Monday, July 2, 2018

Joaquin Murrieta and Cantua Creek

Sometimes I like to complain about California's relationship to their history, in that they don't have a relationship at all. I mean sure, you have some great Spanish Missions to visit, the best in my opinion is a state park. You also have a nod (provided by the NPS) to WWII history with the Rosie the Riveter National Historic Site. But the sites of many events receive no special standing. I believe that in most cases California land is just too valuable. Some places just get plowed under for a new housing development or, in this case, maybe an orchard. Or perhaps the site is just too remote. Even in California.

CA Historical Marker #344, about
nine miles from Coalinga.
For a year I commuted from Fresno across the San Joaquin Valley to Coalinga, California. I taught social studies at the local district's continuation high school there. Every day I would pass a historical marker and one day I stopped to read it. It said:
"14 miles [with a direction arrow] Arroyo De Cantua, Headquarters of notorious bandit Joaquin Murrieta. Killed here July 25, 1853 by posse of state rangers, led by Captain Harry Love. Terrorized mining camps and stage operations during his career. Historical Landmark No. 344. Department of Public Works - Division of Highways."
Joaquin Murrieta. Well, you know who he is. Murrieta is arguably the most famous of California outlaws. He terrorized the state during the Gold Rush with lots of mythology growing over the years. For some Californios he was a Robin Hood character, avenging the Hispanic community for the wrongs brought by the invasion of Anglo-Americans. It is said that the story of Joaquin Murrieta was the inspiration for the fictional character of Zorro. To the state of California he was a ruthless bandit. The new state government raised a party of "California Rangers" to hunt Murrieta down. They caught up to him and some of his associates, including "Three Fingered Jack" at Arroyo De Cantua, or Cantua Creek. (Check the location link at the bottom of this post for a Google map link.) This spot is on the far west side of the Central Valley, the closest city being Coalinga, a community of about eighteen thousand which was not founded until almost three decades after the incident.

Murrieta and Jack were both killed in the resulting shootout with Captain Harry Love and his California Rangers. Other members of the gang were captured. But to prove they had caught the famous outlaw and collect their reward, the rangers brought Murrieta's head and Jack's severed hand, pickled in a jar of alcohol. Of course there is the requisite conspiracy theory that they got the wrong man and Joaquin escaped to continue the good fight.

So why did they put the marker 14 miles away? The state Office of Historic Preservation doesn't say. On their website they say that the actual site is three large rocks located in the foothills southwest of Cantua Creek bridge. I admit I didn't go look for them. There are no roads to the site and the area is now private ranchland. However, I provide you a picture looking southwest from the bridge over the California Aqueduct in the area on the map marked as Cantua Creek. Yep, nothing but orchards out there. High lonesome. About twenty miles to Coalinga, and fifty miles back to Fresno.

Looking southwest from the Aqueduct at Cantua Creek.
My best guess is that when the marker was placed near the intersection of highways 33 and 198, that was the nearest they could get to the site where people might actually drive by and notice. The arroyo that was the site of the shootout might have been filled in, plowed over, and planted on by California's industrial agriculture machine. Or if it is in the foothills, it is being grazed on by cattle with no way to realistically get to the site. I don't know if I'm wrong headed in this, I mean, California agriculture land is pretty valuable. I just thought there would be more attention paid to California's most notorious outlaw.


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