A Violent Birth: Disorder, Crime, and Law Enforcement, 1849-1890

By McGrath, Roger D. | California History, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview
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A Violent Birth: Disorder, Crime, and Law Enforcement, 1849-1890


McGrath, Roger D., California History


On the winter morning of February 20, 1853, more than a hundred Chinese miners were working their claims near Rich Gulch. Without warning, five mounted and gun-brandishing bandidos swept down upon them. Taken by surprise and without arms themselves, the Chinese could do little but comply when ordered to hand over their gold. An American who happened to be in the Chinese camp refused and made a rush for the bandidos. He was joined by two Chinese. The bandidos opened fire, killing the three men instantly. Stray bullets wounded five others. The bandidos collected some $10,000 worth of gold dust and nuggets and left as suddenly as they had come. Two days later the same gang of bandidos hit another Chinese camp with equally bloody, if less profitable, results. The robbers killed three Chinese, wounded five more, and got away with $3,000 worth of gold.

Charlie Clarke, the leader of a small posse on the trail of the killers, described them as "five well dressed Mexicans, well armed and mounted on beautiful animals ." Their leader was Joaquin Murieta. Probably the most mythologized figure in California history, Murieta has been portrayed as a social bandit who waged war against the hated gringos by robbing and killing them. In truth there was nothing social about his banditry. He robbed and killed those who had money, be they American, Chinese, or Mexican. He killed nearly as many Chinese as whites and robbed and murdered several of his fellow Mexicans. His cause was his own.

California's unsettled early years were certainly violent, with no one group having a monopoly on mayhem. Gangs of bandidos, using horses to great advantage, were especially conspicuous. The Murieta gang was only one of many, which is one reason Murieta's reputation grew to legendary proportions. Nearly every robbery committed by bandidos was attributed to Murieta. If robbed by a gang of Mexicans, was there anyone who did not want to attribute the crime to the notorious Joaquin Murieta? A similar phenomenon occurred a generation later in Missouri and adjacent states. No bank teller would admit that the leader of the gang of robbers who cleaned out the vault was not Jesse James.

Violence was not confined to bandidos. Caucasian newcomers used both the legal system and individual and group violence to suppress the nonwhite population. Conflict between Indians and other groups was also a feature of the early years of California but was of such significance and different character that it requires a separate treatment. (1) However, violence did not have to cross racial and cultural lines. Fighting among young American white men was a common occurrence in the saloon. The watering hole could be in the booming city of San Francisco, at a way station, or in a mining camp. It hardly mattered. Tradition and the code of the frontier required that the American male stand and fight if challenged or insulted. If both men were armed, the fight often resulted in death. Stagecoach holdups became commonplace by the 1870s, but train robberies can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Women, so often the target of the criminal today, only rarely suffered from any kind of violence or lawlessness. In man y ways they were a protected class. Prostitutes were an exception to this rule. Their victimization, though, most often took the form of an assault by another prostitute or by a drunken customer. Even for them, murder or rape was rare. When they died prematurely, it was usually the result of suicide or habitual use of alcohol and drugs.

Certain kinds of violence were looked upon with equanimity by gold-rush Californians. If two healthy young men chose to fight--with fists, knives, or guns--and the results proved deadly, few people became terribly upset. When stage robbers were courteous, left the passengers unmolested, and took only the contents of the treasure box, the general public hardly uttered a peep. However, if an innocent person were killed or robbed, the citizenry would be outraged and the response to the dastardly deed frequently came in the form of vigilantism.

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