems inspired more by the removal of the Cherokee and the conflict that occurred both within the Cherokee tribe and with the whites than by anything that Murrieta experienced.  (Ridge’s grandfather, Cherokee leader Major Ridge, and his father, John Ridge, were both killed during the conflict over removal.)  Nonetheless, Ridge’s fictional version of Murrieta’s life became accepted as fact.

Stories about Murrieta multiplied, and articles mixing fact with fiction appeared in newspapers and magazines for years.  The romantic myth was more powerful than the awful truth.  Walter Noble Burns took the myth to new heights with the publication of The Robin Hood of El Dorado in 1932.  Although as long ago as 1949, Joseph Henry Jackson, in Bad Company, revealed the fictional nature of most of the literature on Murrieta and demonstrated clearly that most authors relied heavily on Ridge, the early 1970’s saw a revival, especially by activist Chicano authors, of the myth of the wronged Californio turned social bandit.

Actually, Murrieta was not a Californio but a Mexican from Sonora who did not arrive in California until 1849.  He was not flogged, his wife was not raped, and his brother was not hanged.  Moreover, it was Murrieta’s brother-in-law, Claudio Feliz, who first turned to crime, when he stole a large nugget of gold.  The theft had nothing to do with racial antagonism.  He was panning with a party of American miners at the time and was well liked by the Yankees.  Feliz was put in jail for the theft but escaped almost immediately.  Within a year, he was leading a gang of bandidos, intent on enriching themselves, not on avenging wrongs.  A few of those who rode with Feliz were Americans.  Feliz led attacks on ranchos owned by Americans and ranchos owned by Mexicans and on miners and travelers, killing and looting without compunction.  By the fall of 1851, Murrieta had joined Feliz and his band.  Some months later, Feliz was captured, and leadership of the gang fell to Murrieta.  During the early 1850’s, Murrieta led the bandidos in outbursts of robbery and murder through the San Joaquin Valley, into Southern California, and back to the Mother Lode, killing Americans, Chinese, and Mexicans along the way.

Finally, responding to the depredations of Murrieta and other bandidos, the state legislature created the California Rangers, a small force authorized to exist for three months to hunt down evildoers statewide.  Harry Love, a rough-hewn, ornery, and fearless 6’2” veteran of the Mexican War, was commissioned captain and put in command.  Patrick Edward Connor, an Irish immigrant and captain of volunteers in the Mexican War (and later a brigadier general in the Civil War), was made first lieutenant and second in command.  Some 20 men were enlisted as Rangers, most of them war veterans and frontiersmen who had years of experience in tracking and fighting.

The Rangers caught up with Murrieta and his gang at one of their camps on an afternoon in July 1853.  The bandidos feigned surrender but then, from under their serapes, pulled revolvers and blazed away.  A bullet grazed Love’s head, neatly parting his hair.  Unfazed, he and his Rangers responded in kind.  While other bandidos were falling dead, Murrieta leaped onto a horse and galloped for his life.  A Ranger’s bullet broke the animal’s leg and sent horse and rider crashing to the earth.  Murrieta took off running, but a bullet brought him down.  The notorious bandido pleaded that he be shot no more and then, in Spanish, said, “I’m dead.”  Within seconds, he was.

To prove that his Rangers had gotten the right man, Love decapitated Murrieta’s corpse and delivered the head to Sacramento.  The grisly trophy brought Love a $1,000 reward, a princely sum in the 1850’s.  Bottled in alcohol, the head was made a touring exhibit in the Mother Lode country.  It was later put on display in a San Francisco gun shop and then in a museum, before it was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire.