Who is Joaquin Murrieta Carrillo?



Artist's portrayal of Joaquin Murrieta Carrillo
The Robin Hood of El Dorado, The Mexican Robin Hood

Who is Joaquin Murrieta Carrillo?

Joaquin Murrieta Carrillo (sometimes spelled Murieta or Murietta) (1829 – July 25, 1853), also called The Robin Hood of the West or the Robin Hood of El Dorado, was a Sonoran forty-niner, a vaquero and a gold miner who became a famous outlaw in California during the California Gold Rush of the 1850s. The popular legend of Joaquin Murrieta is that of a peace-loving man driven to seek revenge when he and his brother were falsely accused of stealing a mule. His brother was hanged and Joaquin horsewhipped. His young wife was gang raped and in one version she died in Joaquin’s arms. Swearing revenge, Joaquin hunted down all who had violated his sweetheart. He embarked on a short but violent career that brought death to his Anglo tormentors. The state of California then offered a reward of up to $5,000 for Joaquin “dead or alive.” He was reportedly killed in 1853, but the news of his death were disputed and myths later formed about him and his possible survival.

Controversy over his life

Controversy surrounds the figure of Joaquin Murrieta: who he was, what he did, and many of his life’s events. This is summarized by the words of historian Susan Lee Johnson:

“So many tales have grown up around Murrieta that it is hard to disentangle the fabulous from the factual. There seems to be a consensus that Anglos drove him from a rich mining claim, and that, in rapid succession, his wife was raped, his half-brother lynched, and Murrieta himself horse-whipped. He may have worked as a monte dealer for a time; then, according to whichever version one accepts, he became either a horse trader and occasional horse thief, or a bandit.”

John Rollin Ridge, grandson of the Cherokee leader Major Ridge, wrote a dime novel about Murrieta; the fictional biography contributed to his legend, especially as it was translated into various European languages. A portion of Ridge’s novel was reprinted in 1858 in the California Police Gazette. This story was picked up and subsequently translated into French. The French version was translated into Spanish by Roberto Hyenne, who took Ridge’s original story and changed every “Mexican” reference to “Chilean”.

Early life and education

Most biographical sources hold that Murrieta was born in Hermosillo[4] in the northwestern state of Sonora, Mexico. The historian Frank Forrest Latta, in his twentieth-century book Joaquín Murrieta and His Horse Gangs (1980), wrote based on his decades of investigations of the Murrieta family in Sonora, California and Texas, that Joaquin Murrieta was from the Pueblo de Murrieta on the Rancho Tapizuelas, across the Cuchujaqui River, (known locally as the Arroyo de Álamos), to the north of Casanate, in the southeast of Sonora, near the Sinaloa border, within what is now the Álamos Municipality, of Sonora. He was educated at a school nearby in El Salado.

1849 Migration to California

Murrieta reportedly went to California in 1849 to seek his fortune in the California Gold Rush.[4] His older Carrillo stepbrother Joaquin Carrillo, who was already in California wrote back about the 1848 gold discovery and told Joaquin to come to California. Like many Sonorans, Murrieta and a party including his new wife Rosa Feliz, came to California across the Altar and Colorado Deserts in 1849. This party included Joaquin’s younger brother (Jesus Murrieta), Jesus Carrillo Murrieta his other Carrillo stepbrother, three Feliz brothers-in-law (Claudio, Reyes and Jesus), two Murrieta cousins (Joaquin Juan and Martin Murrieta), four Valenzuela cousins (including Joaquin Theodoro and Jesus Valenzuela), two Duarte cousins (Antonio and Manuel Duarte), and a few other men from Pueblo de Murrieta or nearby.

Five Joaquins Gang

Joaquín Murrieta encountered prejudice and hostility in the extreme competition of the rough mining camps. While mining for gold, he and his wife supposedly were attacked by American miners jealous of his success. They allegedly beat him and raped his wife. However, the source for these events is not considered reliable, as it was a dime novel, The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murrieta, written by John Rollin Ridge and published in 1854.

Latta wrote that Joaquín Murrieta’s gang had well organized bands, one led by himself and the rest led by one or two of his Sonoran relatives that he had grown up with. Latta documented that the core of these men had first gathered to help Murrieta kill at least six of the Americans who had summarily hanged his stepbrother Jesus Carrillo and whipped him on the false charge of the theft of a mule. They then regularly engaged in illegal horse trade with Mexico, with stolen horses and legally captured mustangs, driving them from as far north as Contra Costa County and from the gold camps of the Sierras and from the Central Valley via the remote La Vareda del Monte trail through the Diablo Range then south to Sonora for sale.

Bands of his gang when not engaged in the horse trade robbed and killed miners or settlers, particularly those returning from the California goldfields. The gang is believed to have killed up to 28 Chinese and 13 Anglo-Americans.[8] This figure only takes account of the reports from their raids in early 1853.

By 1853, the California state legislature considered Murrieta enough of a criminal menace to list him as one of the so-called “Five Joaquins” on a bill passed in May 1853. The legislature authorized hiring for three months a company of 20 California Rangers, veterans of the Mexican–American War, to hunt down “the five Joaquins, whose names are Joaquin Muriati [sic], Joaquin Ocomorenia, Joaquin Valenzuela, Joaquin Botellier, and Joaquin Carillo, and their banded associates.”On May 11, 1853, the governor John Bigler signed an act to create the “California State Rangers,” to be led by Captain Harry Love (a former Texas Ranger and Mexican War veteran).

The state paid the California Rangers $150 a month, and promised them a $1,000 governor’s reward if they captured the wanted men. On July 25, 1853, a group of Rangers encountered a band of armed Mexican men near Arroyo de Cantua on the edge of the Diablo Range near Coalinga, California. In the confrontation, three of the Mexicans were killed. They claimed one was Murrieta, and another Manuel Garcia, also known as Three-Fingered Jack, one of his most notorious associates. Two others were captured.[10] A plaque (California Historical Landmark #344) near Coalinga at the intersection of State Routes 33 and 198 now marks the approximate site of the incident.

A poster advertising the display of the supposed head of Murrieta in Stockton, CA. 1853
As proof of the outlaws’ deaths, the Rangers cut off Three-Fingered Jack’s hand, and the alleged Murrieta’s head, and preserved them in a jar of alcohol to bring to the authorities for their reward.[4][7] Officials displayed the jar in Mariposa County, Stockton, and San Francisco. The Rangers took the display throughout California; spectators could pay $1 to see the relics. Seventeen people, including a Catholic priest, signed affidavits identifying the head as Murrieta’s, alias Carrillo.

Love and his Rangers received the $1,000 reward money. In August 1853, an anonymous Los Angeles-based man wrote to the San Francisco Alta California Daily that Love and his Rangers murdered some innocent Mexican mustang catchers, and bribed people to swear out affidavits. Later that fall, California newspapers carried letters by a few men claiming that Capt. Love had failed to display Murrieta’s head at the mining camps, but this was not true.On May 28, 1854, the California State Legislature voted to reward the Rangers with another $5,000 for their defeat of Murrieta and his band.

But, 25 years later, the myths began to form. In 1879, O. P. Stidger was reported to have heard Murrieta’s sister say that the displayed head was not her brother’s. At around the same time, numerous sightings were reported of Murrieta as an old man. These were never confirmed. His preserved head was destroyed during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fire.


Joaquín Murrieta encountered prejudice and hostility in the extreme competition of the rough mining camps. While mining for gold, he and his wife supposedly were attacked by American miners jealous of his success.  They allegedly beat him and raped his wife. However, the source for these events is not considered reliable, as it was a dime novel, The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, written by John Rollin Ridge and published in 1854.
Murrieta was possibly partly the inspiration for the fictional character of Zorro, the lead character in the five-part serial story, “The Curse of Capistrano”, written by Johnston McCulley, and published in 1919 in a pulp fiction magazine.

For some activists, Murrieta had come to symbolize the resistance against Anglo-American economic and cultural domination in California. The “Association of Descendants of Joaquin Murrieta” says that Murrieta was not a “gringo eater,” but “He wanted to retrieve the part of Mexico that was lost at that time in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.”

Murrieta’s nephew, known as Procopio, became one of California’s most notorious bandits of the 1860s and 1870s; he purportedly wanted to exceed the reputation of his uncle.

Representations In The Media

Joaquin Murrieta has been a widely used romantic figure in novels, stories, comics and films, and on TV.