On a hot July dawn in 1853, a gunfight took place on the western edge of the San Joaquin Valley, midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. When the smoke cleared, Joaquin Murrieta, one of the most notorious bandits of the Gold Rush lay dead. Soon his severed head was traveling around the new state of California in a pickling jar. Murrieta would have an unparalleled afterlife in dime novels and movies, Mexican folksongs and Gold-Rush legends. Anglos regarded him as a homegrown Robin Hood, while Mexicans on both sides of the border celebrated him as an enemy of Yankee rule. And as the legendary bandit’s myth grew and his deeds and death were celebrated throughout the world, every detail of his story, down to the color of his eyes, was debated and contested.
Not until Bruce Thornton has anyone tried to unravel his legend from his life and to understand the meanings Murrieta has acquired on his way to literary and cultural immortality. A penetrating look at the life and times of a celebrated bad man, Searching for Joaquín also probes the role Joaquin Murrieta has played in the myth of the old Hispanic California, that sunlit lazy land of missions and ranchos, moonlit plazas and fiestas, high passion and derring-do. As Thornton shows, that myth is accepted as history by many even today, and Murrieta continues to play many roles: the chivalric outlaw who settles conflict with violence; and the emblem of a simpler world where life is lived more intensely and passionately; and most of all, the avenging angel who rectifies Anglo misdeeds against powerless Hispanics. Searching for Joaquín opens a window onto a vanished past and also shows how myth and history flow in and out of each other and continue to affect the way we live now.