No matter how many murders and robberies he actually committed, California’s most notorious bandit cast a wide shadow on the gold rush. But it is hard to catch a shadow.

Like the American Forty-Niners, Joaquín Murrieta came to California to mine for gold. He found it near Sonora, the Tuolumne County town founded by fellow miners from the Mexican state of Sonora. His claim was rich, and some greedy American prospectors reportedly decided to drive him away. Murrieta (or Murieta) went without putting up a fight. Then, around April 1850, he found another claim nearby to work. Again he struck gold. This time two Irish-American Forty-Niners asked him to leave. Paying a foreign miner’s tax was bad enough, but losing another productive claim was intolerable. The young Mexican refused the demand, and a fight ensued. One of the interlopers picked up a whiskey bottle and struck Murrieta in the face, leaving a permanent scar. Not that Murrieta needed a facial scar in the months ahead to call to mind the injustice of it all or to remember the reason he chose a different path to acquire riches.

And so Joaquín Murrieta became a bandit. According to one viewpoint, he was justified in his outlaw actions because of the injustices done to him—like the legendary Zorro or equally fictitious Robin Hood. Walter Noble Burns, the same author who glorified Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid, portrayed Murrieta as a Hispanic protagonist in his 1932 book The Robin Hood of El Dorado. Even in Murrieta’s own day, a segment of the population—mostly Mexicans and Californios (Hispanics who had settled in California prior to the 1846–48 Mexican War)— viewed him as a rebel with a cause. After all, Californios lost much of their land and horses to Americans, and Americans drove off many other Mexican placer miners besides Murrieta, exorbitantly taxing those allowed to remain. Resentment brewed, and by 1850 vengeful young Mexicans and Californios had formed outlaw bands. Joaquín Murrieta was the most notorious of these banditos, but even many honest and hard-working Mexicans and Californios came to admire him.

In truth, though, not all of Murrieta’s victims were Americans, and some California residents saw Joaquín as depraved and greedy. The California Rangers would hunt him relentlessly. Yellow Bird (aka John Rollin Ridge), a Cherokee mestizo who wrote the 1854 book The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, said the brigand chief merited his violent death. But the author also asserted Murrieta had left “behind him the important lesson that there is nothing so dangerous in its consequences as injustice to individuals—whether it arises from prejudice of color or from any other source; that a wrong done to one man is a wrong to society and to the world.” That statement rings true, but how much of the Murrieta legend is true?

Ridge’s book has been labeled the first American Indian novel, and historian Joseph Henry Jackson argued that Ridge created Murrieta “practically out of whole cloth.” In the opening paragraph of the book, however, Ridge said he wanted “to contribute my mite to those materials out of which the early history of California shall one day be composed.” And though influenced by banditti romances of the day, Ridge based sections of his accounts on newspaper reports and interviews. As for author Burns, he wrote fictionalized history, so it is difficult to sift the facts from his book. Some people have concluded that Murrieta was a composite of several desperadoes operating in California. The facts are still sketchy. He was probably born in Sonora, Mexico, in 1830, and he probably died violently in California in July 1853. But even though much folklore and mythology surround the man, he really did live dangerously at the time of the gold rush. And deserving or not, Murrieta, like the fictional Zorro, left a permanent mark on California and the rest of the nation.

Father Dominique Blaive recalled that during the summer of 1851 he shared a room at Hotel de Minas in Stockton with Joaquín Murrieta, who was not yet known as a thief. The first account of Murrieta’s outlaw activities appeared in the Benicia California Gazette, which in February 1852 published the confession of young Teodor Basques, a horse thief from Hermosillo, Sonora. Arrested in San Jose in November 1851, Basques was hanged in January 1852. In his confession, he implicated several Americans and a dozen Sonoran youths, among them the teenage brothers Claudio and Reyes Feliz and “Joaquín Gurietta [sic].” Basques, Murrieta and some others stole horses and mules in San Jose, sold them in Marysville and lost all their money playing monte in Campo Seco, Calaveras County—a performance Joaquín would repeat in 1853.

On April 19, 1852, a man named Murrieta was arrested in Jackson, Calaveras County, as a suspect in the shooting death of posse member James Clark. The posse had tried to arrest a small band of Mexican horse thieves at Willow Springs (now Waites Station) on April 4, when the bandits shot Clark and fled. The San Joaquin Republican predicted Murrieta would be “summarily dealt with” at Willow Creek, to which the arresting officer was escorting him, but he escaped the noose, possibly by paying a bribe. Meanwhile, Claudio Feliz got himself shot and captured while wresting his 15-year-old brother from a posse that was transporting Reyes to the jail in Sonora. Reyes Feliz fled south, joining up with Murrieta and a man named Pedro (Pedro Gonzales, according to John Rollin Ridge). In early May, the trio stole horses from Rancho Orestimba, east of San Jose, and herded them south along Indian trails in the coast ranges. A posse from Orestimba pursued them, as did bounty hunter Harry Love and a partner, who were after three Mexicans suspected of murder and highway robbery in Mariposa County.

All three groups traveled about 20 miles a day. Murrieta’s party, which other Mexicans joined en route, reached Tejon Pass, in northwest Los Angeles County, in early June. There the outlaws abused the hospitality of Indian vaqueros from Chief Zapatero’s band. The vaqueros returned at night with reinforcements, crept up to the sleeping bandits, seized their weapons and robbed the robbers. They took everything, including clothes, then bound the bandits and withdrew to divide the loot. Sometime during the night, the bandits freed themselves and fled. As Reyes Feliz was retreating on foot, a grizzly bear mauled him, adding injury to insult.

While Feliz was convalescing at a ranch house, Harry Love caught up with Pedro Gonzales on the road to Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Star reported Love’s claim in a court affidavit that Pedro had been captured and later killed attempting to escape. Yet Murrieta got away, slipping into Los Angeles to play monte, train horses and spend time with his flame, Ana Benitez.

On the first Sunday of November 1852, Benitez and Murrieta —together with Reyes Feliz and many other Sonorans, Californians and Americans—gathered in San Gabriel to watch a maroma (rope dance). At sundown, Murrieta and Benitez went to the ramada (covered patio) at Juan Avila’s house and shared a blanket; others slept nearby. During the night, witnesses heard angry voices, then shots. Major General Joshua Bean cried out for help. Mortally wounded, he lingered some hours before dying. While the general was on his deathbed, Murrieta and some recruits stole horses in San Gabriel and began herding them north.

Vigilantes arrested and questioned both Reyes Feliz and Ana Benitez, among others. Feliz recounted his adventures with Murrieta at Orestimba and Tejon, as well as Pedro’s fate. He claimed ignorance of who had shot Bean, but reported that others had overheard Benitez say Murrieta had shot him. The Star published confessions by Feliz, Benitez and Benito Lopez (a member of Salomon Pico’s gang) that first week of December, and the San Francisco Alta California reprinted them midmonth. The name “Joaquín Murieta” came up repeatedly in their testimonies. Murrieta was suspected of also belonging to Pico’s “band of cutthroats,” which vigilantes blamed for Bean’s murder. Whatever the truth, Benito Lopez and Reyes Feliz were summarily hanged.

In mid-December 1852, a band of Mexican horse thieves arrived near San Andreas, Calaveras County. While miners and merchants celebrated the holiday season, the bandits, under the cover of a hailstorm, robbed four businesses in Jackson, 16 miles to the north, taking cash, weapons, ammunition and provisions. A couple of days later, the Stockton Journal reported that Edward Cameron “was fired upon by two Mexicans and wounded so badly in the abdomen that he died shortly afterward.” Cameron was shot on the road between San Andreas and Angels Camp, a 12-mile stretch that passed a side road to Yaqui Camp (now Calaveritas), where horse thieves were believed to be hiding out.

In January 1853, heavy rain caused flash flooding in the area, and when the high waters receded, miners found gold that had been knocked free of quartz deposits. Chinese miners recovered much of the gold, but Murrieta and his band soon robbed them. American neighbors paid scant attention until some of their own horses went missing. On January 21, one young bandit was captured but soon escaped as three mounted Mexicans with drawn revolvers discouraged pursuers.

San Andreas Sheriff Charles Ellis and two deputies, assisted by two citizens, pursued the Mexicans over hills and across creeks until they spotted 10 Mexicans resting their horses on a hilltop clearing. The five-man posse quietly advanced to within rifle range beneath a small grove of trees, and one of the deputies fired at the outlaws. The Mexicans found cover but later mounted a charge, sweeping past the posse while firing their weapons. The sheriff’s men fired back until they ran out of ammunition. Amazingly, none of the posse was hit.

Back in San Andreas, the lawmen learned that Mexican outlaws had killed John Carter in Yaqui Camp. “A party set out from San Andreas in search of the band,” the Calaveras Chronicle reported, “and at Yackee [sic] met a Mexican, known as Big Bill…who boasted of having killed Americans last year. [He was] hanged forthwith, and the party proceeded on their march.” At Phoenix Quartz Mill, about a mile from Yaqui, a shootout left two Americans dead and one bandit badly wounded. The blood trail led to Cherokee Flat, near Angels Camp. There, the lawmen shot a fleeing bandit, then captured and hanged the wounded man. Before he swung, he revealed that the leader of the outlaw band was named Joaquín. Angry vigilantes soon descended on Yaqui Camp, sacking and burning it. Calaveras County seat Double Springs, where the bandits had stolen horses, passed an edict forcing all foreigners, Mexican and otherwise, into exile.

While the exiles, some with wives and children, retreated on foot to Stockton, vigilantes continued to patrol the county and make arrests. One nameless Mexican was hanged at San Andreas. Another, rumored to be Joaquín’s brother, was hanged at Angels Camp. A mile to the south at Los Muertos, Sheriff Ellis arrested a Mexican suffering from shotgun wounds. Before being hanged, he too said Joaquín led the band, also mentioning Claudio and Reyes Feliz.

On February 4, 1853, Justice Thomas Beatty of Campo Seco ordered the owners of the ferry at Winters Bar to let no one pass during the night, for he had heard Joaquín and his band were in the neighborhood. Beatty went to deputize posse men, but while he was away, five well-armed young Mexicans forced the ferryman to carry them across the Mokelumne River. Beatty and posse crossed the river the next morning and hunted for clues. They met some Chinese miners who had been robbed by five well-dressed Mexican youths armed with revolvers, sabers and knives. Outside Drytown, the posse found several exhausted, abandoned horses. Beatty collected the animals and went to Jackson Gate, where he learned that one of the robbers had dealt monte all night at a Mexican saloon, heading out before dawn in a southerly direction. Beatty proceded south to Campo Seco with the horses.

About the time Beatty gave up the chase, an American and three Chinese men were murdered near Jackson. The next day, a correspondent for the San Joaquin Republican wrote, “The notorious outlaw, Joaquin, has been…within five miles of Mokelumne Hill.” The sheriff of Jackson formed a posse and pursued. The lawmen, the paper reported, “overtook the gang and fired on them—wounding one…who, however, made his escape.” The posse came back with a badly wounded Chinese cook and some equipment the fleeing bandits had left behind.

Following a tip, a Mokelumne Hill posse later rode to Mount Ophir, a Mexican camp a few miles outside town, where it arrested Antonio Valencia. The wounded Chinese cook identified him as one of the bandits, and another hanging commenced. But Murrieta remained at large, and that was unacceptable to the citizens of Mokelumne Hill. They took up a collection to raise a posse of six good men, led by Charles A. Clark, deputy sheriff of Calaveras and captain of the Calaveras Guards. The community also circulated a petition, asking the governor to offer a reward for the capture of Joaquín. Governor John Bigler responded by offering a $1,000 reward for “Joaquin Carillo,” which the San Francisco Herald later clarified was one of the aliases used by Joaquín Murrieta.

Captain Clark and his men set out from Mokelumne Hill full of confidence on Friday, February 18, 1853, but they returned six days later empty-handed and saddle sore. At one point, Clark reported, the posse came close enough to fire on the bandits, but a bullet “unfortunately struck one of the Mexicans in the hand only; they took to their horses and were out of sight in an instant.” While fleeing, the Mexicans had the nerve to carry out more criminal activity. “We saw them about three-quarters of a mile distant, robbing some Chinamen,” Clark reported. “They turned and saw us advancing, but they stirred not an inch until we were half a mile [away]…then they mounted their horses and rode off….We attempted pursuit, but our horses were worn out.” Although they failed to capture Murrieta’s band, Clark and company did manage to force them from the county.

Joaquín Murrieta was next seen passing through Tuolumne County en route to Mariposa County, where, in early March, he bet high on monte at Hornitos. A talkative gambler, he excited suspicion, and his nervous confederates made him leave the table early. Later reports suggest the band looped north along the foot of the Sierras to Placerville, west to the Sonora near Marysville, on to Colusa, and from there all the way south to Stockton, San Jose, Monterey and the Salinas Valley. There, at 1 a.m. on April 13, Murrieta and five followers called at Francisco Pacheco’s ranch, claiming they were hungry vaqueros who had lost their way. Pacheco’s wife set about preparing a meal while the ranchero kept a wary eye on his well-armed guests.

Murrieta did not use an alias or dodge the question when Pacheco asked whether he was the Joaquín who had caused so much alarm at the mines of late. The talkative and seemingly affable young man simply justified his crimes, claiming he had found it impossible to make an honest living. “With an American friend,” he explained to the ranchero, “I took up a piece of land not far from Stockton, and was getting a fine little farm underway, when I was annoyed, insulted and injured to such a degree by my neighbors that I could not live in peace. I then went in the placers and was getting on very well, when I was driven from my hole by some of my lawless neighbors. I was in trade and business there and was wronged and cheated by everyone I trusted.” So, Murrieta said, he decided to follow the example of his unruly American neighbors, taking what he wanted by wronging and cheating others.

Joaquín also told his nervous host of his recent adventures in Calaveras County, adding that when he heard a large reward was being offered for him, he went to Stockton in disguise and read the different “wanted” handbills. On one posted by Chinese businessmen offering $5,000, he wrote in pencil, “I will give $10,000 myself—Joaquín.”

From Pacheco’s ranch, Murrieta and his band rode south through San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles, arriving there in mid-June, according to reports in the Los Angeles Star. In the Spanish section of that paper, an editorial asked, “¿Quien es Joaquín?” (“Who is Joaquín?”). The piece suggested that not everyone in the Spanish-speaking community believed Murrieta could have committed all the crimes recorded as far north as Yuba County and as far south as San Diego County—and indeed they were right. Other active bandidos in the region included Joaquín Valenzuela and Luis Burgos, alias Joaquín. The editor argued, however, that Californios who saw Murrieta as a hero retaliating against unjust Americans were sadly deluded. Murrieta depicted himself as an avenger, the editor said, only to win over allies who would then supply his band with food and shelter, horses and recruits.

The editorial may have helped to undermine Murrieta’s network in Los Angeles County, for he found it necessary to leave the area a couple of weeks later. He and his band again headed north, crossing the San Fernando Valley and stealing horses from General Don Andrés Pico’s ranch along the way. One of Pico’s vaqueros soon stopped the bandits and warned them that the general was not a man to be trifled with. Joaquín at least was willing to compromise. He decided to hand over 40 horses to stall pursuers but kept the seven he and his men were riding, saying they needed them.

As Murrieta made his latest escape, certain members of the state Legislature passed an unpopular bill, creating the California Rangers and authorizing Captain Harry Love and a 20-man company to track down five Joaquíns—Murrieta, Valenzuela and Carrillo among them. Love’s company caught up to Murrieta’s band in the pre-dawn hours of July 25 at a water hole near Cantua Creek, about 120 miles north of Tejon Pass. The weather was sweltering and the creek bed dry. Riding south through Panoche Pass, the rangers spotted a wisp of smoke to the south where one of Murrieta’s men had started a cookfire. Arresting two lookouts en route, the rangers continued south.

As they approached the Mexican camp, ranger Bill Henderson saw a bandit jump to his feet, pull his hat down low and go for his horse, which was tethered outside camp. Henderson spurred ahead, placing his horse between the Mexican and his saddle and blanket, where the outlaw had left his revolvers. When Captain Love caught up and started asking questions, the young man claimed to be a mustang hunter and that the others worked for him. But when ranger William Byrnes, the last to arrive, saw the man’s face, he recognized Murrieta and blurted, “That’s Joaquín!”

Henderson fired his shotgun at the bandit, but his horse shied and the pellets went wide. Murrieta, meanwhile, swung onto his horse bareback while shouting in Spanish, “Every man for himself!” He rode off west, jumping his horse into the creek bed in an effort to shake pursuers, but the horse stumbled, throwing Murrieta. Henderson saw him remount and head upstream at a gallop. The ranger dropped his shotgun, drew his revolver and gave chase. He shot Murrieta’s horse, but the animal didn’t even slow. Reaching a sloping bank, Murrieta turned up toward the hills. At that moment, ranger John White caught up with Henderson, and they fired at Joaquín almost simultaneously, hitting him in the small of the back. The outlaw fell, but again jumped to his feet and started running up the slope on foot. Henderson cut him off and fired again, the bullet piercing Murrieta’s heart. The mortally wounded bandit finally stopped. Staring up at the rangers’ smoking gun barrels, Joaquín Murrieta shouted “¡No tiren más, estoy muerto!” (“Stop shooting, I’m dead!”), then collapsed on his side.

Captain Love examined the body and wrote a description of the notorious bandit in his report to the governor. Murrieta’s head was severed and transported to Fort Miller, where it was preserved in alcohol and later exhibited in Stockton and other locales. Don Andrés Pico, who came to claim the horses the rangers had recovered, was among those who positively identified the severed head as that of Murrieta. Of the six others in Murrieta’s party, three escaped, one was killed and two were arrested. One of those arrested drowned while trying to escape; the other confessed and was hanged.

While Murrieta became a legend, the California Rangers did not. A sly minority in the state Legislature had undermined public trust by pushing through the politically unpopular California Ranger bill. Others argued that the head in the jar was not even that of Joaquín Murrieta. Out of their doubts came the belief that Murrieta may have escaped and lived out his life on a ranch south of the border. Such beliefs add to his lasting legend.


A descendant of a gold rush prospector, Lori Lee Wilson now lives in Vermont. Suggested for further reading: The Legend of Joaquin Murrieta, by James F. Varley, and The Man From the Rio Grande: A Biography of Harry Love, by William B. Secrest.

Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here