The Magazine


Joaquin Murieta and Califonia stealin'.

May 12, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 34 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Searching for Joaquin

Myth, Murieta, and History

in California

by Bruce Thornton

Encounter, 185 pp., $26.95

MOST BOOKS on cultural studies, whether from the right or the left, tend to be ideological jeremiads, blasting away from entrenched positions of Marxist-inspired oppression or traditional American individualism. It is notable, therefore, to come across a cultural study that is understated and subtle, which are only two of the laudatory adjectives that can be applied to Bruce Thornton's fascinating "Searching for Joaquin."

"Searching for Joaquin" recounts the murky tale of Joaquin Murieta, who can be thought of as the Mexican version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In the hurly-burly years of California's Gold Rush era in the early 1850s, Murieta led a gang of bandits that roved throughout California, robbing ranchers and mining camps, engaging also in killing sprees that were not atypical of this violence-ridden time. The rampage became sensational news throughout the state, leading to the creation of the California Rangers in emulation of the more famous Texas Rangers. A company of Rangers finally tracked Murieta and his gang to a remote spot on the west side of California's central valley known as Cantua Creek in July 1853. There the Rangers shot and killed Murieta and most of his fellow bandits.

The story might have ended there but for the strange sequel. The leader of the Rangers, Harry Love, decided to cut off Murieta's head as proof they had gotten their man. The head was preserved in whiskey in a large bottle, put on display to the public (for $1 admission), and finally exhibited in a San Francisco saloon and later a museum, where it could still be viewed as late as the 1906 earthquake. This macabre souvenir, along with doubts about the facts of the Murieta gang and its demise, led to a spawning of romantic legends about Murieta that continue to evolve and resonate today.

WHO WAS JOAQUIN MURIETA? Was he really responsible for all the crimes attributed to him? Even the outline of the story recounted above is subject to dispute. A lack of hard facts led to the creation of a Joaquin legend made up from whole cloth, chiefly by journalists and dime-novel authors seeking to profit from sensationalizing the story. Thornton brings genuine artistry to the exploration of this story, placing the unfolding Joaquin legend in the historical context of a time of racial conflict and rough frontier justice. Above all, Thornton uses the Joaquin legend as a lens to sharpen our understanding of the turbulent character of California in the aftermath of its Gold Rush transformation; the unfixed and protean character of the Joaquin legend is a metaphor for the impermanence of California itself.

This is not a new theme, of course. California's transient character was noted as far back as the mid nineteenth century. Josiah Royce, the most prominent philosopher to come out of California, noted in the 1890s that a child in California "grows up amid a community that is a few years older than himself, and not as old as his eldest brother." Californians, Royce wrote, are "wanderers without a community, sojourners with a dwelling place, but with no home."

Royce's contemporary George Santayana had similar impressions of California, telling an audience at Berkeley in 1911 that "everywhere is beauty and nowhere permanence, everywhere an incipient harmony, nowhere an intention, nor a responsibility, nor a plan." Something about California--perhaps its relentless sunshine and agreeable climate--causes people to, in historian Kevin Starr's words, "overreach for Arcadia," only to end, as with all utopian hopes, in disappointment.

Such disappointment has been politicized in recent decades through identity politics and racial grievance. And so it is not surprising that the image of Joaquin evolved from an outlaw seeking vengeance to a revolutionary figure exacting retribution for the racial injustices visited upon Mexicans in California--a kind of Mexican Robin Hood. (Never mind that most of Murieta's victims were poor Chinese miners and not landed gringos.)

In the 1960s the revolutionary Joaquin became a figure of inspiration for farmworker union organizers and the burgeoning Chicano movement.

"Scholars influenced by postmodernist and multiculturalist approaches to history have also discovered a fertile field in the Murieta legend," Thornton writes. "In the privileged enclaves of the university, Murieta functions as a compensatory daydream of unjust victimization and retributive justice that is gratifying to professors with 401K pension funds and to law-abiding students who will become teachers and nurses."