The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta

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The title page to John Rollin Ridge's 1854 novel The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit introduces two stories. The novel's title indicates the novel's focus, Ridge's telling of Joaquín Murieta's (c. 1829–1850) exploits as a legendary bandit in southern California. The second story, evoked in the byline, "by Yellow Bird," concerns Ridge's Cherokee heritage. A mixed-blood Cherokee, Ridge (1827–1867) registers as author his tribal name instead of his anglicized name. The byline draws attention to Ridge's Cherokee ancestry, a turbulent history that includes the Cherokee Nation's removal from Georgia and the deaths of over eight thousand people on the forced march west that came to be known as the Trail of Tears. At first glance, the stories of Murieta and Ridge appear unrelated: Murieta's crime stories, set during California's booming gold rush, seem a long way from Ridge's Cherokee past. Yet when read side by side, compelling parallels evolve that not only link the two stories but also help explain Ridge's somewhat sympathetic depiction of Murieta's criminal life.

Ridge's Murieta is inescapably transformed by violence. Murieta, a dignified citizen, becomes corrupt because he is a victim of racially motivated violence, an aggression stemming from cultural conditions shaping a newly annexed California. Consequently, Ridge's narrative regards Murieta's crimes not as innate but as a response to violence, a reaction motivated by revenge. Ridge himself understood this vengeance. The son of Cherokee leaders, Ridge watched family elders suffer through events akin to the violent assaults he describes as being committed against Murieta. Themes of violence and vengeance shape both stories, and the similarities have likewise influenced much of the scholarship examining the first Native American–authored novel. Scholars have concentrated largely on two threads: much scholarship reads The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, first, as a reflection of the author's own violent Cherokee past and, second, as a story exploring how the violent conditions surrounding the California gold rush shaped Murieta's life for the worse and simultaneously gave birth to an exclusive national identity.


In 1835 Ridge's grandfather (Major Ridge), father (John Ridge), and cousin (Elias Boudinot) signed the Treaty of New Echota on behalf of the Cherokee Nation. The treaty authorized the removal of the Cherokee people from Georgia in exchange for western lands, $4.5 million, and funds for establishing schools within the nation. After signing the treaty, Ridge's grandfather is alleged to have said, "I have signed my death warrant." Ridge's relatives penned and signed the treaty because they considered removal inevitable: the discovery of gold only increased the already high value of Cherokee farmlands in Georgia, and President Andrew Jackson had not only outlined his detailed plan for Indian removal but also rejected Supreme Court decisions protecting Cherokee homes and rights in Georgia. As expected, many Cherokee, led by their chief John Ross, condemned the treaty and censured the Ridge family for their endorsement. The Ridges' relationship with the Cherokee grew further estranged when they, with the help of slaves, moved west peacefully, while sixteen thousand Cherokee—including the Ross family—suffered on the 1838 Trail of Tears.

Once in Oklahoma, the Ross faction designed plans for increasing their power within the nation, and key was eliminating the men responsible for signing the treaty. After proclaiming the treaty signers guilty of treason, on 22 June 1839, in three coordinated incidents, men murdered Ridge's grandfather, father, and cousin. While riding to Arkansas, Major Ridge was captured and shot to death; Boudinot died when attackers repeatedly hit him in the head with an ax and stabbed him with a knife. Ridge's father was snatched from his home, stabbed twenty-nine times, slashed in the jugular vein, thrown into the air, and then trampled by his assailants—all in front of his twelve-year-old son John, who eventually left Oklahoma because of the hostilities.

In 1847 John Ridge returned to Cherokee territory in Arkansas. Having gained his education at a Massachusetts boarding school and started a family, Ridge concentrated on Cherokee affairs. As a journalist, he wrote anti-Ross literature, but any desire he might have had to revenge his father's violent death was expressed only in muted prose. Then in an 1849 argument concerning a horse that had been stolen from him, Ridge killed David Kell, a pro-Ross neighbor Ridge believed partly responsible for the assassinations. James Parins, a Ridge scholar, posits the horse stealing was part of a plan designed by the Ross faction to provoke Ridge into fighting and to create a pretext for killing him. Again hostilities intensified, and Ridge left in search of safety.


On 24 January 1848 James Marshall discovered gold on the American River in California. At first a distinctly California enterprise, gold mining soon motivated people from all over the world: Chinese, Native Americans, African Americans, Irish, French, Germans, and Mexicans all migrated to California with hopes of prospering financially. Instead of riches, most settlers found gold mining on the California frontier harsh and beset with gambling, drinking, vigilantism, and violence. Widespread resentment of immigrants compounded the problem of lawlessness further, and the Foreign Miners' Tax Law ultimately identified immigrant settlers as outsiders and limited their mining rights. The law, Joseph Henry Jackson notes in his introduction to the 1955 edition of The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, could not have developed a better method for promoting both intolerance and vice.

Among the thousands of people moving to California in 1849 was Ridge, who went to seek his fortune and escape violence in the Cherokee Nation. Ironically, instead of riches, he found a culture as violent as the one he left. After failing as a miner, Ridge turned to writing poetry and reporting news from gold rush towns for local newspapers. In those settlements he observed California's culture of corruption and obsession with differentiating "Americans" from "foreigners." He witnessed how laws defined Native Americans as inferior and encouraged derogatory epithets like "digger." Ridge perceived how immigrants, especially Mexicans, were similarly identified as subordinate and not "American." Moreover, he comprehended how laws marking immigrants as second class gave rise to a vigilante violence that accentuated difference. In a culture of violence that targeted immigrant miners, Ridge also heard stories of a Mexican bandit—an ostensibly ubiquitous yet anonymous figure known only as "Joaquín"—who became notorious for random crimes that terrorized mining communities.

In 1852 and 1853 the frequency of newspaper reports detailing accounts of robbery and horse stealing increased. Stories of gangs appeared, and legends arose about the omnipresent "Joaquín," reputedly able to be in two places at once. Five men sharing the name "Joaquín" were all considered as possible suspects in the crimes. During the spring of 1853 the California legislature responded to the panic of its constituents by commissioning a company of Mexican-American War veterans under the Texan captain Harry Love to search for the shadowy perpetrator. Historians have documented extensively the soldiers' search, which ended in the death of a criminal named Joaquín, but they are less certain about that suspect's actual identity. Love maintained that his company had executed the "real" Joaquín, whom they had determined to be the rogue Joaquín Murieta. To substantiate his claim, Love displayed in a bottle the head of the captured man, along with the hand of a man who was infamous as Joaquín's principal collaborator, known as Three-Fingered Jack; they also made available documents asserting the head belonged to Murieta, a case that did little to assuage the public's skepticism that the soldiers' undertaking had been successful. While published arguments questioned both Love's credibility and the head's identity as the "true" Joaquín, tales of Murieta's criminal life gained in popularity, inspiring Ridge to compose the first California novel.


Ridge begins his narrative with a qualification: the story's extreme violence is neither superfluous nor meant to please debased readers. Instead, the violence is historically significant, essential to understanding the crucial role a burgeoning California played in transforming Murieta. Thus Ridge's title character is not the feared criminal Californians knew but rather a likable, handsome, and honest eighteen year old. Having found success as gold miner, Murieta achieved fairly the dream of all miners: in addition to gold, Murieta enjoys civic respect, a lovely companion named Rosita, and a home country he loves—America. He credits America for offering such opportunity and feels deep affection for people known as "Americans." Such affection went unreciprocated, for Murieta's success stirred feelings of resentment from whites "who bore the name Americans but failed to support the honor and dignity of that title" and who held "a class of contempt for any and all Mexicans" (p. 9).

Prejudice quickly gives way to violence in the text as Murieta falls victim to brutalities resembling those that Ridge experienced in the Cherokee Nation. Vigilantes first bind Murieta and force him to watch men assault Rosita. Next, after leaving mining to farm, Murieta is again attacked by vigilantes, and he is forced to move. Finally, after a third relocation, Murieta is accused of stealing a horse. Refusing to hear Murieta's explanation for how his half brother acquired the horse, a mob of Americans whips Murieta and then lynches his relative. Thrice scarred from violence triggered by discrimination, Murieta pledges revenge and turns to violence as a sufferer "shut . . . away forever from his peace of mind and purity of heart" (p. 14).

Whenever Murieta fulfills his vow of revenge against all Americans, Ridge reminds readers that Murieta's violence is not inborn. He further emphasizes this point by contrasting Murieta with his favored accomplice, Three-Fingered Jack. Murieta commits violence for vengeance or self-defense. When Murieta slashes the throat of a local sheriff, he murders because the sheriff is near discovering him. The bloodthirsty monster Three-Fingered Jack, on the other hand, savors violence. For instance, as General Bean chases Murieta, Jack surprises and kills the general with his knife. Seeing the general's corpse only energizes Jack more; he kicks his boot many times into the corpse's face and, when finished kicking, shoots two bullets into the mangled head. About killing Chinese, Jack boasts: "I can't help it; but, somehow or other, I love to smell the blood of a Chinaman. Besides, it's such easy work to kill them. It's a kind of luxury to cut their throats" (p. 64). Fortunate are those people, Ridge tells readers, who confront Murieta instead of Jack.

Though Murieta commits crimes—none as excessively violent as Jack's—Ridge distinguishes Murieta from other bandits by pointing out Murieta's decency. Ridge notes, "Murieta in his worst days had yet a remnant of the noble spirit which had been his original nature" (p. 65). Consequently, he saves a poor ferry-man from Jack, rescues a young woman kidnapped by a member of his gang, and spares the life of a young man from Arkansas who has impressed him with his bravery. He is described by Ridge as a "hero" and "angel"—terms not typically used to describe feared criminals. In Murieta, Ridge saw parallels that helped explain his own need for vengeance, and scholars have spent much time examining these similarities.

Researchers have also studied how Ridge's Murieta account connects to the historical issue of nation building following the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). Of specific interest is Murieta's plan to obtain, through robbery, an abundance of resources—particularly money, horses, and weapons—to clear southern California of settlers. Only then, Murieta deems, will he finish his mission and be able to retire securely in the Sonoran mountains: "When I do this, I shall wind up my career. My brothers, we will then be revenged for our wrongs, and some little, too, for the wrongs of our poor, bleeding country. We will divide our substance and spend the rest of our days in peace" (p. 75). Through violence, Murieta gains both revenge and peace as he builds a "nation" out of his land and people. Again, the parallels linking Ridge's experiences to Murieta's loss of nation and desire for peace are evident.

To read Ridge's book as the simple story of a bandit's crimes would be to misread it. As he concludes the book, Ridge highlights the lesson of Murieta's story: "There is nothing so dangerous in its consequences as injustice to individuals . . . that a wrong done to one man is a wrong to society and the world" (p. 158). Ridge, a victim of many wrongs, appreciated his source material. While similar to Murieta in many ways, Ridge, instead of resorting to mass violence like the lead character, took pen to paper to compose his vengeance, a commentary on violence that extends to his Cherokee home and stands as the first Native American–authored novel.

In a paragraph appearing at the end of the novel, Ridge eulogizes Murieta. Rather than highlighting the protagonist's crimes, he characterizes Murieta as an "extraordinary" man with heroic qualities. His tone reveals the respect Ridge held for Murieta, a respect grounded in his understanding of the effects of violence. The paragraph also reveals the story as more than a crime novel; Ridge's narrative is meant to offer a lesson essential to understanding the history of California specifically and the nature of violence more generally.

The story is told. Briefly and without ornament, the life and character of Joaquín Murieta have been sketched. His career was short, for he died in the twenty-second year; but, in the few years which were allowed him, he displayed qualities of mind and heart which marked him as an extraordinary man, and leaving his name impressed upon the early history of this State. He also leaves behind him the important lesson that there is nothing so dangerous in its consequences as injustice to individuals—whether it arise from prejudice of color or from any other source; that a wrong done to one man is a wrong to society and to the world.

Ridge, The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, p. 158.

See alsoCalifornia Gold Rush; Indian Wars and Dispossessions; Native American Literature; Trail of Tears


Primary Work

Ridge, John Rollin. The Life and Adventures of JoaquínMurieta, the Celebrated California Bandit. 1854. Reprinted as The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, with an introduction by Joseph Henry Jackson. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1955.

Secondary Works

Christensen, Peter G. "Minority Interaction in John Rollin Ridge's The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit." MELUS 17, no. 2 (1991–1992): 61–72.

Johnson, Susan Lee. Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush. New York: Norton, 2000.

Lowe, John. "'I am Joaquín': Space and Freedom in Yellow Bird's The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit." In Early Native American Writing: New Critical Essays, edited by Helen Jaskoski, pp. 104–121. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Parins, James W. John Rollin Ridge: His Life and Works. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.

Rowe, John Carlos. "Highway Robbery: 'Indian Removal,' the Mexican-American War, and American Identity in The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta." Novel 31, no. 2 (1998): 149–173.

Streeby, Shelley. American Sensations: Class, Empire, and theProduction of Popular Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Varley, James. The Legend of Joaquín Murieta: California'sGold Rush Bandit. Twin Falls, Idaho: Big Lost River Press, 1995.

Walker, Cheryl. Indian Nation: Native American Literature and Nineteenth-Century Nationalisms. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997.

Wilkins, Thurman. Cherokee Tragedy: The Ridge Family and the Decimation of a People. 2nd ed., rev. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986.

Ronald L. Pitcock

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The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta

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