Joaquín Murrieta as Myth
To what can we attribute the sudden transformation of Joaquín into a mythical character? Undoubtedly, one factor was the dramatic exhibition of his head in Stockton, San Francisco, and other California cities, and another is the biography published by John Rollin Ridge one year after these events.
But it is also due to the example of romantic European heroes to whom the writers compare him. Among the titles of the works dedicated to him, we find The Fra Diavolo of El Dorado, The Robin Hood of El Dorado, and Joaquín, the Claude Duval of California, this latter a novel in which are mentioned other famous romantic bandits including Jonathan Wild, Rinaldo Rinaldi, Cartouche, and Schneitzer. In the introduction to his version of Murrieta’s story, Hyenne not only compares him to these European figures but claims that Joaquín surpasses them: “Malgré le renom que possède en Italie Fra Diavolo, malgré la reputación bien établie des Cartouche et des Mandrin de notre pays, il nous faute pourtant avoner que Joaquín Murieta, le bandit Californiene, les a tout surpassés” (2) [Despite the fame of Fra Diavolo in Italy, and despite the well-established reputation of the Cartouches and the Mandrins in our own country, we must nevertheless avow that Joaquín Murieta, the California bandit, has surpassed them all].
The American historian Hubert Howe Bancroft compares him to none other than Napoleon. In California Pastoral, he states: “The terms brave, daring, able faintly express his qualities. In the cañons of California he was what Napoleon was in the cities of Europe” (1888: 645). Besides, California did not have a popular hero like Davey Crockett, who had sacrificed his life in the Alamo for Texas independence.15
How can we explain the fact that it was Murrieta and not one of the other four Joaquíns (Carillo, Ocomorenia, Botellier, Valenzuela) who became the most famous popular hero in the history of California? One expert historian, Jackson, explains:
California might have developed its own folk hero sooner if
gold mining had been a more romantic business. […] A hero
hip deep in an icy mountain torrent is only a chilly hero at
best [….] California’s folk hero, then, if there was to be one
at all, had to be something other than a symbolic enlargement
of the patiently grubbing, ragged, homesick, and fever-ridden
There had long been such another figure embedded in folk
memory. [….] He was, in every land, the man who took from
the rich and gave to the poor […] In California, in the fifties,
no such hero existed, but that did not matter. Ridge obliging-