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The Last of the California Rangers (1928) by Jill L. Cossley-Batt


With the Indians living peacefully on their Reservations one naturally expected all depredations to cease—but they did not, which proved that the red men were not wholly responsible for them. In fact, the State was overrun with a lawless element; murders and robberies increased at an alarming rate. To the majority of men and women life was a matter of extremes—one long excitement. A large number were intoxicated with prosperity, and this wealth, so rapidly gained, created a community of unspeakable wickedness and degradation. One man did not trust another. Everybody carried a revolver and had a bowie knife stowed somewhere about his person. Even when sleeping, these weapons were carefully placed under their heads.

Homes were looted so frequently that all citizens lived in fear of their lives, and the human vultures who infested the camps and ranches were able to conceal their individuality as long as they wished. Gamblers and outlaws organized themselves into bands; theft, burglary, stage hold-ups and murder were all in the day’s work. Cutthroats were everywhere, many of them escaped convicts.

Due to the feeling engendered by the Mexican War, Mexicans or “Greasers,” as they were called, figured largely among the criminals, and several swarthy characters were recognized leaders of organized bands. One was named Manuel Garcia, better known as Three-Fingered-Jack, because of the fact that he had lost a portion of his hand in a quarrel. His initial acts of plundering were successful, and this fact encouraged the floating population of Mexicans infesting the region to try the same methods. Occasionally he varied the monotony of his murders by tying the victim to a tree and flaying him alive. Another, Joaquin Valenzuela, was a man of forty years, who had learned the fine art of bushwhacking down in Mexico under Padre Jurata, the notorious Guerilla Chief. A third, Joaquin Claudio, was a lean and seasoned robber from the mountains of Sonora, an adept in disguises, skilful as a spy, and able to mingle with the crowd in any Plaza, unrecognized by men who had known him for years. Others were Pedro Gonzales, a finished artist in horse-stealing, and Tiburone Vasquez, who was just entering upon his career as an outlaw. Every one of these leaders had his own well trained gang of riders, and each man was getting pickings from pack-trains, stage-coaches, valley ranches, miners’ cabins, and sometimes a boat.

The brightest star in this firmament of outlawry, whose name is still mentioned with horror in the gold counties from Marysville to San José and Los Angeles, was Joaquin Murieta. This handsome and daring character was often referred to as “The Mysterious Chief”; his intelligence, combined with a set purpose, gave him unusual influence and resulted in all the hold-up bands being under his leadership. He was quick and fearless in confirming the rumors of his directorship, and managed by spectacular methods to let more than one community know who was responsible for some startling outrage.

Joaquin Murieta was born on a ranch in Sonora, Mexico, and was a descendant of an ancient Basque family, hardy pioneers who had come from the Spanish Pyrenees to Sonora, where they were given a grant of three square leagues of land near Hermosillo. Being a Mexican of the better class, Joaquin was fairly well educated, a good dancer, fond of pleasure, and a genius at playing stringed instruments, especially the guitar.

When Joaquin was seventeen years of age there lived near his ranch a packer named Feliz; he was a widower and his only house-keeper was his little sixteen-year-old daughter, Rosita, whom he idolized. She was a dear little Castilian maiden, with pure ivory skin, deep black eyes, and hair smoothed down with oil of almonds, possessing all the dignity, beauty and lure characteristic of the daughters of Spain.

During long absences of the packer from his home, Joaquin often called at the cabin to enjoy a chat with Rosita, and these frequent meetings between the two resulted in a feeling of regard for each other, considerably stronger than friendship.

One day in the absence of her father Rosita greeted Joaquin as usual, but this time the good-looking young Mexican brought a letter which he had received from his half-brother, Jesus, who had left his home town in the rush for gold a year before. The contents, which Joaquin carefully read to Rosita, presented such a glowing account of the gold-mines that he decided to take the little Spanish girl and leave that very night for California.

We may picture them making their plans for elopement: A dark-skinned boy of seventeen with dreamy-looking eyes, lounging with his head against the breast of a comely maiden, barely sixteen, in the doorway of a Spanish bungalow, reading to her a letter which had been written in San Francisco. Rosita’s little brother, Reyes, suddenly stops strumming his

'Wide-open' San Francisco: Colonel Savage leaps upon the gaming table and wagers his weight in gold

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Colonel Savage leaps upon the gaming table and wagers his weight in gold.

The [California] Rangers in Action

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Just beyond the ridge, California’s most desperate bandits are encamped.

guitar and slides down from the flat roof to learn about the golden city. Won by promises of a gold-mounted saddle, the little fellow gives his cooperation to the elopers, and arrangements are soon completed for the great venture. And so Joaquin, riding on a strong horse, takes Rosita away in true Lochinvar style to California.

As they ride across the cactus-studded Mexican desert in the hot sunlight, they enter the little gray church of Hermosillo, where before the Virgin they pledge their troth for life. No one suspects—least of all the fair bride—that this lad standing almost six feet, with a mustache already shadowing his sulky lip, and with bold, black eyes flaring catwise at the corners as he kneels meekly before the altar, is destined never to reach full manhood, and yet is to be a synonym of terror throughout the Golden State, and to add some of the reddest pages to American history.

The two lovers soon reached San Francisco, where, after gazing for a few moments at the busy streets, piles of tents, and hundreds of marooned vessels, they sallied forth in search of the brother with the peculiarly Mexican baptismal name.

On their arrival in the Mexican quarter, Rosita was taken care of by several Señoras, while Joaquin, in company with his brother, explored the town and purchased mining equipment. When visiting the gambling houses, where yelling and tobacco smoke filled the air, they fell into the pathway of the hounds—the city’s drunken set of law-makers, headed by Sam Roberts.

Murieta was soon tired of this bed of savagery, so with mining tools, grub-sack and a mule, he and his little Rosita started eastward across the Coast Range and the flatlands of the San Joaquin, where they climbed into the red foothills of the Stanislaus, and here staked a claim.

Their claim proved rich enough to attract some ne’er-do-wells, and one evening these rough characters attacked the young couple’s cabin for the purpose of jumping the property.

When the young Mexican put up a resistance, saying, “I have as much right to mine here as you have,” they bound him hand and foot and abused little Rosita dreadfully. Some historians report that she died, that Murieta buried her with a vow of revenge that changed his whole life from that of a good romantic boy to a heartless outlaw. Captain Howard and several others, however, state that Rosita did not die, but recovered and persuaded her lover to leave for Columbia, once the largest town in California, now a ghost town. There again they were driven out by an anti-Mexican mob.

Murieta eventually gave up mining in disgust, Captain Howard further relates, and filled the position of monte-dealer in a lively little placer camp known as Murphy’s Diggings, where he became very popular with Americans on account of his fluent English and exceptional courtesy. Rosita, whose beauty earned for her the name of “Queen Victoria,” took up her abode at Tulita, a short distance from the Howard ranch. Here, with the assistance of two other Spanish women, she made a success at mining, and at the same time kept an intelligence station for her husband. The other two, known as Anita and Marianna, were the mistresses of Pedro Gonzales and Rosita’s brother Reyes, who had joined his sister in California.

“Queen Victoria” loved to discuss shooting with Captain Howard, and one morning when he was riding along the dusty trail she came out of her tent, motioned to him, and said, “Captain Howard, I hear that you are the best shot in the neighborhood, and I bet you a bottle of champagne that I can make the best two out of three at a distance of fifty yards.”

Champagne being then sixteen dollars a bottle, William dismounted and agreed to take on the bet. It was decided that both should use “Navy six-shooters.” One of the women helpers placed a target fifty yards away, and when everything was in readiness the handsome Señora appeared anxious that William should have the first shot. He, however, had the presence of mind to suggest tossing for the first, thereby avoiding the danger of possible treachery. When the half-dollar was thrown in the air it fell to the lot of Rosita to shoot first. She shot three times and failed to hit the target, while William was successful in getting three out of three, thereby winning the bottle of champagne. When Rosita produced the sparkling liquor, William thanked her, saying that he did not drink, but would consider it a great honor if she would accept the wine as a present. She smiled and bowed in grand Spanish fashion.

Many thought that this handsome woman helped to blaze the trail for Murieta’s spectacular course of crime, for he was intensely jealous of her, and resented with all the passionate ardor of his race the imagined attentions of would-be rivals. Under the impetus of this trait of character he gave full rein to his murderous instincts, claiming that he was actuated solely by revenge; however, he always respected women and would never hurt them.

While working as a monte-dealer, he frequently visited his half-brother, who lived only a few miles away. One evening Jesus lent Joaquin a horse to ride home, and when Joaquin drew near the camp a group of miners held him up, declaring that the animal belonged to one of their number. They listened to the monte-dealer’s explanations and returned with him to his brother, who told them he had bought the horse in good faith from a stranger. Refusing to believe the brother, they bound and hanged him to the nearest tree. Then, stripping Joaquin Murieta to the waist, they tied him to a tree and flogged him until the blood poured down his bare back. While the lash was being applied, the victim gave them the vendetta look, signifying that he would devote the rest of his life to gaining revenge.

That same evening, as the monte-dealer knelt beside the grave of his dead brother, holding in his clasped hands, high above his head, a naked bowie knife, he undertook for himself a new job. A small group of Mexicans hiding behind the pine trees listened to his words, as he made a vow to color the knife-blade and his hands red with the blood of twenty men from Murphy’s Diggings, and to devote the rest of his life to killing Americans. The cruel injustice of the miners, Captain Howard believed, had suddenly changed Joaquin from a romantic boy to a fiend incarnate; at any rate, from that time forth he persevered in hideous crime until his name echoed throughout the State.

It did not take him long to get a following, as all the established bandit leaders decided to become his lieutenants. Many of the men’s names who gathered around him are unknown, but there were five Joaquins, namely, Valenzuela, Carillo, Claudio, Oconorenia, and Boteller, as well as Three-Fingered-Jack and the boy Reyes Feliz.

Murieta and his one hundred followers, all dressed as Mexican dandies, were exceptionally well mounted, and all were fitted out with revolvers and bowie knives, ready to take death by the throat. In this manner, sometimes accompanied by the three beautiful girls dressed as boys, they traveled through the country establishing alliances and spying out new fields of plunder. While the pack-trains jingled down from the hills, and the procession of heavy wagons passed up from the San Joaquin Valley enwrapped in clouds of dust, this swarthy company swept through California like a fire on a chaparral hillside when the wind is high. Their destructive operations were carried out with amazing rapidity, because they were based upon a most extraordinary system, which Joaquin Murieta worked out himself.

Occasionally a miner would get a glimpse of the bandit gliding among the tents on the outskirts of the mining camps, or a late reveler, returning to his cabin in the darkness, would be startled by the sight of his dark, silent figure. In the chilly mornings men would fall over the bodies of his victims, or of some of his helpers, for his followers submitted wholly their lives and fortunes to this daring young leader, the possessor of such appalling ideas and a most definite plan of action.

The California Robin Hood had many men and women friends outside of his band; among them were a tradesman named Moreno, a noted card player, Bill Burns, and a very charming young woman known as Juanita, wife of José, who not only played a part in Murieta’s life, but left a lasting impression upon the mining districts of the Golden State, for she was the only woman known to have been hanged under the California lynch law.

Juanita was a true friend of Joaquin’s and regarded him as El Patrio, the man who was going to bring California back under the Mexican Eagle. Her dignity and her sincere devotion to her man, José, compelled respect. In Downieville, on July 4, 1851, while three thousand men were celebrating in the streets and saloons, one Jack Cannon, in a fit of drunkenness, tried to force his attentions upon Juanita. On seeing him coming to her home, she locked the door, but the burly pioneer picked up José’s ax and smashed it in. Juanita’s face turned deadly pale as Cannon followed her across the room, but his pals eventually persuaded him to let the girl alone.

The next morning Jack Cannon, having sobered down, went to Juanita’s cabin to pay for the damage he had done to her door. This time she was prepared, and before he had time to apologize pierced him through the heart with her cooking knife. Then followed the battle of the sexes, and in spite of the pleadings of a Nevada lawyer and a doctor, three thousand men cried out, “Hang Juanita!” So on July 5, 1851, a woman with exceptional courage stepped upon the plank of Downieville Bridge, and at the decision of “Judge Lynch” was hanged for protecting herself against the insults of a miner by stabbing him to death.

There is hardly an old town in California that has not some thrilling story to tell about its hang-trees, raids, murders, and robberies of 1851 to 1853. While posses were foundering their lathered horses on every road in Southern California, the flames of blazing ranch-buildings were throwing their red lights in the faces of dead men almost every night.

In the days of the roving Banditti every marl was armed to act in self-defense, like those described by Sir Walter Scott in his Waverly novels, when he speaks of the fear imposed on the peasantry of England by the reputed return of Richard Coeur de Lion from his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. According to this eminent authority, horsemen were accustomed to reprimand their fractious mounts with the words, “Hey, fool, thinkest thou Richard is in the bush?”

Without doubt this feeling was paralleled in California during the evil reign, of Joaquin Murieta, when his name spread terror in all directions, and little children added to their prayers every night, “God save me from Murieta.”

Next: 17. DesperadoContentsPrevious: 15. Discovery of Yosemite

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management