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
, 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

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 yankeebarbarenos.com.


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