Taking my semi-regular power walk in Sonoma this weekend, I had a chance to check out some of the sights off the square that I usually drive past. One of the things that caught my eye was the historical plaque on The Blue Wing Inn, one of the oldest buildings in Sonoma. The plaque says the adobe building was built by the industrious General Vallejo in 1840 “for the accommodation of emigrants and other travelers”. Given the grief Vallejo was experiencing with the gringos pouring in looking for gold, he was probably hoping that directing them to an inn under his control would make it easier to keep an eye on these troublemakers.

There’s also a laundry list of famous people who stayed at the Blue Wing. Including, of course, Kit Carson. Travel around the West and you’ll find that Kit Carson showed up just about everywhere that anything was happening. And caused it to happen. (Asked once if he’d really been all the places and done all the things he was said to have done, Kit Carson replied, “Well, if you read about it, it must be true.” Carson was famously illiterate.)

But what really gave me pause was that Joaquin Murietta and his cohort “Three Fingered Jack” were listed on the plaque as having stayed at the Blue Wing. Given that we have more historical evidence proving the existence of King Arthur, I’m wondering how it was established that “The Robin Hood of Old California” was proven to have stayed there. I’m guessing he didn’t sign the guest book.

Whether you think Joaquin was a Robin Hood or just an early 19th Century version of a hood, I guess, would depend on who you were. Mexicans and the Hispanic Californians told stories about how Murietta avenged the many wrongs the Gringos were perpetrating by robbing from them and giving to the peasants. (It is said the legend of Zorro is based on Murietta.)

Contemporary “picture” of Joaquin Murietta

The Chileans and Native Americans even tried to appropriate him by claiming respectively that he was a Chilean who came up for the Gold Rush or a Cherokee. The Chinese weren’t asked to weigh in, but according to contemporary accounts, Murietta or some Mexican bandit killed 17 or so Chinese miners in the act of robbing various gold fields. They probably weren’t among his fans.

Zorro may have been inspired by Murietta’s legend.

What we do know about Murietta, is that we know absolutely nothing about him. There were Mexican bandits operating at that time. And many of them were identified as belonging to gangs led by some guy named “Joaquin”. In fact, Joaquin’s gang was alleged to include five Joaquins. At one point, every unsolved crime against a Gringo was said to be the work of a “Joaquin”. (The Gringos might just have well have said, “Well, Jose did it.” Perhaps “Joaquin” was the most common Mexican name at the time. And they could have added, “Well, they all look alike.”)

Historians have also pointed out that in mapping all the crimes allegedly perpetrated by “Joaquin Murietta”, you would have to conclude that he rode a horse faster than today’s fastest sports car to get between all the places it is “documented” that he robbed on the day he was said to have robbed them.

What is documented is that the new California governor (a Gringo, as by this time, the U.S. had “appropriated” California and dispossessed most of the original Hispanic and Native American inhabitants) was sick of this guy “Joaquin” or “Jose” or whoever he was and offered a large reward. A former Texas Ranger, interestingly named Harry Love, took up the challenge, cornered some Mexicans in a canyon not too far from Monterrey and shot them full of holes. Then just to stake his claim to the reward, he cut off the head of “Joaquin Murietta” and pickled it in a jar of brandy. For extra credibility, he also pickled a three fingered hand, said to be that of Murietta’s associate “Three Fingered Jack” (who was, according to accounts, named, surprisingly, not Joaquin, but Manuel.) Love also just happened to mention that as he shot “Three Fingered Jack”, another Mexican stepped out and said something to the effect of, “Wait, I’m Joaquin Murietta. I’m the guy you want.” At which point, Love promptly shot him.

Okay, who’s going to argue with the Native Sons
of the Golden West? They say Joaquin Murietta
stayed here at The Blue Wing Inn.

With this “proof”, Love took the head and hand on tour in the major settlements of the area, including San Francisco, charging a dollar a peep. Not only did he make a tidy sum at this game, but he carefully kept the jar away from the gold fields where someone who had been robbed by some Mexican named “Joaquin” might have been able to identify the head or say, “No this isn’t the guy”. (As for the hand, given the amount of manual laber people did with axes and cranky farm equipment and the number of guns that misfired and blew up in people’s hands, there were probably a lot of “Three Fingered Somebodies” walking around California at that time.)

However, about 17 people, who were conveniently far from the scenes of any of Murietta’s purported crimes, publicly “identified” the head as that of Murietta. No one ever investigated to see if they were paid to add drama to the exhibit along the lines of the fake medicine show man who pays someone to be “cured”. Contemporary accounts also state that one Senorita declared that she was Murietta’s sister and the head was NOT his. There is also a contemporary account of a group of Mexican horse drovers who claimed they were jumped by Gringos who stole their horses, killed some of their party and cut off the head of one of them. Coincidence? Hmmm.

What is in the contemporary accounts is that dozens of people up and down California claimed to have seen Murietta long after that pickled head was making the show circuit. (By the way, the head was apparently on exhibit until the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, when it was lost.)

Which brings me back to The Blue Wing Inn. I’m not about to argue with the Native Sons of the Golden West. These guys do a bang up barbeque on Sonoma Square during Bear Flag Days and I don’t want to get on their bad side. But I’d like to know where they found the “evidence” that Joaquin Murietta stopped here on a brief vacation to Sonoma.

I’ll just echo Kit Carson: “If you read it, it must be true.”