Few historical figures are as mysterious and controversial as
Joaquin Murrieta. It seems that for every
“fact” that one historian asserts about Murrieta’s brief
criminal rampage during the California Gold Rush, another historian
has “evidence” to refute it.
Few historical figures are as mysterious and controversial as Joaquin Murrieta. It seems that for every “fact” that one historian asserts about Murrieta’s brief criminal rampage during the California Gold Rush, another historian has “evidence” to refute it.
Legend says that Joaquin Murrieta came to the California Mother Lode in 1849 from Sonora, Mexico, to search for gold. When his family was attacked and mistreated by American miners, an angry Murrieta assembled a band of desperadoes and turned to a life of crime. Murrieta exacted revenge on those who had hurt his family, then he robbed and killed scores of miners and settlers in the Sierra foothills and the San Joaquin Valley. From 1850 until 1853, the unrivaled horsemanship of Joaquin and his gang members kept them ahead of pursuing posses.
My interest in Murrieta arose through my volunteer work at Henry Coe State Park. When I have been fortunate enough to be in the backcountry with someone who knows the Park’s history, it is often said, “Joaquin Murrieta used to hide out here.” I wanted to know more. When? Where exactly?
Researching Murrieta is a slippery proposition. Some writings are flagrant legend building, while the true historians, because of the few known facts, are reduced to stringing together unreliable rumors and stories. One man, Frank Latta, spent 60 years chasing Murrieta’s legend and has written a chaotic but exhaustively fact-packed book of his travels and demise called “Joaquin Murrieta and His Horse Gangs.”
Many wild horses roamed the hills of early California. In the 1830s and ’40s thousands were slaughtered each year by the missions to preserve pastureland the horses were depleting. Murrieta’s horse gangs would assemble wild and stolen horses northeast of Mt. Diablo near the Delta and drive them to Mexico where they were sold.
Murrieta would leave present-day Antioch with around 50 horses and follow a regular and remote route through the Coast Range. There were specific stations along the way where the gang got fresh supplies and more horses rounded up by other gang members. When they emerged from the Coast Range Mountains down Cantua Creek north of Coalinga, they had 300 horses. From here, they crossed the San Joaquin Valley to the Tehachapi Mountains and then on down to Sonora.
Murrieta’s route, called La Vereda del Monte (The Mountain Trail), entered Coe Park at San Antonio Valley where they assembled additional horses from Isabel Valley. Further south, horses were variously held at Paradise Flat, Mustang Flat and Coit Camp. Murrieta’s Gang rounded Mustang Peak (Mustang Flat and Mustang Peak owe their names to Murrieta and his gang), crossed Pacheco Pass and continued south.
In July of 1853, Joaquin Murrieta’s luck ran out. The California Rangers headed by Captain Harry Love surprised Murrieta and his gang at their hideout at Cantua Creek. Murrieta and many of his gang members were killed including the renowned Three-Fingered Jack. Murrieta’s head and the deformed hand of Three-Fingered Jack were pickled and preserved in jars as “proof” of the killing.
Perhaps. To this day there is still controversy about Murrieta’s death. Some confirmed the head in the jar was his and others said no. Some say he was killed that day, but the head belonged to another. Still others say he retired in comfort in Sonora, Mexico. Whatever the truth, no more was ever heard from Joaquin Murrieta. The head in the jar traveled around California, where for a fee, you could view it and rest easy that the danger had passed.
How much is legend and how much is fact? And does it really matter? Not to me. Whether Joaquin Murrieta was a blood thirsty villain or the Robin Hood of an oppressed people, there is magic in walking through those places and feeling his desperate and energetic presence.
Ron Erskine has lived and worked as a builder and brewery owner in South Valley for 20 years. He lives in Morgan Hill with his wife and two children.