Joaquin Murieta migrated from Mexico to the California gold country in 1850, when he was eighteen years old. He worked peacefully as a miner until a group of white settlers attacked him and his family. They murdered his brother, assaulted his wife, and beat him brutally.
He recovered, but the event trans¬ formed him into a Robin Hood-like character, seeking vengeance for all Mexicans who had been mistreated.With his sidekick, “Three-Fingers” Jack Garcia, and their gang of bandits, Murieta began a campaign of robberies targeting white settlers in the gold country.
Reports from surviving victims gave rise to a “Joaquin scare.” Some believed there were as many as five different Joaqufns.In 1853, the California legislature responded to the panic by forming a special unit of twenty soldiers, led by a former army officer from Texas, Harry S. Love. The soldiers would hunt down Joaquin Murieta, whether he was one man or five.
Mexican Americans in the legislature protested the lack of certainty about Murieta, but the white majority downplayed their con¬ cerns. Governor John Bigler posted his own reward of one thousand dollars.The men searched the foothills of California, and on July 25, with only a few days remaining on the bounty, they encountered a group of Mexican men in an encampment in the Arroyo Cantua, about 70 miles (113 km) southwest of Fresno.
A shoot-out ensued, leaving two men dead: Murieta and “Three-Fingers” Jack. Love and his men returned to Sacramento with the head of Murieta and the hand of “Three-Fingers” Jack pickled in whiskey jars. Although they could not prove the identity of the victims, the legislature accepted the jars as evidence and rewarded Love with five thousand dollars.
Little is certain about the details of Murietas life. Some believe he may have escaped capture in California and returned to Mexico, where he died of old age. What is certain is that Murieta became a hero for Mexican Americans.
Soon after the events of 1853, a half-Cherokee journalist named John Rollin Ridge, otherwise known as Yellow Bird, published a novel entitled The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, which romanticized Murietas life and fueled the legend.The story has inspired books, poems, plays, and movies in the United States and abroad.
Murieta is believed to have inspired such movie and television characters as Zorro and the Cisco Kid. Murieta was an icon for the Chicano civil rights movement, and Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales (see no. 52) is believed to have based his epic poem, “I Am Joaquin” on Murieta.
Every year, on July 25, a group of more than two hundred Mexican Americans ride horses to Arroyo Cantua to pay tribute to the spirit of Murieta and his rebellious¬ ness against oppression and discrimination.