No, Not That Murrieta — the Crime Fighting Murrieta

The residents of Murrieta in Riverside County, hometown of former GOP Senate Leader Dennis Hollingsworth, have been good sports for the last 128 or so years.

No, they patiently reply, the town was not named for Joaquin Murrieta, the Gold Rush era bandit, but for local pioneer Juan Murrieta, a sheep rancher and avocado grower.

Joaquin is far better known thanks to numerous Robin Hood-like fictions that have accumulated following his brief 1850 to 1853 spree of thievery and killings.

In a more than cursory search of the Internet, what appears to be the most reliable description of Joaquin’s life comes from William Mero.

Mero debunks the myths that Joaquin and his brother, Carlos, were thrown off their claim during the Gold Rush because of the 1851 Foreign Miners Tax.

He also says there is no historical record of Joaquin’s wife, Rosa, being raped and his life of crime beginning with revenging himself on those who assaulted brutal thug, Harry Love, gunned him down and cut off his head.murrieta-2

Much of this hokum was invented by John Rolin Ridge, a sometime newspaperman, who wrote a 90-page romanticized version of Joaquin’s life in 1854, one year after the desperado’s death.

Later writers used Ridge’s book as source material and, over time, the tale of Joaquin’s life became as warped from reality as the ending whisper in “Telephone” at slumber parties.

Joaquin’s wife’s brother, Claudio, began gold mining in Sonora. Joaquin worked as a vaquero near Oakley and Brentwood in 1850.

Claudio stole another miner’s gold in1 849 but managed to escape from the Stockton jail and launch his criminal career, which Joaquin embraced in 1851.

That same year, Claudio left a Monterey County robbery victim alive, his gang was cornered and Claudio killed.

Joaquin and Claudio’s brother, Reyes, took over the gang. Reyes was implicated the killing of a state militia general, Joshua Bean and hanged

Returning to the gold camps, Joaquin preyed on usually unarmed Chinese miners. Joaquin and his fellow bandits killed 22 people in two months, Mero says. Most of them Chinese.

A group of state rangers led by Harry Love was created to hunt down Joaquin. They had little success until capturing Jesus, the youngest – and last – of the Feliz brothers.

In a July 25, 1853 gunfight near what’s now the intersection of Interstate 5 and Highway 33, Joaquin was killed. Jesus was released and moved to Bakersfield, dying in 1910.

To ensure identification, Love cut off Joaquin’s head, preserving it in a jar of alcohol.

It was displayed in San Francisco until destroyed by the 1906 earthquake.

Juan Murrieta, on the other hand, left Santurce Spain on October 1, 1844 at the age of 17.

He and his brother Iziquel purchased the 52,000-acre Temecula and Pauba ranchos in the Temecula Valley where he was the first person to introduce sheep to the area. At one time, his herd numbered as many as 100,000.

UnknownAn obituary in the 1936 California Avocado Association Yearbook, notes that he and one Jose Gonzales “helped move the Indians to the Pechanga reservations,” an act probably less benign than described in the yearbook.

Murrieta sold his land and left the area in 1886 — seven years before the town was named for him.

He moved to Los Angeles, became a deputy sheriff, retiring in 1927 as chief deputy of the civil division of the Sheriff’s office.

He died August 25, 1936 at the age of 92.


Filed under: California History

1 Comment »

  1. But you have to admit that the Ridge story on Joaquin Murrieta is a fun read and probably the first ever dime novel.

    Comment by Bill Leonard — 2.09.2011 @ 9:17 pm

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