A Violent Birth
Disorder, Crime, and Law Enforcement, 1849–1890
Roger D. McGrath
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 Joaquín 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 Joaquín