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


Early in 1853 conditions became so terrible that a petition was presented to the State Legislature praying that steps be taken to suppress these ghastly outrages. On May 17 of this year the State Assembly, then in session at Benicia, passed a joint resolution empowering Governor John Bigler to organize a joint company of determined men to be known as “The California Rangers,” and to offer three thousand dollars reward for the capture of Joaquin Murieta. The chief purpose of this organization was the complete subjugation of all lawless elements.

The Chief Executive appointed Captain Harry Love to select twenty capable men, and there seems to be a slight contradiction in historical records as to the names of the men chosen. The list given by James Ridge, semi-Cherokee Indian, in his narrative about Murieta, is as follows:

P. E. Connor,
William Byrnes,
C. V. McGowan,
George A. Nuttall,
D. S. Hollister,
Willis Prescott,
E. B. Van Dorn,
C. F. Bloodworth,
John Nuttall,
Robert Masters,
Col. McLane,
P. T. Herbert,
James M. Norton,
S. K. Piggott,
G. W. Evans,
Wm S. Henderson,
W. H. Harvey,
Lafayette Black,
John S. White,
Coho Young.

According to Captain William J. Howard, however, Harry Love came to him and said: “Howard, you are more familiar with the fighting men of this part of the country. I wish you would pick the men you consider best suited for this undertaking.” Acting upon this request, he chose the following first-class marksmen, and his list agrees with that published in the San Francisco Chronicle, April 21, 1907 (page 12, column 7):

Harry Love, Commander, famous scout, Indian fighter and veteran of the Mexican War; killed afterward in a feud at Santa Cruz, California.

P. Edward Connor, a slender man with brown hair and blue eyes; served as a general in the United States Army during the Civil War; died in San Francisco, California.

“Bill” Burns, ex-partner of Joaquin Murieta in a monte-game; a tall man with blue eyes, who had many shot-marks on his body; died in Stockton, California.

Charles Bludworth, known as “Bloodthirsty Charlie,” a man with fair hair and gray eyes; once Sheriff of Merced County, California; died at Snelling, in that State.

John White, a dare-devil soldier of fortune; a small man with brown hair and blue eyes, who was killed in Fort Tejon, California.

George Evans, a good-natured rough diamond and a noted gun-fighter; died at Santa Cruz, California.

William J. Henderson, born in Tennessee, came to San Francisco in 1849; a man with brown hair and hazel eyes. It is said that he once hanged a man single-handed; died in Fresno, California.

Thomas T. Howard, a tall, slender man with blue eyes; brother to William James Howard; died at Galveston, Texas.

James Norton, a man with dark hair and eyes; nicknamed “The Terrible Sailor”; was killed at Salt Lake, Utah.

Augustus Black, a man of medium height with blue eyes and blond hair; killed in action during the Civil War.

George Chase, a large man with blue eyes and light brown hair; drowned in the Frazer River, California.

“Doc” Hollister, a man with great sense of humor, light brown hair and eyes; died at San Josť, California.

William Campbell, a tall, fair man from Scotland; died at Kings River, California.

Nick Ashmore, killed at Salt Lake, Utah.

Edward Campbell, a tall, fair Scotchman, who died at Kings River, California.

Robert McMasters, a man of medium size and light complexion; died in Sacramento, California.

John Nuttall, a medium-sized man of fair complexion; killed in Nicaragua.

George Nuttall, his brother, died in Stockton, California.

Ned Van Buren, a man with dark brown hair and eyes; killed in Contra Costa County, California.

William James Howard, who died at Portland, Oregon, in January, 1924, at ninety-seven years of age; at the time the notes for this narrative were taken, he was the only surviving member of this intrepid band.

These twenty men comprised the members of “the California Rangers,” an organization that will live long in the memory of Californians. They were all full-blooded fighters, and Harry Love, their leader, was eminently qualified for the position. Being a man of exceptional physical strength and stature, his penetrating black eyes and thick, black, curly hair, falling over his powerful shoulders, made a lasting impression upon the minds of those who had the opportunity to meet him. As a dispatch rider for various American generals, he had made a name for himself in the Mexican War. Many times he had dodged the reatas of guerilla parties, and out-jockeyed swarthy horsemen in wild races across the flaming deserts of Sonora. He could not speak Spanish but knew the science of fighting as well as old Padre Jurata himself. His whole life had been placed amid frontier conditions, and it is one of the ironies of fate that he was killed in a feud in a civilized community.

The position held by these twenty men was a most responsible one, for they had the law in their hands, and could hang, burn or crucify as they pleased. Under the circumstances, it was necessary to have men with courage and good judgment. They were all dead shots with either rifle or revolver, and not one of them knew the meaning of the word fear. Naturally all were familiar with the hardships incident to border life, which implied a great deal in view of the measures that had to be adopted to put a stop to the reign of terror then in full force.

The California Rangers bore a striking resemblance to the Canadian Mounted Police; they traveled under “sealed orders,” and their principal object was to achieve results. Their traveling equipment was extremely light, each carrying his share of provisions and his cooking set behind his saddle in a piece of canvas, with a blanket which constituted his sole bedding.

These old pioneers did not bother much with cooking utensils; a tin-cup, tin-plate, bowie-knife, sugar-spoons and individual coffee-can represented a complete outfit. Whenever they obtained meat it was cooked over the fire on forked sticks, and bread was baked in the same way, while potatoes were roasted in the hot ashes. All frontiersmen understand this phase of the situation and can appreciate the importance of packing as little weight as possible in a man-hunt of this character.

The firearms consisted of old-fashioned muzzle-loading guns of every variety, and each man carried a Colt’s Navy six-shooter. The Rangers were operating in a comparatively arid region, and as activities began in midsummer, the above equipment was considered adequate for all practical purposes.

At this time Captain Howard had a large number of high-grade animals on his ranch, for breeding purposes; therefore, he supplied practically all the horses used on the expedition. Every one realized the necessity of being well equipped in this respect, as those pursued had many advantages; not only could they rely upon aid from every Mexican source, but they could also obtain fresh mounts whenever required. Through their secret friends the bandits obtained a great deal of information about the movements of the Rangers. The ability of the Rangers to be exceptionally well mounted, thanks to the resources of Howard’s ranch, stood them in good stead in many a tight corner.

Shortly after this Government organization was formed, information was received from Los Angeles that Joaquin Murieta and his band of cutthroats had robbed the home of Don Andreas Pico, brother of Pio Pico, the last Governor of California under Mexican rule. Upon receipt of this intelligence they hurried south as far as the present site of Fort Tejon, about seventy miles below Bakersfield, Kern County. At this point they met several Indians, who told them that a number of Mexicans answering to the description of Murieta’s band had purchased supplies from them a few hours ago, and had then gone through San Emidion Valley in the direction of Kern Lake.

The Rangers promptly took their trail. They experienced little difficulty in following it, as the country was desert in character, and the footmarks showed very plainly in the sand and gravel soil. Little did Captain Harry Love and his band of dusty horsemen realize that the region they were traveling across would one day rank with the most productive oil-well districts in the world. Yet they passed directly through the present Sunset and Midway oil-fields, where the Lake View gusher at times has flowed upward of forty thousand barrels every twenty-four hours. In the days of 1853, there was scarcely a settler in the whole San Joaquin Valley, south of Stockton; therefore, there was not one member of this extremely courageous posse that would have risked twenty-five cents for the entire country, since they regarded it as just a worthless desert.

On arrival at Kern Lake, two trails were discovered; one led north along the western shore line, and the other turned directly west toward the Coast Range of mountains. It was evident that the bandits had separated, and at this juncture the Rangers were at a loss to comprehend their intentions. The prevailing opinion, however, was that the bandits had separated for the purpose of “cacheing” their ill-gotten gains at some obscure point. Dividing his company into squads of ten men, Captain Harry, Love commanded each squad to follow one or other of the two trails. To their great surprise, just before reaching Cantura Canyon, near the site of the present town of Coalinga, in Fresno County, they came together again. So the separation of the bandits had been merely a ruse to throw possible pursuers off the track! Here the glorious scenery held the Rangers enchanted for a few moments, but the fighting blood in their veins soon reasserted its supremacy, and they began to talk about the business in hand.

Captain Howard, noted for his uncanny intuition, stirred interest by remarking to Harry Love, “To-day is July 23rd, 1853, and I feel that something unusually exciting is going to happen.”

About fifteen minutes after Howard’s statement they discerned smoke arising from an improvised camp on the banks of Cantura Canyon. Harry Love and his men were on a brow of one of the numerous ridges common to that section, and realized at once that they had found the bandits.

Murieta and his followers had halted to prepare their midday meal. From their point of vantage the Rangers counted fifteen men. For obvious reasons they approached the camp with extreme caution, the idea being to surround the bandits completely before beginning any attack, and this part of the tactics was accomplished in a highly creditable manner.

The Lone Rider and his helpers had not the least idea that members of the Government Posse were in the neighborhood; they were enjoying a siesta, and disorder reigned supreme. Some had staked their horses and lay stretched out on their saddle-blankets, smoking and talking, while others were hunting cottontail rabbits in the adjacent brush with their revolvers. Captain Harry Love and William Howard walked into the camp as tho they were travelers. Love approached Three-Fingered-Jack, who was sitting on a saddle-cover, and asked him something. A handsome young man, who was standing nearby smoothing down a grey mare, while his saddle and pistols were lying on the saddle-blanket, said in loud tones:

“Talk to me. I am the leader of this band.” As Harry Love went nearer to the speaker, Three-Fingered-Jack fired a pistol, the bullet of which grazed the side of Love’s face but did not injure him.

Then Bill Burns put in an appearance; he was the Ranger that had frequently played

Joaquin Murieta

Courtesy of Capt. Overton Walsh

[click to enlarge]
Only known portrait, painted by a young priest, and here reproduced for the first time

Capture of [Joaquin] Murieta by the Rangers

[click to enlarge]
“A shot rang out in the silence, and the bandit toppled to the ground.”

cards with Joaquin. On seeing him, Murieta mounted his unsaddled horse, jumped down into the gulley, and rode away as hard as he could, while Burns shouted:

“There’s Joaquin!”

Captain Love detailed John White to follow Murieta, while a general battle took place between the remaining bandits and Rangers. Three-Fingered-Jack put up a game fight; two of his wounds were mortal, and it is known that he fired his last shot after his heart had been pierced with a bullet from the rifle of George Chase.

The bandits were armed exclusively with six-shooters, whereas the Rangers, being fitted out with rifles, revolvers, and shot-guns, had the advantage, and soon made short work of the swarthy desperadoes. Twelve were killed outright and two were taken prisoners. The Rangers were uninjured, but Captain Love had experienced a “close shave.”

While all this fighting was going on, John White, mounted on a fresh steed which he had been leading for any possible emergency, experienced little difficulty in overtaking the fleeing bandit chieftain. Joaquin was riding “Injun fashion” with one hand clutching the mane of his mount, and only his feet exposed to view, his body being shielded by that of the horse he was riding.

As the two men came into close quarters White discharged his revolver at Murieta. The first shot missed him, as he moved quickly to one side; a second shattered the hand that clutched the animal’s mane, causing the rider to fall on the ground. Quickly rising to his feet and holding the bleeding hand aloft in token of submission, the wounded man addressed his captor in Spanish, saying:

“Mira mi mano, amigo!” (“Look at my hand, friend!”)

White, who had formerly been the trusted lieutenant of Jack Hayes, a renowned Indian fighter, was exceptionally courageous, but too chivalrous to take advantage of a wounded man. He said to Joaquin, “I arrest you,” and the young Mexican surrendered. At this moment, however, the other Rangers arrived upon the scene, and some of them, seeing Joaquin’s arm lowered, and thinking the two were still in combat, shot the bandit to pieces.

This impulsive action upset many of the Rangers, for they were anxious to take Joaquin alive in order to present substantial proof, when claiming the reward which had been offered for his capture.

The whole affair happened about eighty miles from Fresno, and a question arose concerning the proper disposition of the dead bandit’s body. After considerable discussion they decided to cut off Murieta’s head, sever the hand of Three-Fingered-Jack, and take these trophies along for the purpose of satisfying public anxiety and giving tangible proof that the bloodthirsty bandits were out of the way.

One of the prisoners, when fording the river, committed suicide by plunging under the water and holding on to the growth beneath, thus defying the efforts of the Rangers to save him. The other was placed in jail, but the jail was mobbed at night, and the next day he was found hanging near the spring of a prominent citizen.

The head and hand were taken to Fresno and preserved in alcohol, then placed in the office of Doctor Leach for safety’s sake. here they were identified by Mr. Dorsey and several others from Mariposa, where Joaquin Murieta was well known. Later they were moved to Hornitos, where Edward Connor and Captain Howard helped to prepare the affidavits establishing the capture and identity of the dead bandit. After a while Black and Henderson placed them on exhibition in San Francisco, where an admission of twenty-five cents was charged. They attracted so much attention that the same men exhibited them in New York, where they netted a large amount of money. Then the Rangers raised so much objection that the relics were brought back to San Francisco, where they were destroyed in the great earthquake and fire of 1906, which wiped out almost every landmark and relic of the gold-rush days.

Some of the old Spanish families appear thoroughly convinced that Joaquin Murieta was not killed—that it was one of the other Joaquins. However, the head was inspected by Governor Bigler, and the bill granting the reward passed the Senate, May 13, 1854. Captain Howard states that there was no doubt as to its being Joaquin Murieta; also that the terrible murders and robberies ceased from that time forth, and that Californians lived in a reasonable degree of peace until 1872, when there was a revival of banditry under the leadership of Vasquez. This later criminal was eventually captured by the Sheriff’s posse and executed in the Santa Clara jail, San Josť, March 19, 1875.

According to the following letter written to Howard by Edward Connor (later General Connor), there was some doubt as to whether Harry Love would divide the three thousand dollars reward that had been offered for the capture of Joaquin Murieta. It appears that Connor went to Sacramento in order that he might be on hand should anything unjust occur.

Sacramento, May 13, 1854.

Dear Bill:

Harry Love’s bill passed the Senate to-day, by a large majority; he will not draw his money until Tuesday morning. I expect I will have some trouble to make him stick to his word; may be not, aitho I dread it. There will be hell in the camp sure if he don’t stick to his word. I leave here on Tuesday for San Francisco, at which place I will stay until my eyes get well; that is, if I find a letter from you saying that I have Schofield’s permission to do so. I put myself in the hands of a good Doctor to-day, who thinks he can cure me; my eyes are still very bad.

As Ever Yours,

To W. J. Howard,
Shear’s Saloon,
Flat Broke.

Murieta’s wife, the beautiful “Queen Victoria,” disappeared from the county soon after the capture of Joaquin. It is said that before taking her departure she buried much gold in the garden of her home near the Howard ranch, and that several years later three Mexicans came and searched in vain for the hidden treasure. Captain Howard stated that a Major Baldwin from England was fortunate in finding the gold when he and his helpers mined in the Tulita district.

Next: 19. Hunting & SurveyingContentsPrevious: 17. Desperado

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