during the California Gold Rush
. He is the subject of much myth
, but it's hard to say much for sure about him.
What is certain about him is that he was an associate of Claudio and Reyes Feliz, outlaw brothers who died in 1852. Claudio was shot at a fandango, and Reyes was executed for crimes he confessed to while being tried for the murder of a Mexican War general. From Reyes' confession, as well as the confession of one of Claudio's former cellmates, we know most of what can be said about Murieta for certain.
Murieta was born in Sonora, a province of Mexico. He was married to the Feliz brothers' sister, and with news of the gold strikes in California, the group moved north to the Mother Lode area. It is unclear exactly why Murieta and his brothers-in-law turned to crime, but the record clearly shows that they did.
After the Feliz brothers died in 1852, not much was heard of Murieta for a while. However, bad weather in early 1853 sparked a crime spree in Calaveras County, which was attributed to a Mexican named Joaquin - who would later be connected with the Joaquin who had run with the Felizes. The crime wave was sensationalized in the press, and wild stories arose around it. Eventually, although nobody was brought to justice, the crime wave stopped.
However, Captain Harrison Love, a Mexican War veteran, bounty hunter, adventurer, among other things, showed up in Benicia, then the state capitol, with a petition from the residents of Mariposa county demanding the capture of the bandit leader Joaquin. Through the political machinations of various California Democrats, a bill was passed putting a bounty on the heads of the "five Joaquins" who were supposedly responsible for the violence, and calling for the formation of a company called the California Rangers to root them out.
Eventually, in 1853, Love produced a head that he claimed was the head of Joaquin Murieta, leader of the bandits, and claimed the reward. There is some question as to the legitimacy of his claim, however - the witnesses to sworn statements, as well as those who gave affadavits supporting the issue were largely Democratic stalwarts in Mariposa County.
Regardless, for one reason or another, legends began to creep up around Joaquin. There were rumors he was still alive, as well as stories that romanticized him as a Robin Hood like figure. Furthermore, other stories arose, claiming he had worn a bulletproof mail shirt that had kept him safe, and that he would never hurt one of his countrymen.
Although these claims are largely fictitious, they have proven to be Murieta's lasting legacy. He was immortalized in John Rollin Ridge's "The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit," and far later in Pablo Neruda's "Fulgor y muerte de Joaquín Murieta" (Splendor and death of Joaquin Murieta). The most recent depiction of him I have come across is in the 1998 film The Mask of Zorro, where he is depicted as the younger brother of the title character.
It is worth briefly noting that I have seen both names spelled any number of ways. Joaquin is also frequently "Joaquín," and Murieta is often "Murietta," "Murrietta," or "Murrieta." I have simply chosen the simplest form of each for this writeup.