A simple bronze plaque on a concrete base directs visitors to a site that was allegedly the headquarters of notorious bandit Joaquin Murieta. For years Murieta and his band terrorized local miners and their camps, although it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction where Murieta is concerned. The plaque states that Murieta’s death occurred at the site on July 25, 1853.
inspired many tales, both during his life and after his death. Some people
believe that Murieta was the inspiration for the fictional character Zorro.
Depending on the source, Murieta was portrayed as both a violent outlaw and a
Mexican patriot. He was often referred to as the “Mexican Robin Hood.” Dime
novels were written about Murieta, which both perpetuated his notoriety and
blurred the lines between verifiable fact and novelistic embellishment.
Some accounts claim
that Murieta was the victim, that before he became a criminal, he had been
beaten, his wife raped, and his brother lynched by white racists. Other
accounts portray Murieta solely as an outlaw, so feared that area miners would
not sleep without a pistol within easy reach.
Harry Love, who led
the California Rangers, was charged with capturing the notorious Murieta. The
Rangers apparently found the Murieta gang in their stronghold, the Arroya de
Cantua, a warren of caves and rocks near Coalinga. Several members of Murieta’s
gang were killed in the ensuing attack, but the man Rangers believed to be
Murieta attempted to escape. He was shot in the back and if the stories
surrounding his death were true, his head was severed, placed in a jar of alcohol,
and eventually displayed throughout California.
As with any good
outlaw, however, tales that Murieta survived the attack began to circulate
immediately. Some claimed that the outlaw was not killed and in fact lived for
another twenty-five years back in Mexico. The preserved head was apparently
lost in the San Francisco earthquake, so the truth of Joaquin Murieta may never