California’s First Police Force and — The Supposed — Capture of Joaquin Murrieta
California’s third governor, John Bigler, signed legislation passed May 17, 1853 authorizing the raising of a company of up to 20 State Rangers, to be led by Captain Harry Love, a bounty hunter and veteran of the Mexican American War. They were charged – for three months or less – to “capture the party or gang of robbers commanded by the five Joaquins whose names are, Joaquin Murietta, Joaquin O’Comorenia, Joaquin Valenzuela, Joaquin Betellier, and Joaquin Carrillo, and their banded associates.” The gang was considered responsible for a series of murders and robberies throughout the Mother Lode. The rangers, California’s first police force, had to furnish their own horses, guns, ammunition and equipment but were paid $150 each month. A $1,000 reward was offered for Murrieta, dead or alive.
Here’s a transcription of Love’s letter to Bigler. The original is in the collection of the California State Library:
Quartzburg, Mariposa County , August 4, 1853
Govr. John Bigler
I have the honor to report that on the 25th of July I encountered the notorious robber Joaquin Murrieta and his gang on the Arroyo Cantua, near the Coast Range of mountains on the Tulare plains.
When we discovered Joaquin he was encamped on the above river and appeared to have made some hard days marches previous by the jaded looks of their horses. On being perceived by some of the company, Joaquin was immediately recognized and on his being aware of the fact immediately sprang to his horse and endeavored to escape.
He was closely pursued by some of the company and his horse shot from under him when he took to flight on foot and, he being wounded, some of the men shot him dead before going too far.
In the mean time, others of the company were pursuing the remaining part of the band who fought bravely while retreating each of them being armed with two six shooters and three of their number killed, while the remainder escaped, some badly wounded.
Immediately after returning from the pursuit we beheaded Joaquin and one of his principal men and I dispatched Capt. Burns and John Sylvester to Fort Miller (being the nearest point) with the heads in order to put in liquor for preservation. The head of Joaquin’s lieutenant spoiled on account of being shot through the skull and I was compelled to bury it at Fort Miller. The head of Joaquin I have now in my possession at this place. I will bring it with me to Benicia at the expiration of my term of service.
After dispatching the heads and prisoners to Fort Miller, I immediately divided the company into parties and pursued the remainder of the gang some 30 miles into the Coast Range of mountains but without succeeding in capturing any others of the gang, our horses being broke down by hard marching. One of the prisoners together with the horse he rode got drowned crossing Tulare Slough and the other I turned over to the authorities of Mariposa County, by whom he has been committed for trial.
There is not the least doubt that the head now in my possession is that of the noted Joaquin Murrieta the chief and leader of the murderers and robbers of the Calaveras, Mariposa and other parts of the state. The prisoner now in jail in Mariposa acknowledged such to be the fact to the authorities of Mariposa County and there are numerous persons in this county who will also testify to the head being Joaquin’s. Capt. Burns who was formerly intimately acquainted with the celebrated robber recognized him immediately. I will take the testimony of the persons acquainted with him in this county as soon as I can procure a glass I can put the head into.
I cannot too highly recommend to Your Excellency the conduct of the different members of the company. They have been constantly in the saddle since being mustered into service and have performed their arduous duties cheerfully. Their conduct throughout was that of gentlemen and good soldiers. All being intelligent and in good standing in society and if one done less than another in the late affair it is because an opportunity did not offer.
I have good and reliable information of the existence and whereabouts of two other bands of robbers but it will be impossible for me to visit all their strongholds on account of the short period of time before our three months expire. My men have rode down two or three horses each but still we shall procure fresh ponies and spend the remainder of our term of service in good and actual service and report to Your Excellency at Benicia on or about the 28th Inst.
Your Obedient Servant
Harry Love, Capt.
Commanding California State Rangers
A historical plaque near the intersection of State Routes 33 and 198 near Coalinga marks the site of the encounter.
The head, a common means of identification before the days of fingerprints and DNA, was enough to secure the $1,000 reward. Lawmakers gave the rangers an additional $6,000 in 1854. Some disputed Love’s claim of killing Murrieta, despite 17 people signing affidavits saying it was the bandit’s head.
To make money, Love and the rangers displayed the head along with the distinctive hand of Murrieta’s lieutenant, “Three-fingered Jack,” throughout Northern California. Interestingly, no mention of the hand is made in Love’s letter to the governor. Murrieta’s head was finally displayed at Gordon’s Museum in San Francisco where it was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake.
In 1854, Love married his neighbor, Mary Bennett. She left him and moved to Santa Clara. Love lost his spread in Santa Cruz to fire, flood and squatters. Homeless and in debt, he moved to Santa Clara to live with his estranged wife. He died in June 1868 during a fight with his wife’s bodyguard, Christian Ivorson. Love’s pistol accidentally discharged into his armpit. Amputation couldn’t save him. He died the following day.
Filed under: California History
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