Fact or Fiction?

The Tale of Bandido Joaquín Murieta

JoaquinTheMountainRobber.jpgThe late writer and historian Walker A. Tompkins (1909-1988) came to Santa Barbara in 1946 and spent most of his 40-plus years here chronicling the history of Santa Barbara and serving “… as the community’s collective memory of a fast-receding pioneer past,” as he was once described. Now, nearly 20 years after his passing, his most ambitious tome yet has finally been published. The Yankee Barbareños: The Americanization of Santa Barbara County, California, 1796-1925, is chock-full of facts about our area, as well as folktales that have been passed down through the years. One such yarn that mixes truth with legend is the story of Joaquín Murieta. A notorious post-Gold Rush outlaw, Murieta was seen by some as a folk hero — especially after the publication of John Rollin Ridge’s novel, The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, in 1854 — and by others as a bandit, wreaking havoc in Alta California as he stole cattle and horses and robbed travelers and miners, sometimes even beating or killing them. In the following excerpt from The Yankee Barbareños, Tompkins tells of Murieta’s history in Santa Barbara.  — Michelle Drown

Bandidos and Outlaws

The name of bandit Joaquín Murieta creeps into Santa Barbara history. The tales of his local exploits read like fiction and, in the opinion of this writer, probably are.

Murieta was the outstanding name connected with the post-gold-rush outlaw era in California. He was said to have been a native of Sonora, who, during the years between 1851 and 1853, waged a one-man vendetta against gringos and Chinese miners, supposedly to avenge the rape-murder of his bride by Yankee ruffians.

Finally, Murieta’s depredations became so serious that Governor John Bigler posted a $1,000 reward for his capture, dead or alive. This reward (with another $5,000) was eventually paid to Captain Harry Love and his California Rangers, who claimed to have cornered Murieta in Arroyo Cantua near modern Coalinga. They decapitated him and brought the head, pickled in alcohol, to display in San Francisco. Many contemporaries who viewed the grisly exhibit and who had known Murieta in life declared that the pickled head was someone else’s. At any rate, the Murieta reign of terror terminated with his supposed death.

The editor of San Francisco’s Alta Californian suggested that perhaps Joaquín Murieta was a myth, or at best a composite of all the outlaws committing robbery and murder in the wake of the gold rush. An editorial in the August 23, 1853, issue concluded with this statement: Every murder and robbery in the country, has been attributed to “Joaquín.” Sometimes it is Joaquín Carrillo that has committed all these crimes; then it is Joaquín something else; but always Joaquín.

Although many of Murieta’s exploits originated in a paperbacked dime “biography” written by John Rollin Ridge in 1854, the fact that such reputable historians as H. H. Bancroft and Theodore Hittell accepted some of these tall tales as factual was enough to embed the legend of Joaquín Murieta too deeply into California folklore for it ever to be eradicated.

Murieta’s alleged connections with the Santa Barbara County area were mostly centered on the channel coast. He is believed to have been given shelter at the Vicente Ortega adobe, which still stands in secluded Arroyo Hondo west of Refugio Beach and [until recently belonged] to the Hollister family. Murieta is said to have attended a fandango at the San Carlos Hotel on State Street in the early fifties, disguised as a peón. He is also supposed to have attended a fiesta under the sheltering canopy of the giant grapevine in Montecito, Parra Grande, on José Dominguez’s ranch. On that occasion, Murieta was tipped off by friends that the sheriff was aware of his presence and was even then on his way out from Santa Barbara to make an arrest.

According to a legend, Murieta broke a twig off the big vine to use as a riding whip and rode away into the mountains. His hideout was in an unnamed canyon between Jack Rabbit Flats and San Rafael Mountain, one of the county’s tallest peaks. A stream flowing out of Murieta’s canyon joined with the east fork of Santa Cruz Creek, which presumably was Murieta’s getaway route out of the Santa Ynez River valley.

The legend continues that Murieta, upon arriving at his secret camp deep in the mountain fastness, thrust the grape twig into the ground. It took root, as riding whips invariably do in folk tales, and continued to grow. Eventually, it gave its name to modern Grapevine Canyon, where the Forest Service reported a grapevine over one mile long in 1965, continuing to thrust its tendrils toward the 6,828-foot loom of Big Pine Mountain, the highest point of ground in the county. There is no contemporary evidence of these appearances of Joaquín in or near Santa Barbara, and the grape twig story seems pure fancy.

The Yankee Barbareños: The Americanization of Santa Barbara County, California, 1796-1925. Published by Movini Press, Ventura, California. 483 pages; $79.95. Available at Chaucer’s Book Store or online at

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