They did deliver a head, but was it the right one?
When gold was first discovered in California, more foreigners than Americans worked the claims. Most were from the Mexican state of Sonora, including Joaquín Murrieta. Needing funds and fearing that too much gold was being taken to other countries, the first California Legislature passed the Foreign Miner’s Tax in March 1850. The law taxed each foreign-born miner $20 a month to work his claims; those who lacked money forfeited their goods, and those who lacked goods were arrested. Merciless tax collectors provoked a bitter backlash. Crime at the mines peaked in June 1850 and continued to run high throughout the decade. By August, newspapers were blaming “bands of Mexican guerrillas” said to be led by a notorious jefe—name unknown —for the sudden escalation in crime.
Three years later, amid recurring rumors of Mexican guerrillas, a band of Sonoran youths in Calaveras County committed a rash of robberies and murders. Several posses pursued them. One bandit was shot dead, three lynched, two arrested, tried and hanged. Those who confessed said the leader was Joaquín (last name perhaps Murrieta). He remained on a rampage when businessmen petitioned the governor, pressuring him to offer a reward for Joaquín. Governor John Bigler, who was up for reelection that year, obliged. He published a warrant offering a $1,000 reward to the party that captured “Joaquín Carillo,” described as 24 years old, 5-foot-10 and “of good address.”
Lawmen in Calaveras County didn’t catch up with Joaquín, but they did get him to quit the county. He and his band fled south, passing through Tuolumne County and stopping to gamble and steal horses in Mariposa County, where local posses took up the chase. Citizens there petitioned the California Legislature in March 1853, requesting funding for a company of state rangers, to be led by Captain Harry Love, whose primary mission would be to capture the elusive Joaquín and break up his band. The legislature approved the bill, then postponed voting on it when skepticism arose due to the lack of precise information about the wanted man.
In May the bill’s supporters pushed it through during a poorly attended evening session, after it had been amended: Captain Love and a company of 20 California Rangers would each be paid $150 a month for three months and were to hunt down “Joaquín Muriati, Joaquín Ocomorenia, Joaquín Valenzuela, Joaquín Botillier and Joaquín Carrillo” and their banded associates. The governor signed it into law that night.
Meanwhile, newspaper descriptions of the Joaquín who had been chased all over Calaveras County said he was really 21 or 22 years old, about 5-foot-8, affable but well armed and fond of gambling. Another, oft-reprinted description of Joaquín said he was a tall, swarthy and strong 34- year-old guerrilla veteran of the war with Mexico. At the time the rangers began their manhunt, Joaquín was said to head a band of 15 to 50 guerrillas who were sacking ranches in San Diego County and bound for Baja California. These reports proved erroneous, but they did not go away, for William Walker wanted to whip up support for a filibuster invasion of Baja California and Sonora, Mexico.
Walker had been in Tuolumne and Mariposa counties, recruiting followers and collecting funds for his filibuster campaign, at the same time the ranger bill was drafted. His supporters included legislators Walter Harvey and Philomen Herbert, both listed among the original California Rangers. They, and five others who never actually served, probably slipped some of the funds meant for the rangers to Walker before dropping out, leaving Captain Love to fill their spots with new recruits.
Most journalists winked at all of this. One correspondent who signed with the initials C.H.P. wrote: “It is the general opinion that the banditti known as Joaquín’s gang, and other robbing parties, can only be exterminated by carrying the war into the enemy’s country, Lower [Baja] California. An expedition of 60 men could easily conquer the whole peninsula, capture San Tomás [said to be Joaquín’s headquarters] and hang every bandit therein.” Love played along because he hoped his effort would spawn a permanent state ranger force, like the Texas Rangers. As he saw it, while “Gen. Walker” fought south of the border, he and his rangers would fight Mexican guerrillas north of the border.
Love had previously pursued both Joaquín Valenzuela and Joaquín Murrieta, and he knew that Mission San Juan Baptiste, near Salinas, was an outlaw rendezvous. He left a small detachment of rangers with Lieutenant Patrick Connor to round up horse thieves in Mariposa and Tuolumne counties, while he led the rest of his company across the San Joaquin River and up into the San Benito Mountains to see what they could learn. He scattered a band of Indian rustlers who outnumbered his force 4-to-1 but failed to come up with either Joaquín. Upon learning that Murrieta was in the Los Angeles area, he headed south.
At Panoche Pass on July 25, the rangers spotted campfire smoke to the southeast and headed in that direction. They surprised and arrested two lookouts and then moved in on the outlaw campsite near Cantua Creek. The bandit leader, identified as Murrieta, leaped onto his horse and took off, leaving his saddle and weapons behind. Ranger William Henderson pursued and killed him. Three other bandits escaped, but “Three-Fingered Jack” Garcia stood his ground and died fighting.
The weather was miserably hot and humid, which meant the corpses would swell and turn black if strapped to horses and carried to Fort Miller, some 115 miles away. So Lieutenant William Byrnes severed the heads of Murrieta and Garcia, as well as Garcia’s three-fingered hand, packed them in willow branches to keep them cool, wrapped them in a blanket and strapped the bundle to a horse.
The rangers headed east with their evidence and prisoners. William Byrnes and another ranger crossed the San Joaquin River by ferry, while Ranger John Sylvester and the prisoners swam their overheated horses across the cool water. One prisoner attempted to escape, turning the horse he was tied to downstream, but horse and rider were soon mired in swamp weeds and mud, where they drowned.
Byrnes and Sylvester continued to Fort Miller, arriving in the evening of July 26. Unfortunately, the surgeon there did not have enough alcohol and arsenic to preserve two heads and a hand. Before more alcohol could be acquired, Garcia’s head spoiled and had to be “disposed of.”
The remaining grizzly evidence was taken to Quartzburg, where witnesses swore out affidavits, identifying the head as that of Joaquín Murrieta. From there, the rangers rode to Mariposa, where the surviving prisoner, who gave his name as “Jose Marie Ochovo” (later identified by his countrymen as Salvador Mendez), confessed at a county court hearing that he was a member of the band and that the head in the possession of Captain Harry Love and his rangers was that of Murrieta.
Love left the prisoner in Mariposa and went on to Stockton, taking with him his report, a description of Joaquín Murrieta and his wounds, a copy of the prisoner’s testimony, several affidavits and, of course, the head. At Stockton, he exhibited the head and collected more affidavits—one from a doctor who had seen Murrieta in Calaveras County, one from a priest and others from Sonorans who had known the bandit for years.
Love brought the evidence to Benicia (state capital at that time), where he got the $1,000 originally offered for “Joaquín Carillo.” Afterward, Democratic Governor John Bigler hit the campaign trail. His Whig foe, William Waldo, poked fun at the “Joaquín rangers.” On August 17, 1853, he wrote, tongue-in-cheek: “The report of the death of Joaquín is not believed here. A report was current a few days ago that he was seen swimming the Tuolumne River, carrying his head in his mouth.”
California newspapers welcomed the news that rangers had killed Joaquín and Three-Fingered Jack, but politics and the sloppy way news was handled soon spawned confusion. For example, Lieutenant Patrick E. Connor said on July 28 that he thought the Joaquín the rangers killed was Valenzuela, and when he learned of his mistake, he never corrected himself in print. In August the San Francisco Daily Alta California caused more confusion by printing month-old Murrieta news from Los Angeles as if it had just happened. Meanwhile, San Diego sources continued to insist that Joaquín had actually crossed the border into Baja California, a story that suited Walker’s purpose.
The rangers continued to exhibit the head, but some journalists didn’t care whose head it was; they wanted to tar and feather the Bigler administration in an election year and tended to see the rangers as part of Walker’s campaign. The ranger bill, plus the reward money offered by Governor Bigler, equaled $10,000, but Love only received $2,000, of which half was reward money; he appealed for $5,000 in relief funds the following year, after Walker’s campaign failed. Ranger William Henderson, who killed Murrieta, received what he mockingly called “the magnificent sum” of $42 for his services.
A report from Los Angeles (possibly written by a legislator still angry over the ranger bill) ran in the Daily Alta California on August 23, 1853, saying: “A party of Californians and Sonorans [from Los Angeles] started for the Tulare valley for the express and avowed purpose of running mustangs. Three of the party have since returned, and report they were attacked by a party of Americans…that Joaquín Valenzuela, one of them, was killed as he was endeavoring to escape, and that his head was cut off.” To this, a Marysville editor responded: “It is a great pity, after all that has been done and said, that the death and decapitation of Joaquín should still remain a ‘vexed question.’” Maybe so, but not to those who recognized the head as that of Joaquín Murrieta. The rangers were disbanded on August 30, 1853.
Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.