Mexican patriot or vicious desperado? It depends on who you ask, but one thing is certain, Joaquin Murrieta was a dashing, romantic figure in history who became a Hispanic folk hero. Just like a Mexican Robin Hood, Murrieta spent his days avenging the misdeeds of corrupt America, using crime himself in an effort to gain revenge against the white settlers who had hurt his loved ones and committed injustices against his fellow Mexicans. So, was the original Zorro a true hero to his people or just a hypocritical bandido bent on murder and destruction? Either way, history only tells one tale.
A Fresh StartUniversalimagesgroup/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Thought to have been born in either Alamos, Sonora, Mexico, or possibly Quillota, Chile in 1829, Murrieta traveled to California in 1850 with his young wife Rosita and brother Carlos to seek his fortune. After all, it was the time of the gold rush, and may people were moving west to find their own slice of heaven. The three immigrants soon set up a small farm and the brothers began working a claim in a nearby town. At just 21 years old, Murrieta had already started on a path towards happiness and prosperity.
Threats and RacismBettmann/Bettmann/Getty Images
Unfortunately for the Murrieta family, a Foreign Miners Tax was imposed that same year in California, and their white neighbors told them it was illegal for Mexicans to hold any claims to gold in the area. In fact, they not only told them but came to the farm regularly to threaten Murrieta and demand he leave what they considered to be "American" land immediately. The brothers tried to ignore the threats as long as they could, but it became increasingly difficult to carve out a life for themselves in this hostile territory.
Threats Become RealityWikimedia
One afternoon, Murrieta's white neighbors lost their patience and decided it was time for the intruding immigrants to learn a lesson. A group of men attacked the peaceful farm, hanging Carlos from the nearest tree and gang raping his wife Rosalita in front of Murrieta's eyes, finally slitting her throat. They then horsewhipped him to a bloody pulp and left him alone to die. Murrieta survived, however, and tried to seek justice through legal means, but he was informed Mexicans had no rights to bring charges against a white man.
Vigilante JusticeJoaquin Murrieta
Suffice to say, Murrieta was incensed and determined to find revenge against those who had tortured and murdered his family. Seeking justice outside the law, he formed a gang of bandidos known as the "Five Joaquins" who would help him bring down six of the culprits over the next few months. Having temporarily satiated his thirst for retribution, Murrieta and his crew headed for the hills in search of more adventures.
Life of CrimeBettmann/Bettmann/Getty Images
In the Gold Rush era of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the wild west was in full swing. The gang of outlaws found plenty of trouble to distract themselves from the rampant racism and corruption they perceived around them. Murrieta and his band of ruffians, including his right-hand man "Three Fingered Jack" rustled cattle for money, robbed banks and trains, and murdered anyone, particularly any whites and Asians, who stood in their way. With posses trailing after them, the bandits were able to avoid the law for several years, killing three lawmen in the process.
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When travel through the goldfields became nearly impossible due to the fierceness of the Five Joaquins, the Governor of California decided to handle the situation (and the general lawlessness of the state) by creating a group of men called the "California Rangers," led by a former Texas Ranger named Harry Love. A bounty of $5,000 was placed on Murrieta's head, and the rangers set off to find the Five Joaquins and bring in the reward money.
GunfightEd Vebell/Archive Photos/Getty Images
On July 25, 1853, the rangers encountered a group of Mexican outlaws near Panoche Pass in San Benito County, the exact territory where Murrieta was known to hang out. A lengthy gunfight ensued and two of the Mexicans were shot and killed, one of whom was believed to be Murrieta and the other, his closest cohort, Three Fingered Jack.
Captured ForeverGif: The Mask of Zorro
To prove their job had been successfully completed, the rangers made a grisly trophy by cutting off Murrieta's head and preserving it in a jar of whiskey. Seventeen people, including a priest, signed affidavits swearing the man was, in fact, Murrieta and the rangers received their hefty reward.
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The gory memento proceeded to tour California and was displayed for curious onlookers in places like Stockton, San Francisco, and the mining camps of Mariposa county. The rangers continued to line their pockets on the death of Murrieta, charging people $1 each to see the grim remains of the infamous outlaw. But there was one problem--a woman who claimed to be Murrieta's sister said it was not him, and she had heard witnesses admit to having seen him. Whether true or not, these suggestions sowed the seed of doubt in many.
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Despite his lawlessness, Murrieta was known to have been kind to his Mexican compatriots and often gave the money he earned through robbing the wealthy to poor immigrants, who in turn sheltered him from the law.
His Alleged Severed Head Found a HomeBob Grieser/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
Over the years, Murrieta became known as the Robin Hood of El Dorado and symbolized the resistance of the Mexicans to the white domination of California. As for his severed head, it was finally placed behind the bar of the Golden Nugget Saloon in San Francisco where it sat until it perished in the great 1906 earthquake.