Although there is a vast body of California legend in which Joaquin Murrieta's name appears, very few verifiable facts exist about his life. Whatever the truth may or may not be, the legend of Joaquin Murrieta is an important part of the history of California. Many of the stories surrounding the name conflict with one another in the details, but the main elements are essentially similar.
According to legend, Joaquin Murrieta was born in Mexico and travelled to Saw Mill Flat (some say Shaw Flat), California at the height of the Gold Rush. His wife (some say girlfriend) was raped and killed by Anglo-American miners, his brother was wrongly hanged, and he himself was tied to a tree and severely whipped for a crime that he did not commit. Although there is scanty evidence to confirm that this actually happened to a man named Joaquin Murrieta, it is important to note that very similar things happened to many other Mexicans living in California at that time.
The legend continues with Joaquin tracking down and killing the five men who had raped and murdered his wife and then swearing that he would take revenge on all Americans. He formed a bandit group and began a life of robbery and murder that allegedly spanned the length and breadth of the Mother Lode Region of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Murrieta's right hand man was Three Finger Jack (Manuel Garcia) who played a minor, if grisly, role in the Bear Flag revolt and is credited with numerous atrocious murders. Virtually every community in the Sierra foothills has one or more stories of Murrieta and Three Fingered Jack during the three years from 1850 to 1853.
The nature of Joaquin Murrieta's character depends on who is telling the story. Lawmen of the day considered him to be one of the worst banditos ever to appear in California. Many others saw him as a kind of Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Allegedly he had a vast and loyal following among Mexicans living in California who saw him as an avenger of the wrongs being committed against them by the newly arrived Anglo-American interlopers. All seem to agree that Murrieta and his band were accomplished cattle and horse thieves, inveterate robbers, and ruthless killers.
In July 1853 it was announced that, on order of California Governor Bigler, a specially formed company of State Rangers led by Captain Harry Love had killed both Joaquin Murrieta and Three Fingered Jack at Ponoche Pass in Tulare Valley. In order to prove their deaths, Murrieta was decapitated and three Fingered Jack's hand was amputated. These items were then placed in bottles, embalmed in alcohol, and taken back to the State Capitol where a reward was paid to Love. Official announcements were made proclaiming Murrieta's death and the gruesome bottles went on tour through the state.
In spite of the official proclamations, rumor quickly spread that Love had not killed Joaquin Murrieta but rather another man named Joaquin. Sightings of Joaquin were reported in various places and people who claimed to have known him declared that the head in the bottle was not his. One story has it that he retired to Mexico. Another has him reappearing in Hornitos, California, to reclaim a fortune in gold that he had buried there. Whatever the truth of the matter, there is no question but that his name has, for some political activists at least, symbolized resistance against Anglo-American economic and cultural domination in California.