In 1842, Francisco Lopez discovered gold in San Francisquito canyon in southern California. For several years, hundreds of gold miners trekked north from Sonora to work the mines there. They scoured the riverbanks in a 20-squaremile area. Mining the deposits depended on water, which diminished in quantity as the number of miners increased. By 1843, about 2000 ounces of gold had been taken out of the canyon. While gold continued to be mined in subsequent years, eventually it played out. This first California Gold Rush paled in comparison to the impact of the discovery of gold on January 24, 1848.
Gold! The Discovery of 1848
James W. Marshall, an employee of John Sutter, was building a sawmill on the American River at a place called Coloma. Sutter had employed about 50 former members of the Mormon Battalion, who had drifted north from San Diego, along with a group of Indian laborers. While they were cutting a ditch to provide water for the mill, Marshall noticed a few gold-colored flecks. He collected them over a four-day period, then hurried to Sutter’s Fort to consult with Sutter. Together, they read an encyclopedia entry on gold and performed primitive tests to confirm whether or not it was the precious metal. Sutter concluded that it was, in fact, gold but he was very anxious that the discovery not disrupt his plans for construction and farming. At the same time, he set about gaining legitimate title to as much land near the discovery as possible. Although Sutter sought to keep his discovery a secret, word leaked out when he sent Charles Bennett to Monterey to secure title to the land and its mineral rights. Bennett traveled as far as Benicia, where he bragged about the discovery of gold at a local store. Then, in San Francisco, he confided with acquaintances who had experience in gold mining. Meanwhile, Samuel Brannan, a former Mormon leader who owned a store near Sutter’s Fort, found out that local workers were paying for supplies with small quantities of gold dust. The Mormon workers gave him a tithe in gold and when Brannan returned to San Francisco he publicized the news, running through the streets with a bottle of gold dust in one hand and waving his hat shouting, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River.” Nevertheless, the importance of this discovery was not immediately appreciated. As late as May 1848, San Francisco newspapers were blasé
A grim view of conditions in the California goldfields and a critique of the Polk administration that led the U.S. into war with Mexico.
about the possibility of a gold field somewhere on the American River. By June, however, the fever caught hold.
Hundreds of Californios and American settlers quit their ranchos and jobs and raced to the new diggings. San Francisco, San José, and Monterey became ghost towns overnight. Stores selling pans, picks, shovels, and other mining implements did a tremendous business, and prices rose accordingly. Luzena Stanley Wilson, who came with her husband and family to the Gold Rush country, remembered selling her freshly made biscuits for five dollars each. Soldiers, prisoners, politicians, ministers—young and old—all abandoned their families and occupations to set out for the diggings.
As fate would have it, the Mexican government had ratified the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo a few months before the confirmation of a gold strike in California. News of the discovery reached northern Mexico in the summer of 1848, and hundreds of Sonoran miners immediately headed for Alta California. They had experience in gold mining, unlike the Anglo Americans and foreigners. In the fall of 1848, roughly 6000 miners, many of them Sonorans, entered California and set up mining camps along the American River. The first
Map \(4.1\) Principal Mining Towns During the Gold Rush
American miners to arrive knew nothing about gold mining and learned their mining techniques from the Mexicans. At first, life in the diggings was generally orderly and peaceable. Alonzo Delano, one of the so-called 48ers, remembered that at that time “property was safer in California than in the older states.” Bancroft, the publisher and historian from San Francisco, could only find two cases of robbery in all of the mining camps in 1848. But this soon changed.
News of the gold strike in California rapidly spread, first to Hawai‘i, Oregon, and Utah, and then to South America, Australia, China, the eastern seaboard of the United States, and Europe. By December 1848, President Polk publicly delivered a speech to Congress confirming the gold discovery and interpreting it as a confirmation of God’s favor for the war against Mexico. During 1849, about 100,000 immigrants from all over the world, but especially from the eastern United States, flooded northern California, forever changing the destiny of the state. Overnight, it seemed, San Francisco was transformed into an international city, a transfer point for miners and mining supplies. The pastoral life of the Californios in the north declined while the rancheros of the south enjoyed a brief flare of prosperity, as their cattle increased in value with the demand for food from the mining camps and the growing population of the north.
By 1850, fully one-quarter of California’s population was foreign-born; many were Latin American or Mexican. The Gold Rush was an international affair, attracting people from around the world. Chinese immigrants came, mostly after 1849. They were young men from southeastern China—from big cities like Hong Kong and Canton as well as from the countryside. In order to pay for their trip to the “Gold Mountain,” as they called California, these men indentured themselves to Chinese companies that, in turn, sold their labor to Chinese mining operations. Laboring long hours, with very low pay, the Chinese miners were virtual slaves until their debt was repaid, which often took years. By 1852, more than 25,000 Chinese were living in northern California, in the mining camps and in San Francisco.
Two-thirds of the new population attracted to California during the Gold Rush came from the eastern United States and were a multiethnic group of Scottish, French, Irish, German, and British descent. They called themselves the Argonauts, after the mythical Greek adventurers who traveled to the edge of the known world in search of a fabled golden fleece. In 1849 and subsequent years, they came to California by boat and wagon, on horseback, and even on foot, enduring grueling and dangerous passages.
This mass migration to California is one of the most documented population movements in world history, with hundreds of letters, diaries, and reminiscences penned along the way and after arrival at the mines. Those who chose to travel by boat had to pick between two routes. One was by ship from New York to Panama, and then by smaller ship up the fever-infested Chagres River, and then by mule over the mountains to the Pacific port of Panama. There they transferred to another ship bound for San Francisco. This voyage could last from two to three months depending on connections. The longest delays were usually on the Pacific side of the Panamanian isthmus, where, in the early years, there were rarely enough ships to carry the numbers who thronged the port seeking passage.
The other route to California by sea involved going around Cape Horn, the stormy southern tip of South America. The demand for travel “around the horn” stimulated a boom in the construction of clipper ships. Built for speed, these remarkable vessels were long and thin and carried huge amounts of sail on three tall masts. Accommodations were small and narrow, with ceilings so low that many had to bend over when moving about. One of the most notable clippers was the Flying Cloud, which on its first voyage took only 89 days to sail from New York to San Francisco. Those choosing one of the sea routes had to contend with shipwrecks, shipboard diseases of all kinds, and, if they selected the Panama route, death by yellow fever or malaria.
The overland route was the cheapest way to get to California, costing between $100 and $200. Nevertheless, it was still relatively expensive. (For comparison purposes, the daily wage of a New York City laborer in 1850 was less than one dollar.) Anthony Powers of Green Spring, Wisconsin, borrowed $125 to finance an overland journey to the gold fields. Another group from Monroe, Michigan, collected $2500 to pay for 10 people to make the journey. Though it was the most time-consuming route, it was the one that most of the American migrants chose.
The California immigrants of the 1840s had already blazed several trails, andothers had been in use by the Spanish and Mexicans for centuries. The southernroute— the Santa Fe Trail—ran from the Missouri River through what is nowKansas, to New Mexico, and then followed the Spanish trail from New Mexicoto southern California. This route had the advantage of avoiding the snows of the Sierras. A more direct way was the northern route, the choice of most because it was better known to English speakers due to guidebooks that had been published. An estimated 25,000 immigrants followed the northern route, leaving towns along the Missouri River as soon as the spring grasses were long enough to provide food for their oxen and horses. They followed the Platte River west into what is now southern Wyoming, crossed the Rocky Mountains through a series of passes, and came down in the Great Basin near Salt Lake. From there, they went west to the Humboldt River Valley, across the desert to the Sierras, and, once over those forbidding peaks, to Sacramento. The entire journey from Missouri to California lasted from four to five months, depending on the route selected and the luck they encountered.
The dangers faced by the 49ers going to California on the overland trail included death by cholera and mountain fever and by starvation and dehydration. Very few died from Indian attacks, which were rare. For the most part, the native peoples were content to watch in bemusement as wagon after wagon of “white eyes” drove themselves westward with fanatic zeal, abandoning many of their prized possessions in the process, in order to lighten their load. Milus Gay, an overland Argonaut, described one scene: “Such destruction of property as I saw across the Desert I have never seen. I should think I passed the carcasses of 1200 head of cattle and horses and a great many wagons— harnesses—cooking utensils—tools—water casks.... We also saw many men on the point of starvation begging for bread.” The phrase “seeing the elephant” described the excitement of new adventure but also referred to the delusional state that many experienced on the trail.
Once in California the 49ers, as they called themselves, began trying to strike it rich. They labored to separate sand from gold along riverbeds by sloshing gravel in a pan filled with water, knowing that the heavier gold dust settled to the bottom. The miners soon developed more elaborate systems, but all of the techniques still involved washing sand or dirt with water and permitting the heavier gold to settle out. Wooden cradles rocked gravel and water back and forth to separate the gold. Sluices ran a stream of water over a long wooden trough partially filled with gravel. Using such methods, miners took out more than $200 million worth of gold between 1848 and 1852. To put this into perspective, this amount of gold was roughly equal to the total value of all gold and silver money in circulation in the entire nation at the beginning of the Gold Rush, and is equivalent to almost $2 billion dollars today.
By mid-1850, the most easily available gold was gone. The miners continued to use pans and long toms (sluices), but they found less and less gold to
As illustrated by this image, even placer mining had negative environmental impacts including water diversion, soil erosion, and the siltation of stream beds.
reward their labor. Some fortune seekers began to return home or to follow the lure of quick riches to new gold strikes elsewhere. Others turned to more elaborate methods of mining. By one estimate, a typical gold seeker averaged 20 dollars of gold in a day in 1848 but only two dollars’ worth by 1853. As miners moved farther and farther from streams, and as streams diminished in late summer, miners found they had to expend greater efforts diverting water to their claims. By 1855, miners or water companies had built more than 4000 miles of artificial waterways, mostly wooden channels called flumes.
One technique to get more gold was to use water diverted from rivers and streams for hydraulic mining. Reasoning that the gold dust in the riverbeds had washed there from the mountains, gold seekers began to look for gold in the foothills. Rather than digging through tons of soil and gravel over the prehistoric streambeds, gold seekers began to use water under pressure to blast it away. They developed huge water cannons that could blast away fully grown trees and giant boulders and reduce an entire hillside to bedrock. After bombardment by water cannons, sand and gravel were suspended in water and run through sluices, permitting the gold to settle to the bottom and the tailings (small rocks of no value) to flow into nearby rivers. This hydraulic method was far more expensive than placer mining, but by 1870, 22 percent of all gold produced in California was obtained by hydraulic mining.
As thousands and then tens of thousands of gold seekers converged on the Gold Country, they found a region far removed from traditional structures of law or political authority. The military governor was far away, and Mexican political authority had never extended into the foothills of the Sierras. Gold seekers formed their own political authority, first by developing rough guidelines regarding claims. A gold seeker could pre-empt a likely spot by “staking a claim,” but the consensus was that the claim was valid only if the area it covered could be worked by a single person and only if someone was actually working it. Most mining camps elected someone to arbitrate their differences; this person was often called by the Mexican term, alcalde.
Such people functioned as unofficial justices of the peace, trying wrongdoers and prescribing punishment for crimes. Few such magistrates had much training in the law, if any, and many gained reputations for eccentric decisions or for blatant discrimination against foreigners, Californios, or Indians. If someone were accused of a serious crime, most mining camps carried out a semblance of a jury trial, though usually with little reference to established legal principles. Without sheriffs or jails, sentences for theft were usually either banishment (often with a shaved head), flogging, branding, or mutilation (such as cutting off the thief ’s ears). Murder and horse theft were usually punished by hanging. One of the first such hangings came in January 1849, in a camp Thereafter known as Hangtown (later renamed Placerville). Though some punishments resulted from a process much like a jury trial, others were simply a lynching in which a mob, sometimes drunken, acted as judge, jury, and executioner in one.
Though such rough-and-ready justice may have seemed appropriate in the absence of legally constituted political authority, some mining camps continued in such fashion even when a properly authorized judge or sheriff was present. In 1851, in the town of Sonora, for example, a mob overpowered the sheriff and lynched a self-confessed thief. Soon after, the miners formed a vigilance committee. Unlike a lynch mob, which was by definition spontaneous and poorly organized, a vigilance committee was organized, claimed to represent leading citizens of the community, and justified its existence by claiming that the officials responsible for punishing wrongdoers were either corrupt or incompetent or both. Members of such a committee were called vigilantes. Led by their committee of vigilance, Sonorans banished an American thief and a French counterfeiter, and flogged and banished four Mexicans (two for counterfeiting, one for horse theft, and one for stealing a pistol) and one Australian (for theft of a mule). Committees of vigilance sprouted in a number of other mining camps in the early and mid-1850s. Lynch mobs also continued to take justice into their own hands. In 1855, for example, in Columbia, a mob took an accused murderer out of the hands of the sheriff and hanged him. Such actions were not limited to mining communities—both Stockton and Sacramento experienced lynchings in 1850.
The new society that was emerging spread outwards from the gold fields of the north, which encompassed an inland area in the San Joaquin Valley, bounded by the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the east, and joined by the rivers that drained into the San Francisco Bay. Hundreds of settlements sprang up overnight with names that reflected their cultural tenor: Hangtown, Placerville, Spanish Diggings, Sonora, and El Dorado (see map on page 112). The town of Sacramento grew up to provide food and supplies to the mining district. Similarly, the port city of Stockton, almost 100 miles from the Pacific Ocean but located on the navigable San Joaquin River, grew to feed the new population. San Francisco, of course, owed its sudden urbanization to the Gold Rush migrants and economy. Overnight its population went from a few hundred souls to more than 40,000 in the last months of 1848. Within a short time it would become the cultural and economic capital of the state.
The rough-and-tumble life in the mining camps that sprang up along the banks of the rivers in northern and central California challenged the morals and standards of living that many miners brought with them from the east. Boredom and homesickness typified the early months in the camps, as the miners began to miss the creature and family comforts of home. Edmund Booth of Iowa wrote in 1850 that “Cal. is a world upside down—nothing like home comforts and home joys.” He was referring to the fact that in the gold fields the normal relations between genders, races, and classes were all mixed up: Indians, Africans, and Mexicans shared tents, food, and amusements with Australians, Frenchmen, and Yankees. Men did the cooking and washing, and the boundaries between respectable women and prostitutes seemed irrelevant. Men who had never cooked or done domestic work before found themselves planning their menus around trips to the distant store. They worried about infestations of lice and fleas and feared diseases such as scurvy and dysentery. New Yorker Howard Gardiner recalled that he and his fellow miners “lived more like pigs than human beings.” Those few miners who were fortunate to have a woman in their dwelling bragged to the others about their food and comfort.
To relieve the monotony of camp life, the miners created leisure activities that they might have avoided back home. Sometimes it seemed that everyone was eager to, in the words of Charles Davis, “join the ranks of Satan and spend their Sabbaths with little or no restraint.” Leisure activities associated with sex, liquor, gambling, and other amusements filled the gaps in miners’ lives. In these activities—in the fandango hall, the bordello, and the saloon—the mixture of races and classes prevailed. Gold Rush diaries describe the moral anguish miners felt, mostly after the fact, of drunken sprees and of sexual adventures with Indians and prostitutes. In the southern mines where the Latin Americans and Frenchmen worked, the mining camps had a more normal balance of the sexes and morals. Yankees from the northern mines frequently went south for a visit just to see women dancing. Other Sunday amusements included bull and bear fighting, where the two animals were chained together and prodded to fight to the death. Most mining camps had arenas built to accommodate the crowds who assembled for the blood sport. Occasionally, bullfighting took place when a brave individual ventured into the ring. In Sonora Camp, Enos Christian recalled seeing a female matador who turned out to be a man dressed as a woman for the amusement of the crowd.
A few sought out the comforts of religion, although churches were few and far between. In the southern mines, rude Catholic churches sprang up in which a diversity of nationalities and classes gathered. For the Protestant miners, the occasional preacher and denominational church provided the chance to share the Christian gospel and, perhaps, view a member of the opposite sex.
Historian Susan Lee Johnson called the Gold Rush the “most demographically male event in human history.” By 1850, California men outnumbered women by more than 10 to one. Two years later, the ratio fell to seven to one and by 1860 it was two to one. It was not until the turn of the century that a balance between the sexes was achieved. The first women to live and work in the mining camps were California Indians who worked as prostitutes or held other jobs in the saloons and temporary brothels that sprang up. They were followed by Sonoran Mexicans such as Rosa Feliz, companion of the legendary Joaquín Murrieta, or Latin Americans such as Chilean Rosario Améstica, a prostitute who sailed north with a shipload of men. Some women were reformers. Elizabeth Gunn, who was married to the editor of the Sonora Herald, wrote home about the evils of the fandango and prostitution, and soon her husband’s paper published criticisms along those lines. Lorena Hays wrote and published under the pen name Lenita, to criticize the immorality of the mining camps, even while identifying with the Mexican and Chilean miners. Wives and prostitutes thus were uneasy companions in the mining camps. Single entrepreneurial women also found their niche. Gold dust acted as a lure to women such as Rose Cartier, a Frenchwoman who owned a saloon in the mining camp of Sonora, where she employed other women who had emigrated from France and Europe.
Married women who traveled to the gold towns and settlements with their husbands endured many hardships and sufferings. Mrs. John Berry arrived in the camps in 1849 with her husband and lived in a wagon and then a tent through the cold, wet winter. She wrote: “The rains set in in early November, and continued with little interruption until the latter part of March.... Sometimes on a morning I would come out of the wagon (that is & has been our bedroom ever since we left the States) & find my utensils lying in all directions, fire out & it pouring down. . . .” Women tried to set up housekeeping among the dirt, fleas, dust, cold, and wet. Louisa Clappe came to California with her husband in 1850 and then traveled to the mines with him and wrote a series of 23 letters to her sister, which she signed “Dame Shirley.” These “Shirley Letters” were published serially in 1854 and again in 1933 and are perhaps the most vivid and detailed firsthand description of women’s daily life in the diggings. She wrote of the log cabin that they called home and of the few other women who lived nearby. Her detailed observations of the people she met and the mining camps are a classic in Gold Rush literature. Through it all, Louisa remained indefatigable and optimistic. Sometime in 1852 she wrote, “My heart is heavy at the thought of departing forever from this place. I like this wild and barbarous life; I leave it with regret.”
A characteristic of the gold camps noted by Dame Shirley was the toleration of prostitutes, which she termed “compassionated creatures.” Most of the men of the Gold Rush were white men and most of the prostitutes were Mexican, Chinese, Chilean, or Indian. Historian Al Hurtado found that more than three-fourths of the prostitutes in Sacramento were women of color and more than half of them were Chinese. The southern mines, especially, had a multiracial, multinational female population including African Americans and Indians.
One of the most infamous tragedies of the Gold Rush era was the hanging in 1851 of Josefa, the only woman ever lynched in California. Josefa, also known as Juanita (her last name is not known), lived in Downieville with her boyfriend, José, a Mexican gambler. During the night of a Fourth of July celebration, a miner named Fred Cannon drunkenly fell into the couple’s humble shack and broke the door. The following day, when José and Juanita demanded payment for the damage, an argument ensued and Cannon called Josefa a prostitute. Soon after, in a rage, she killed him with a bowie knife. That afternoon, a mob assembled demanding that she be hanged and voting to execute her at four o’clock. Before she died, Josefa calmly arranged the noose around her neck so that it would not tangle her hair and coolly told the assembled rabble that she would do it all over again. She had defended her honor. Cannon had called her a prostitute.
Women worked for high wages doing domestic chores for the miners, including cooking, sewing, and laundry. Other women owned and operated stores, restaurants, saloons, and gambling and boarding houses. Some unmarried women lived with miners in an attempt to avoid the violence and insecurity that was a constant fact of female life. But respectable women did not stay unmarried for very long. And those who came to the mines as married women were under great temptation to find new husbands among the wealthy, or to seek less abusive, more attentive mates.
Because of the scarcity of women, divorce statutes drafted by the California legislature were more liberal than elsewhere. Divorce became more common for women than for men and, beginning in the 1880s, California led all other states in the proportion of divorced to married couples.
Nativism and Racism
One of the negative legacies of the Gold Rush was the wave of anti-foreign sentiment that emerged, directed especially toward non-European immigrants. The Latin Americans, especially the Peruvians, Chileans, and Mexicans, along with the French and Chinese, became favorite targets of political agitation and violence in California. Most Mexican and Latin American miners established themselves in the southern mines, including the California counties south of the Sacramento River. Most of the anti-Mexican violence occurred here. Mexican, Californio, and Latin American miners helped teach the newly arrived Americans how toextract the metal from streambeds and ore deposits. But the gratitude they received for these lessons was short-lived. Resentments about the presence of these foreigners soon erupted into violence, especially in 1849, when the Americans arrived in larger numbers. Americans were angry that many of the best claims had been staked out already by the “Sonorans,” as they called all Mexican miners. The fact that many of the mining towns, like Sonora, Hornitos, and Stockton, had become multilingual in business dealings grated on the English-speaking Americans, who regarded this development as unpatriotic. On July 4, 1849, acts of violence broke out against the foreigners, beginning withattacks on Chilean merchants and neighborhoods in San Francisco and then spreading to the mining camps. In the camps near Stockton, Yankee miners ousted the Chileans by creating an impromptu code of laws forbidding foreigners from mining. Intimidation and violence followed, and the Anglos confiscated the Chileans’ property and sold it at public auction. In November 1849, a vigilante group attacked Mexican miners along the Calaveras River, ousted them from their claims, and “fined” each miner an ounce of gold. A few days later, 16 Chileans were rounded up and accused of murder. They were given a summary trial, and then three were lynched. Similar acts of violence occurred throughout the diggings during the first few years of the Gold Rush.
Many native-born Mexican Americans, who were now citizens of the United States under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, fell victim to these anti-foreign prejudices and laws. One estimate places about 1300 Californios (formerly Mexican citizens, now U.S. citizens) in the gold regions in 1848, with a similar number returning in 1849. In 1849, the military governor of California, General Persifor Smith, responded to nativist fears that foreigners were taking all of the gold out of the mining regions. He announced his “trespass” orders, prohibiting non-citizens from mining gold on public property. He appealed to Americans to help him enforce his policy. Using this order as a pretext and with some protection from the military, Anglo American miners robbed and harassed foreigners. After one riot, French immigrant miners were driven from the gold camps. Irish and Australians became targets of vigilante violence in San Francisco and elsewhere in the diggings. Chinese miners attracted more and more attention by nativists and many were driven out of the gold camps by late 1851.
In April 1850, the California legislature responded to the pressure from the 49ers and passed the Foreign Miner’s Tax, which required all non-U.S. citizens to pay a tax for the privilege of mining gold. The cost was $20 per month—an amount so high as to be prohibitive to all but the most successful. The law applied to all non-citizens, but tax collectors enforced it most consistently for miners whose language or race made them distinctive—Chinese and Latin Americans especially, but also the French and Germans. The tax was repealed the next year, due partly to complaints by gold country merchants that it was destroying their businesses. In 1852, the legislature passed a new Foreign Miner’s Tax of four dollars per month, later changed to three dollars. Another amendment, in 1855, exempted from the tax all those who declared their intention to become citizens. This meant that the tax was limited almost entirely to Chinese miners, because they alone could not qualify for an exemption— California’s constitution limited citizenship to whites only. Until a law in 1870 voided the tax, it provided a major source of state revenue. Of the $5 million collected over 20 years through this tax, Chinese miners paid an estimated $4.9 million. Leaders of the Chinese community voiced their opposition to these discriminatory laws and others that were proposed, but as non-citizens they had little political influence in Sacramento. Nevertheless, members of the Chinese community protested by writing letters to the governor and to SanFrancisco’s newspapers. They also hired a lobbyist, a Presbyterian minister named A.W. Loomis, to fight against discriminatory laws, in particular the one restricting their testimony in court. By hiring lawyers and collectively funding court challenges, the Chinese won court victories challenging the Foreign Miner’s Tax and other prejudicial laws.
The Legendary Life of Joaquín Murrieta
One of California’s first folk legends was Joaquín Murrieta, a person whose life is a subject of controversy, speculation, and myth. According to the story, Murrieta was a Sonoran miner in Murphy’s Camp whose brother was lynched and whose wife was raped and murdered. What followed was Joaquín’s war of revenge against the Americanos. For a year, Joaquín and a band of Mexicanos and Californios terrorized the state. As a result, the state of California created the California Rangers, a special mounted police force, modeled on the Texas Rangers. The state government placed a price of $1000 on Murrieta’s head.
In 1851, after several months of searching the foothills for Murrieta, Captain Harry Love and the Rangers surprised a group of Mexican vaqueros in Cantua Canyon. The Rangers killed several Mexicans, and Captain Love claimed that one of them was Joaquín. To prove his claim, he chopped off Murrieta’s head and brought it back for identification. Even though Love gathered a number of testimonials certifying that the head was indeed Joaquín’s, some doubted that Murrieta had been killed. To this day, many believe that Joaquín escaped and returned to his home in Sonora, Mexico.
Thus, Joaquín Murrieta became one of California’s first legendary figures. The first fictional interpretation of his life, based on some historical fact, was The Life and Adventures of the Celebrated Bandit Joaquín Murrieta, by John Rollins Ridge, published in 1854. Ridge was a Cherokee Indian whose native name was Yellow Bird. In Ridge’s hands, Joaquín became a vicarious avenger, a Robin Hood of the Sierra. Joaquín’s adventures soon reappeared in other novels and histories and rapidly became an international legend. As late as the 1960s, Joaquín Murrieta’s story was an inspiration for resistance against American cultural and economic control. In revolutionary Cuba and Communist Russia, Murrieta appeared in textbooks and in life-size statues as an example of the revolt of the Third World against imperialism. The world-famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda composed an epic poem in which Murrieta was a Chilean who stood for the struggle of all Latin American people to be free of North American hegemony. At the same time, however, Anglo American novelists, history buffs, and some academics treated Murrieta as an overly romanticized, bloodthirsty, bandit-murderer, or as a fictitious character whose life is more properly a topic of literary study. This contradictory and ambiguous legacy springs from Gold Rush California.