The Legend of Joaquín Murieta: A History of Racialized Violence


Arts & Culture


Like its elusive hero, The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta (1854) is difficult to pin down. It has the distinction of being the first novel published in California, the first novel published by a Native American, and the first American novel to feature a Mexican protagonist. Its story draws together transformational events in the history of three nations, connecting the California gold rush with the Cherokee Trail of Tears and the Mexican-American War. It blends elements of epic, folktale, revenge tragedy, and romance—yet historians have often treated it as a factual record. It has been repurposed, and sometimes plagiarized, throughout the U.S., Mexico, Europe, and Latin America; in publications ranging from the California Police Gazette to the popular Fulgor y muerte de Joaquín Murieta (Splendor and Death of Joaquín Murieta), a play by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda; and the 1998 Hollywood film The Mask of Zorro (in which Joaquín’s brother, played by Antonio Banderas, takes up the mask of Zorro). While few Americans today would recognize the name of Joaquín Murieta, most are familiar with figures such as Zorro and Batman, whose creators were inspired by this sensational account of vigilante justice and righteous violence. Paradoxically, John Rollin Ridge’s book (published under his Cherokee name, Yellow Bird) has become both one of the most influential and one of the most invisible novels in the history of American literature. 

In addition to its profound and wide-ranging cultural influence, Joaquín Murieta is distinguished by Ridge’s formal and thematic ambitions. Formally, Ridge stretches the conventions of sensational crime fiction to plot not just the rapid and mysterious movements of his protago­nist across California’s sparsely settled landscapes but also Murieta’s conflicted character and the ideological tensions between individual and collective motives. The novel’s formal idiosyncrasies—interpolating a landscape poem; jumping around in space and time; and shifting among the perspectives of Murieta, the minor characters who comprise his organization, and the men who try to hunt him down—express the social frictions at the heart of Ridge’s concerns. Meanwhile, Joaquín Murieta takes up some of the most complex themes in American litera­ture: cultural assimilation, racist and anti-racist violence, the tension between ethical and political action, and—perhaps most centrally—philosophical questions about the legitimacy of state and extralegal violence. It stands along­side such works as Nat Turner and Thomas Gray’s The Confessions of Nat Turner (1831), William Apess’s “Eu­logy on King Philip” (1836), Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” (1855), Frederick Douglass’s The Heroic Slave, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred: A Tale of the Great Dis­mal Swamp, and Martin R. Delany’s Blake; or, The Huts of America (1859) as a classic American story of anti-ra­cist insurrection.

The publishers’ preface to the 1854 edition inaugu­rates one influential model for reading Joaquín Murieta by suggesting that the novel reflects “the tragical events” and “civil commotion” precipitated by the federal gov­ernment’s removal of the Cherokee Nation from their an­cestral lands. In the wake of the estimated four thousand Cherokee deaths resulting from the Trail of Tears, negotiations with the U.S. government caused intense ideologi­cal conflict among the Cherokee. Ridge’s father (John Ridge), grandfather (Major Ridge), and cousin (Elias Boudinot) were prominent Cherokee leaders who be­lieved that the only way to protect the Cherokee Nation’s rights was to negotiate a treaty with the federal govern­ment. Without the approval of the Cherokee National Council or Principal Chief John Ross, they signed the 1835 Treaty of New Echota, which ceded the Cherokee Nation’s territory in the Southeast and established a basis for forced removal. In 1839, when Ridge was twelve years old, a group of Ross’s supporters assassinated Ridge’s fa­ther, his grandfather, and Boudinot for having signed the treaty; in the lurid terms of the publishers’ preface, “while the bleeding corpse of his father was yet lying in the house, surrounded by his weeping family, the news came that his grandfather, a distinguished old war-chief, was also killed; and, fast upon this report, that others of his near relatives were slain.” Ridge’s mother (Sarah Bird Northrup, a white woman) fled with her children to Fay­etteville, Arkansas, where Ridge studied law. In 1849, Ridge killed a Ross sympathizer named David Kell in a horse dispute and fled the state. He moved to California to join the gold rush in 1850 but soon gave up mining to work as a poet, a journalist, and the editor of several newspapers.

In California, Ridge witnessed a young state shot through with social contradictions and upheavals. Cali­fornia had been transferred to the U.S. under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which concluded the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). The treaty stipulated that Mexican inhabitants of the territory could choose to re­main in California and receive U.S. citizenship, and the majority of California’s Mexican inhabitants chose to re­main. However, California’s constitution restricted vot­ing rights to white men (thus disenfranchising Mexicans of black or Native descent), and the federal government failed to honor the property rights of former Mexican citizens. In the same years, the California gold rush led to rapid growth as miners from all over the world swelled the non-Native population from fifteen thousand in 1848 to a hundred sixty-five thousand in 1850. By contrast, this influx of settlers brought about a catastrophic decline in the state’s Native population. “From 1846 to 1873, colonization policies, abductions, diseases, homicides, executions, battles, mas­sacres, institutionalized neglect on federal reservations, and the willful destruction of indigenous villages and their food stores seem to have reduced California Indian numbers by at least 80 percent, from perhaps 150,000 to some 30,000,” Benjamin Madley writes in An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian. The nascent state government quickly moved to legislate white supremacy by imposing racially targeted laws. In 1849, General Persifor Smith, the U.S. military governor of California, sanctioned the rumor that it was illegal for noncitizens to dig gold in the state. In addition, voting rights were withheld, black and (later) Chinese witnesses were prohibited from testifying in court, Native Americans charged with “vagrancy” were subjected to forced labor, and in 1850, California insti­tuted a foreign-miner tax that was chiefly (and often violently) enforced against Mexican, South American, and eventually Chinese miners. (In the novel, Ridge re­fers to the last of these outrages when he describes Murieta’s robbery of a group of Germans as “collect[ing] taxes off of them for ‘Foreign Miners’ Licenses.”) Ra­cially motivated lynchings and other forms of mob vio­lence such as those depicted in Ridge’s novel were common occurrences. In 1851, Native Cahuilla and Cu­peño warriors conducted a series of raids in Southern California before their alleged leader, Antonio Garra, was captured and executed. Newspaper accounts of the “Garra uprising,” which reported that the charismatic leader was secretly aided by Californios, may have in­formed Ridge’s account of Murieta’s activities.

John Rollin Ridge.

Although Ridge advocated for the rights of the Chero­kee Nation and Mexican Americans in his writings, his ideas about race and identity were complex and often in­coherent. Ridge did not believe in the equality of races. Descended from a family of slaveholders (Ridge had held slaves while living in Arkansas), he opposed both aboli­tionism and the Civil War. In Joaquín Murieta, he depicts California Indians as uncivilized cowards and presents titillating descriptions of the well-known bandit Three-Fingered Jack’s brutal massacres of passive Chinese min­ers. Even among his characters of Mexican descent, Ridge distinguishes between the nobility of Murieta (whose “complexion was neither very dark nor very light”) and the frequently ignoble, undisciplined character of his followers. In his newspaper writings, he endorsed amalgamation and cultural assimilation as the best path forward for Native Americans. Whereas many Native Americans emphasized the importance of sovereignty and self-determination, Ridge believed that more “civilized” Native groups such as the Cherokee were worthy of the rights and privileges of U.S. citizenship. He also “shared with many Euro-Americans the racist assumption that in­termarriage between whites and Natives was a necessary precondition for ‘civilizing’ indigenous peoples.” This may explain why, by contrast with the Tejon Indians, the “half-breeds” at Cherokee Flat provide such effective support (in the form of torture and extrajudicial executions) to Captain Ellas in his search for Murieta’s men.


The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta is Ridge’s novelization of a series of sensational newspaper accounts of Mexican bandits robbing white and Asian miners and travelers between 1851 and 1853. The name Joaquín Murieta refers to just one of many men accused of lead­ing these bandit organizations. There were at least five Joaquíns who figured prominently in accounts of Mexican bandit raids. In 1853, the California legislature authorized Captain Harry Love to organize a group of twenty rang­ers and lead them to capture “the party or gang of robbers commanded by the five Joaquins, whose names are Joa­quin Muriati, Ocomorenia, Valenzuela, Botellier, and Carillo, and their band of associates.” When Love and his rangers killed several Mexican horse thieves in a gunfight on July 25 of that year, they decapitated one of the corpses and preserved the head in alcohol along with a hand supposedly belonging to Three-Fingered Jack. The head was displayed across the state as that of “Joaquin Murrieta.” While Love and his rangers claimed six thousand dollars in reward money for securing this trophy, some commentators questioned its authenticity. For example, a review of Ridge’s novel in San Francisco’s Daily California Chronicle suggested that “the book may serve as very amusing reading for Joaquín Murieta, should he get hold of it, for notwithstanding all which has been said and published to the contrary, we have little faith in his reported death at the hands of Love’s party.” But for those who did believe Love’s claims, the preserved head retroactively singled out Murieta as the most notorious of the five Joaquíns and the most celebrated of California’s Mexican bandits.

Poster from 1853 advertising the display of the bandit Joaquín Murieta’s head.

For both aesthetic and political reasons, Ridge’s novel af­firms that the preserved head was Murieta’s, and insists upon his hero’s individual responsibility for crimes that oc­curred throughout the state. Condensing the activities of scattered bandit groups into a single organization led by a man of extraordinary capacities, Ridge gives social disorder a perceptible shape and a storyline with a beginning and an end. Representing Murieta and Three-Fingered Jack as extraordinary, mythical figures, he fits them into familiar conventions such as the romantic youth, the chivalric ad­venturer, and the sadistic murderer. This double representa­tion of Mexican bandits as a combination of noble hero (Murieta) and murderous monster (Three-Fingered Jack) elicits readers’ sympathy for Murieta while also suggesting the need for vigilante methods for suppressing the bandits. What begins as a story about a heroic insurrectionary against white supremacy becomes an ambivalent argument for the judicious deployment of extralegal violence—a justification of, as Ridge writes in the novel, “discretionary power, so necessary to be used in perilous times when the slow forms of law … are altogether useless and inefficient.”

Packed with melodrama, bravado, daring escapes, and graphic violence, Ridge’s short novel (the first edition, published by San Francisco’s W. B. Cooke, was just ninety pages) traces Murieta’s transformation from a young Mexican immigrant into a legendary bandit and insurrectionary. Murieta starts off as an “exceedingly handsome and attractive” young man who arrives in California “fired with enthusiastic admiration of the American character.” Like the young Ridge, he is displaced, assaulted, and forced to witness assaults on his family when white men jump his claim, rape his wife, take his farm, murder his half brother, and publicly whip him. After numerous attempts to live an honest life in the face of racial violence, Murieta turns outlaw, kills all the men in the mob that assaulted him, and organizes a statewide network of bandits secretly aided by Mexican civilians. A master of disguise, a brilliant tactician, and an eloquent speaker, he unfolds a plan to raise and supply a band of “fifteen hundred or two thousand men” for a mass raid of Southern California: “to kill the Americans by ‘wholesale,’ burn their ranchos, and run off their property at one single swoop so rapidly that they will not have time to collect an opposing force before I will have finished the work and found safety in the mountains of Sonora.” His own suffering at the hands of white attackers represents the plight of all Mexicans whose rights went unprotected following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: “My brothers, we will then be revenged for our wrongs, and some little, too, for the wrongs of our poor, bleeding country.” After narrating a series of adventures, run-ins with the military, near misses, massacres of Chinese people, and incidents illustrating Murieta’s noble character, Ridge shifts to an account of numerous efforts to hunt down the bandits. The outcome of Harry Love’s campaign, in which Murieta’s head and Three-Fingered Jack’s hand are preserved and exhibited around the state, would not have been news to many of the novel’s nineteenth-century readers. What would have come as more of a surprise is Ridge’s interpretation of the story: “There is nothing so dangerous in its consequences as injustice to individuals—whether it arise from prejudice of color or from any other source … a wrong done to one man is a wrong to society and to the world.”

Like the Westerns and vigilante narratives it influ­enced, Joaquín Murieta presents a conflicted drama about the legitimacy of violence in a time and place where the rule of law was not firmly established. In the novel, conflicts are settled by mob rule, extrajudicial “trains,” inequitable laws, vigilante policing, and summary lynch­ings rather than by the courts. Under such chaotic condi­tions, justice depends on the discretion of righteous individuals. For example, Murieta takes justice into his own hands when he kills the men who flogged him, when he plots revenge for the wrongs committed against all Mexicans, when he decides not to steal from a poor fer­ryman, when a well-spoken youth persuades him to spare a group of hunters, and when he returns a kidnapped woman to her mother and fiancé. At times, Ridge pres­ents his hero’s ethical deliberations, retributive killings, forcible collection of “tributes” from white and Chinese miners, and cautious governance of his outlaw followers as a kind of shadow government that enacts Murieta’s vi­sion of justice in the absence of just laws. Murieta’s vir­tue, however, has clear limits. This is most evident when he allows Three-Fingered Jack to torture and kill Chinese men indiscriminately because he cannot attain his aims without Three-Fingered Jack’s support. Murieta’s belief that the ends justify the means is difficult to distinguish from the vigilante tactics of his pursuers, who torture and execute Mexicans suspected of aiding the bandits without due process.

In the novel, Murieta is mirrored by his most formida­ble pursuers, Captains Charles Ellas and Harry Love. Ellas emerges as a counterweight to the intensification of the bandits’ activities in 1853. “So diverse were their op­erations, so numerous and swift, that I shall not attempt to give a minute account of them,” Ridge writes. Ellas, a courageous, active, and honorable “young man of fine appearance,” is “naturally looked to as a leader” by the terrified populace. Like Murieta, however, Ellas finds himself torn between his “chivalrous” character and the exigencies of his mission. He relies on information ac­quired through the arbitrary detention, torture, and mur­der of suspicious-looking Mexicans, and (like Murieta) he delegates these methods to others: “A doubt arising in the minds of some persons … as to whether it was right to put the fellow to death, Ellas left him in charge of the two Cherokee half-breeds with the request that they would give a good account of him.” The two litho­graphs included in the first edition, portraits of Murieta and Love, invite readers to compare the bandit with the man who killed him. Ridge describes Love as Murieta’s counterpart, an energetic and “stealthy pursuer” whose “brain was as strong and clear in the midst of dangers as that of the daring robber against whom he was sent, and who possessed a glance as quick and a hand as sudden in the execution of a deadly pur­pose.” If the state’s agents of discretionary violence ap­pear to help establish the rule of law, they also spread chaos and insecurity. With armed parties scouring the countryside, “arrests were continually being made; popular tribunals established in the woods, Judge Lynch installed upon the bench; criminals arraigned, tried, and executed upon the limb of a tree; pursuits, flights, skirmishes, and a topsy-turvy, hurly-burly mass of events that set narration of defiance.” Even the suspected “harboring places and dens of the robbers”—presumably the homes of Mexican noncombatants—are systematically destroyed and burned by a mob of angry citizens. While Ridge generally uses the distancing techniques of euphemism and passive voice to describe atrocities committed in the name of the law, at one point he breaks off his narrative to offer an ironic commentary on the “custom” of lynching: “Bah! it is a sight that I never like to see, although I have been civilized for a good many years.”

In the last sixty-plus years since the novel’s 1955 republica­tion, critics have come to interpret Ridge’s novel variously as a folk story of a charismatic Robin Hood–like bandit, an impassioned protest against racial injustice, a troubled justification of state violence, a thinly veiled plotting of Ridge’s personal revenge fantasies, an allegory of the ten­sions between ethnic assimilation and anti-colonial resis­tance, and a foundational work of Native American and California literature. These readings explore important questions about the novel’s significance: Does Murieta stand in for the wounded and vengeful Mexican body pol­itic, or does he unravel Mexican group identity by embrac­ing an elitist individualism? Does his ability to move undetected throughout California em­power him, or does it give license to the state’s deployment of extraordinary police powers? If Three-Fingered Jack’s violence and lack of self-restraint represent the antithesis of Murieta’s noble character, what are we to make of the fact that Murieta’s plans depend on Three-Fingered Jack’s brutality? If Joaquín Murieta allegorizes the injustices experienced by the Cherokee, why does Ridge depict Cherokees torturing suspects to help hunt down the bandits? Does the novel evoke the need for impartial law and “pure administration” (in the words of Ridge’s romantic poem about Mount Shasta, included in the novel), or does it advocate for natural rights and individualist ethics as opposed to legal doctrine? Does Ridge represent women as objects and prizes fought over by men, or does his portrayal of the stealthy murder of an abusive bandit by the bandit’s wife represent a woman heroically taking justice into her own hands?

Critics have also traced Joaquín Murieta’s diverse in­fluences across genres, media, and national boundaries. Ridge’s intention “to contribute my mite to those materi­als out of which the early history of California shall one day be composed” was eventually realized when historians—many of them influenced by Hubert Howe Bancroft’s History of California (1882)cited his fic­tional narrative as a factual record. Although the novel was not widely reviewed upon its 1854 release, the California Police Gazette serialized a plagiarized version in 1859 under the title The Life of Joaquin Murieta, the Brigand Chief of California. This version, which demonized Murieta by omitting some of Ridge’s psychological and legal explanations for Murieta’s motives, was a popular success and became the source for numerous dime novels, such as Joaquin the Saddle King: A Romance of Murieta’s First Fight (1881) and The Pirate of the Placers; or, Joaquin’s Death Hunt (1882). (In 1871, a posthumous “Third Edition” of The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, revised and expanded by Ridge, was published by Frederick MacCrellish; in his preface, Ridge claims that his intention is to correct the misrepresentations propagated by these derivative versions, which he refers to as “the spurious work, with its crude interpolations, fictitious additions and imperfectly disguised distortions of the author’s phraseology.”) Published during the Great Depression and adapted as a film by MGM in 1936, Walter Noble Burns’s The Robin Hood of El Dorado (1932) helped to revive Ridge’s portrayal of Murieta as a hero fighting for the poor and downtrodden. This revival of interest in Murieta gave rise to both popular manifestations—such as a 1949 Western True Crime comic book adaptation and the George Sherman film Murieta! (Pro Artis Ibérica, 1965)—and the influential University of Oklahoma Press edition of Joaquín Murieta, published in 1955. Ridge’s novel has also been profoundly influential as an unambiguous representation of anti-colonial resistance and resurgent cultural nationalism in Mexican American, Mexican, and South American literature and culture. The popular ballad “El Corrido de Joaquin Murrieta,” for example, depicts the bandit chief as a fearless enforcer of higher law who appears in saloons “punishing Anglos” while wrongly condemned by the state’s “unjust laws”: “Ay, que leyes tan injustas / fue llamarme bandolero” (“Oh, what unjust laws / to label me an outlaw”). In texts such as Ireneo Paz’s novel Vida y aventuras del más célebre bandido sonorense, Joaquín Murrieta [Life and Adventures of the Most Celebrated Sonoran Bandit, Joaquín Murrieta], published in Mexico City in 1904; the poem “Yo Soy Joaquín” [“I am Joaquín”] (1967), by the Chicano activist and poet Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzáles; and Pablo Neruda’s 1967 play about him, Murieta emerges as a popular hero standing up against U.S. racism and colonialism. Gonzáles’s poem—which connects Murieta with other revolutionary figures from Mexican and Chicanx history—made the bandit an icon of the Chicano movement against economic and cultural imperialism in the 1960s: “Our art, our literature, our music, they ignored / so they left the real things of value / and grabbed at their own destruction / by their greed and avarice. / They overlooked that cleansing fountain of / nature and brotherhood / which is Joaquín.”

Authors who have rewritten Ridge’s Joaquín Murieta for commercial and political purposes have frequently simplified the novel’s cross-racial empathy and political complexities. The historical background of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the displacement and disenfranchisement of many Californios is completely excised in the most popular manifestations of the Murieta legend. While Zorro—first introduced in Johnston McCulley’s The Curse of Capistrano (1919)—echoes Murieta’s ro­mantic and chivalrous character and his vigilante meth­ods, the pre-1846 setting of the Zorro stories makes Mexican rulers, rather than Americans, the agents of in­justice. Bob Kane, the creator of Batman, acknowledges Zorro as an important influence on Batman’s vigilante persona, but the Batman comics transform the masked vigilante into a member of the wealthy white elite. Whereas Zorro and Batman focus on redressing individ­ual injustices, Ridge emphasizes Joaquín’s network of fel­low outlaws and their effort to avenge the U.S.’s racial injustices toward all Mexicans. In this trajectory of pop­ular vigilante heroes, Ridge’s Murieta becomes increas­ingly wealthy, white, and cut off from the social context of anti-Mexican racism.

That the seeds of such diverse (and often contradictory) interpretations and rewritings are contained in Ridge’s brief action-packed novel testifies to both Ridge’s capacities as a writer and his political ambivalence as a writer of Cherokee descent who advocated for both disenfranchised Californios and the impartial rule of “sovereign law.” The novel continually undermines Ridge’s suggestion that the “pure administration” of the state government might put an end to “injustice to individuals” and “prejudice of color”: If Mount Shasta symbolizes the impartial rule of law in Ridge’s poem within the novel, we learn on the very next page that Murieta’s outlaws hid themselves “in the rugged fastnesses” of the mountain. The novel concludes with the grotesque exhibition throughout California of Murieta’s severed head and Three-Fingered Jack’s severed hand—a display intended to terrify would-be outlaws while publicizing the state’s monopoly on violence. Al­though Ridge’s novel did not result in the establishment of impartial laws, sensational stories about Mexican bandits certainly contributed to the justification of police powers in California. Just a year after Joaquín Murieta’s publica­tion, California passed the Anti-Vagrancy Act, commonly known as the “Greaser Act,” which targeted “all persons who are commonly known as ‘Greasers’ or the issue of Spanish and Indian blood … and who go armed and are not peaceable and quiet persons.”

Joaquín Murieta is not just a foundational narrative of the state of California. It remains a vital novel today as racial profiling, deportations, criminalization, police vio­lence, and racialized dispossession continue to devastate American communities in spite of putatively “color-blind” laws. Ridge’s sympathetic account of Murieta’s forma­tion by unjust laws and racial violence offers a bracing rejoinder to racially disproportionate rates of incarcera­tion, the systemic nature of antiblack police brutality, and the intensified militarization of the United States–Mexico bor­der fueled by racial stereotypes such as President Trump’s invocation of “bad hombres.” Through both its psycho­logically nuanced portrait of Murieta and the parallels it presents between him and the men authorized to enforce the law, Ridge’s novel enjoins readers to reconsider U.S. laws and their administration in connection with histo­ries of racialization, dispossession, and state-sanctioned violence.


Hsuan L. Hsu is a professor of English at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of Sitting in Darkness: Mark Twain’s Asia and Comparative Racialization and Geography and the Production of Space in Nineteenth-Century American Literature.

From The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, by John Rollin Ridge, to be published on July 10, 2018, by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Introduction copyright © 2018 by Hsuan L. Hsu.