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Next: 18. Joaquin MurietaContentsPrevious: 16. California Banditti

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


To describe all the daring deeds of the California Banditti would fill many volumes, and the story would be too bloodthirsty for the average reader; therefore only a few of the crimes described by Captain Howard will be related.

While all these atrocities were taking place Howard worked quietly on his ranch, where he had his own detective service. His thorough knowledge of the Spanish, Indian and English languages gained for him the reputation of being the greatest detective in California. Often during these terrifying days Murieta and his companions would call at the Howard ranch, and after securing food for themselves and their horses, would warn him not to take certain trails on certain days, otherwise his life would be endangered.

There was a good and human side to Joaquin’s nature, which made for him many friends amongst all classes. He loved to attend all the rodeos, where, accompanied by three beautiful women and several members of his band, he would take all the lariat prizes and enjoy to the full the hospitality extended to him by the ranchers, who felt quite safe when he was in their midst.

Another popular function patronized by him and his companions was the Spanish Fandango, where, amid the strumming of guitars, lively stepping and Spanish waltzing, many a woman was heard to scream and many a knife-blade flashed. Joaquin was expensively but unobtrusively dressed, therefore he was seldom recognized as the bandit leader on such occasions. The three women that accompanied him were always well dressed, too, either in black or in dull red silk, and were much admired by the miners on account of their demure and delightful ways.

At these meeting places, where men and women gave free vent to their passions, life moved so swiftly that no one had time to think of his neighbor’s business; so the good-looking young Mexican was like a drop of water in a rapid stream. When candlelight filled these houses with a mellow radiance, he mingled with the crowds, where he either talked, danced, drank, or indulged in a game of monte with his old friend Bill Burns.

Murieta loved music and dancing, and his revelry, like his bandit work, went to extremes. When he played, music could not be fast enough, stakes high enough, and women gay enough. His one great joke was to start a fight or shoot out the lights amidst argument and frivolity. On one occasion, at Shear’s saloon in Mokelumne Hill, with pistol in hand, he jumped on a table shouting “I am Joaquin!”

Another time Deputy Sheriff Clarke fined him two dollars for disturbing the peace. “I have no money,” Joaquin replied to the Deputy, “but if you come with me to my cabin I will pay the fine and more.”

Looking at him with searching eyes, the Deputy Sheriff answered, “I’ll go.”

As the two men rode out toward Alviso, Deputy Sheriff Clarke thought he was an agreeable young Mexican, just full of devilment; but as they rode into the willow clumps with their horses flank to flank, the Deputy felt a sudden numbness, for the bandit’s knife had done its deadly work, and as the victim fell dying from his horse he heard a voice saying, “I am Joaquin, El Patrio.”

Joaquin Murieta divided his company into five different squads, each one having as its leader one of the numerous Joaquins. Being a Napoleon of crime, his carefully laid plans enabled him to work so swiftly and silently in two vastly different parts of the State that no one suspected him for a year. His various

The Spanish Fandango in the Wild Old Days

Courtesy of A. C. Jackson, Union Pacific Railway, Portland, Oregon

[click to enlarge]
A popular dance in California mining camps, where, amid strumming of guitars and lively stepping, many a woman was heard to scream and many a knife-blade flashed.

headquarters were Marysville, Carrillo Ranch, Mokelumne, Shasta, and the most secret one, Cantura Canyon. He first entered this lonely bottle-necked valley in the spring of 1853, with seventy-eight men and three pretty girls dressed as boys.

This bandit leader had no fear of the Lynch Law or the Vigilantes; he believed that he was not born to be hanged. As a matter of fact, during the gold-rush days, one could not look to any organization for protection, as each man took the law into his own hands. It was not uncommon to find a man dead by the roadside, with a note pinned to his breast, saying: “I caught this man stealing my mules and shot him.”

As the days advanced, and the Sonora Ghost (another name for Murieta) slipped in and out of the towns and hills, conditions became so terrible that Sheriff Buchanan decided to give all his time to hunting down the criminals, and surrounded himself with a strong posse. Without the slightest warning, one dark night, the officer and his men were encircled by marauders, whose pistols streaked the gloom with bright orange flashes; and in the struggle that followed, the Sheriff was badly wounded. Several weeks later, while slowly recovering, he received word from Joaquin Murieta to the effect that it was this bandit who had shot him down.

Shortly after this, Deputy Sheriff Wilson, a bold young man from Santa Barbara, arrived in Los Angeles to hunt down the desperadoes. Daily he stood near the old Plaza Church, in the north end of Los Angeles, addressing the citizens, and saying:

“Get good men together. Smoke the robbers out. I am ready to go with a posse any time.”

He also preached these words in the gambling houses and saloons, until the vigor of his voice put new life into his listeners.

One hot July afternoon he was, as usual, standing on the narrow sidewalk near the old church, giving vent to his impassioned feelings, when two Indians started to fight with their flashing knives. People came running from every direction, and all became so interested that they did not notice the approach of a solitary horseman, or see him rein his animal close to the single-plank walk, lean forward in his saddle, and whisper something into the ears of Deputy Sheriff Wilson. What words passed from his lips, the spectators never knew; but Wilson lifted his eyes to gaze in the face of a handsome Mexican, whose white teeth flashed in an unpleasant smile as the Sheriff’s hand moved toward his gun. Instead of firing, the young officer pitched forward on his face, while the sharp report of a pistol, the scrape of hoofs, the smell of black powder, and a vision of the rider through the tenuous wreaths of smoke left a sort of blur upon the senses of the dazed witnesses. Then the Indians separated and went in different directions, while several citizens came to their doorways just in time to see the murderer riding away at a swinging gallop.

Deputy Sheriff Wilson’s death aroused more men than his heated words had ever done, and General Joshua Bean found plenty of recruits for the two companies of militia he started to organize. When they were almost ready for an expedition against the bandits, Murieta and Three-Fingered-Jack waylaid this brave officer near San Gabriel Mission, and one dark night when he was riding home after reviewing his two companies, they dropped the noose of a reata over his head, dragged him from his horse, then stabbed him to death.

By December, 1852, the list of wanton murders had grown so great that the State of California offered a reward of three thousand dollars for Joaquin Murieta, dead or alive. One Sunday, notices announcing the offer were plastered all over Stockton, and a large placard attached to the flagpole attracted considerable attention, for various groups of strong young men were gathered around it discussing what show a bold man might have of earning three thousand dollars.

Faith in the State’s promise sent many riders out of Stockton that day to scour the willow thickets by the river and the winding tule sloughs. For that reason very few were present on Monday morning to watch the departure of a schooner for San Francisco. She left the levee with her crew of three miners and two passengers; they were miners from San Andreas, who were taking out twenty thousand dollars in gold-dust. The crew let down the sails, and the canvas spread out before the easy breeze as the schooner glided down the red-lined slough, whose smooth waters held her reflection like a mirror.

Then without warning a row-boat shot out of the tules ahead of her. The helmsman took one look at the five men in the little craft, and instantly dropped his tiller to pick up a double-barreled shotgun. He shouted to the sailors, who sprang for weapons as the miners leaped up the companion stairs with loaded revolvers in their hands. Before the first miner was half way up the flight, the shooting had begun; he reached the deck in time to see the helmsman fall over the swinging tiller. The small boat lay alongside with a dead man huddled between the thwarts, while four other bandits were leaning over the rail, firing at the sailors on the forward deck of the ship. The fight was short, and at the completion every man in the ship’s company was lying dead or mortally wounded. Two robbers were killed, and the other three lingered aboard long enough to lower the gold-dust overside into the smaller craft, then set fire to the schooner. As the black smoke filled the air, horsemen hurried out from Stockton just in time to hear the story of the dying men.

Things had truly reached the point of desperation. No miner was too insignificant to become a victim of Murieta’s band. They even slit the throats of Chinamen and tortured teamsters to learn where they kept their wages. One day a brother Mexican was shot down in broad daylight because he revealed the bandit’s presence to those who chased him; but again the Lone Rider galloped away with the bullets of his pursuers flying about his horse’s head.

That same evening he demonstrated the more humane side of his nature. A house for accommodating travelers and teamsters, on the second night after its opening, was being raided by five Mexicans and two white men. They bound the owner, James Hunter, and demanded where he hid his gold. Rather than lose his life, Hunter showed them an old chest which contained seven hundred and forty dollars. When the others were out of the room, he looked the leader in the eye and said: “Is this how you treat a friend who saved your life in Mount Diablo Valley?”

Joaquin Murieta recalled the incident and commanded his men to return the gold-dust to the man who had once befriended him.

Several days later a party of twenty-five miners were encamped among the rocks, one hundred yards above a running stream. Without being recognized, Murieta rode up, and with one leg over his saddle talked to them in a congenial manner. They were heavily armed and carried plenty of gold-dust; therefore the young bandit listened carefully to their stories, as he glanced at their numerous packs and fat buckskin sacks.

The miners traveled all that day, and at eventide made their camp in the midst of a thick forest under the bare granite peaks. After kindling a fire they lounged about the flaming logs, smoking their pipes and warming their weary limbs. While they indulged in the warmth of the camp-fire, fifteen swarthy men crawled through the trees like so many snakes. Suddenly the click of a pistol-hammer brought one of the lounging men to his feet, and as he fell forward on his face the woods echoed with firing volleys. The bandits were so close and their aim so true that when the echoes died away fifteen miners lay dead and eight mortally wounded. Two who managed to escape, as they crept away in the darkness, saw one of the numerous Joaquins and Three-Fingered-Jack rush into the camp. The bandits waved their bowie knives and whooped like Apaches as they rode away from this massacre with thirty thousand dollars in gold-dust and forty horses.

Next: 18. Joaquin MurietaContentsPrevious: 16. California Banditti

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