July 25, Saddling up at 2 a. Harry Love and his fellow California Rangers ride out of their rugged mountain camp and make their way to Cantua Creek in central California. They have been on the trail of Joaquin Murrieta for more than two months. By daybreak, they reach the spot where the creek enters the San Joaquin Valley. The Rangers spot the smoke of a campfire on the plains three miles in the distance. Spurring their mounts, the Rangers approach within yards.
The camp comes alive as Love and his men gallop in and demand, at gunpoint, that the Mexicans stop in their tracks.
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I am the leader of this band. We have got him at last! At this unexpected pronouncement, the assembled gang members fling open their serapes, whip out their pistols and blaze away.
Nine shots from the Rangers rip into the shooter, and he crumples to the ground. Murrieta leaps onto a horse bareback and jumps the horse down a foot embankment into the creek bed. Ranger William Henderson fires at Murrieta with his shotgun, then spurs his horse down the embankment in pursuit. He fell ill and died on October 5, In his October 8th obituary, it was written: "As a writer probably no man in California had a wider and better reputation than John R.
He possessed a good education had a clear and vigorous mind, was well up in classical lore; and in the possession of these essentials to journalistic distinction it is not surprising that he was professionally successful. With more energy and with stronger aspirations to place his name among the highest literary lights he might have added many volumes to the purer and better literature of the time He wrote with ease, and as is generally the case with genius, sometimes carelessly…. His remains were yesterday interred in Greenwood Cemetery near this place, his funeral cortege being a very large one Today, John Rollin Ridge rests in final slumber next to his wife; his daughter; his brother, Andrew Jackson Ridge; and some in-laws.
In , his widow Elizabeth planted a red maple tree at the corner of School and Neal Street in honor of her husband. The tree came from the battlefield at Gettysburg.
Harry, Mary, and Joaquin Murrieta by Mario Balibrera (2012, Paperback)
It still stands proudly, although it was seriously damaged by a powerful January storm. The mythology surrounding Joaquin Murieta stubbornly refuses to expire. Throughout the Mother Lode, his name is still invoked. And his legend began with John Rollin Ridge. He was crafty, generous, vindictive, heroic, and remarkably cool under pressure. He was kindly benefactor and cold-blooded killer. He was a man of startling handsomeness and bravado. He was a stealthy avenger, a resourceful escape artist, loyal friend of the downtrodden, and swashbuckling defender of a lost culture.
He was Joaquin Murieta, legendary bandit hero of the Gold Country. Joaquin was grateful but practical—to test its effectiveness, he made the Frenchman wear the vest while Joaquin shot at him. In Hornitos, they point to a tunnel supposedly used by Murieta in an escape from heavily armed pursuers.
Miles away in Volcano, it is claimed that there once was a well-hidden treehouse that secreted the elusive public enemy as tired lawmen rested below him. Dozens of towns claim that Joaquin was here—Joaquin escaped here—Joaquin slept here—Joaquin distributed his loot here—Joaquin. Did it actually happen? It is known that in , a man who was called Joaquin Murieta was killed by a hired gunman. And how much of this tale is fact? How much fiction?
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It is here that the historical paths diverge. There are a handful who claim that every incident, every nuance is true, all true. Some admit that the facts may have been fudged a mite, but the skeleton of truth is secure. A few historians acknowledge that some facts are in the historical record, but, for the most part, the story of Joaquin Murieta is an exaggeration.
Many scholars believe that the Murieta tale is myth—an entertaining yarn constructed of whole cloth, smoke and mirrors.
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This latter view is now the predominant historical interpretation. However, those who argue that the Murieta case is a mixture of fact and folklore offer the following evidence. In early Gold Rush California, it is indisputable that the clash between the once dominant Californio Latino culture and the newly arrived Anglo-American gold miners intensified. While many of the outlaws were known to be of European heritage, the majority appear to be Latino.
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Crime increased dramatically and fear mounted among the good citizens of the Mother Lode. By and , the Southern Mines were troubled by a number of thieves. Most of them were called or claimed to be named Joaquin. They were all mobile, all deceptive, all elusive, and all bothersome. It was difficult, if not downright impossible, to determine which Joaquin had committed a crime.
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What to do? The Mother Lode mining communities were crying for the immediate apprehension of this wily criminal or criminals. In May , the California legislature responded by hiring gunman and former Texas Ranger Harry Love to capture the outlaw Joaquin—no last name specified. Dead or Alive. The legislature had debated five different full names, but decided on instructions that used only the generic name of Joaquin.
This was a huge sum of money in the days when a few hundred dollars was considered an excellent annual income, and a lot of cash even considering the inflated prices of the Gold Country. By now this diverse group of lawbreakers had begun to assume a single identity—Joaquin Murieta. Love and his compatriots rode out to seize the cunning Joaquin and his reported accomplice, Three Fingered Jack. Three Fingered Jack was the alias of Manuel Garcia, who was wanted throughout California for theft and murder.
On top of the threat to the general populace, it was noted that Garcia hated the Chinese and was a suspected serial killer of Chinese miners in Calaveras County. It was claimed that Joaquin Murieta had killed as many as Chinese as well. For several weeks, they had no luck.
Harry, Mary, and Joaquin Murrieta
At least two of the Latinos were killed. Love decapitated this supposed chieftain and had his head sealed in a jar of alcohol. Additionally, a hand was severed from a second victim and placed in a separate jar. Love claimed the head was that of Joaquin Murieta and the hand had once belonged to Three Fingered Jack. He returned triumphantly to reclaim his reward. Others were skeptical to say the least. A surviving member of the Mexican party stated that the head was clearly that of Joaquin Valenzuela.
Love insisted that the grotesque relics were authentic. Initially the show drew large crowds, but, by , interest was dwindling. In that year, a San Francisco entrepreneur purchased the head and hand. The items were said to have vanished in the aftermath of the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. While Love and his macabre carnival traveled the countryside, the legend of Joaquin Murieta grew. In , as recounted in the first part of this two-part series, a struggling gold miner turned writer named John Rollin Ridge also known by his Cherokee name Yellow Bird collected the various Joaquin stories and fused them into a single myth.
Ridge consolidated the stories, exaggerated actual details, invented breathtaking situations, concocted wild escapes, and promoted the image of Joaquin as a Mother Lode Robin Hood driven to crime by social injustice.