About Finding Joaquin by Steve Bartholomew

Posted by on Apr 24, 2017 in 19th Century U.S., Featured Book, Historical Research, Historical Tidbits | Comments Off on About Finding Joaquin by Steve Bartholomew

There’s a razor-thin line between history and fiction. Scholars used to think the Iliad was all made up, until the actual ruins of Troy were found. What fascinates me about the bandit Joaquin Murietta is that no one really knows how much of his story is true.

My book Finding Joaquin is not the first fictional narrative about this man. In fact, one of the first novels written in California was inspired by his life. This was The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, by John Rollin Ridge. Note the difference in spelling of the bandit’s name. There are a number of other variations, since no one is sure how Joaquin spelled it. The recurring theme in my own tale is who was he? Was Joaquin a villain or a hero, as some think? And who is Ira Beard, the bounty hunter in my novel? Who are we?

We might begin by asking who was Rollin Ridge? He was a Cherokee originally from Georgia. Having given up on the gold rush, he turned to writing. Sometimes he wrote under his Cherokee name, Yellow Bird. His book about Joaquin was at the time of the genre called “dime novel”. It was a fictional biography. It became instantly popular, selling thousands of copies. Many people who read the book took it as accurate history. There’s a razor-thin line …

The Life and Adventures was wildly popular in the United States. It was republished in Europe, translated into Spanish, then from Spanish to French. Then it was translated back to Spanish, except that the author changed Joaquin from Mexican to Chilean. The book was enormously successful in Chile, where a bronze statue was erected in Joaquin’s honor! Unfortunately, Rollin Ridge never reaped great profits from his book, which was widely plagiarized.

Even today, there are arguments about whether Joaquin was Mexican, Californian, or Chilean. The state of California blamed him for over twenty murders. Mexicans thought he was a Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. What we know for a fact is that Harry Love and his band of California Rangers claimed to have destroyed Joaquin’s gang. They cut off what they claimed was his head and brought it back preserved in alcohol, along with the hand of Three Finger Jack, or Tres Dedos, Joaquin’s chief accomplice. Harry got numerous witnesses to swear it was Joaquin, but then you can believe what you like. Harry Love himself was not what you would call a good guy. He was eventually shot to death by his ex wife’s bodyguard, but that’s another story.

Joaquin’s head was put on public display and taken on tour; it cost one dollar to go and see it. The head remained in San Francisco for many years, but was finally destroyed in the fire of 1906.

What I love about characters like Joaquin Murietta is that there are so many stories. Who knows what to believe? Writing or reading historical fiction lets me feel what everyday life was like in that time and place. California I believe has always been the most multicultural of our fifty states. Even before arrival of the white man, there were dozens of different tribes, all speaking different languages. San Francisco had a Chinatown before the gold rush. There are contemporary descriptions of Chinese putting on a dragon dance and shooting off firecrackers in honor of the Fourth of July in 1849. When the Rush began, some of the first immigrants were from Chile. They had experience in mining and taught Americans how to extract gold. There were French, Germans, Polynesians and Irish, among others. Native Americans watched in dismay and did their best to survive.

California was busy inventing itself. San Francisco burned down three times in as many years, and rebuilt itself as quickly. Other places, like the town of Sonora, had similar disasters. Society was trying to sort itself out. Native Americans, who were here first, were just trying to survive and not finding it easy. The Spanish came next, under Mexican rule, but many of them, like General Vallejo, were happy to cut ties with that government. After the gold rush all bets were off. Suddenly the population of San Francisco jumped from about 400 to over 30,000. Before the Rush, California’s main export was hides and tallow from longhorn cattle. After 1850 the principal export was – gold. The population was from all over: Australia, Chile, Polynesia, China, France, Germany, as well as from what Californians called “the States.”

Any author looking for someone to write about from that time will find a wealth of material. One character who appears in my novel, as well as some other stories, was John Hays. He was from the Texas Rangers. He introduced the Walker Colt revolver, defeated the Comanche, and helped to broker peace with that tribe. He later moved to San Francisco and became its first sheriff. Another player in California history was Jesse Benton Fremont, wife of John Fremont. She ran the Mariposa mine for awhile, against all odds, and later set up a salon in San Francisco where she hosted some brilliant artists, writers, and politicians. Another of my favorite characters – who I have not yet used in a story – was John Geary. He was the only man in history to become governor of three different states: California, Kansas, and Pennsylvania.

But don’t get me started. There were so many amazing people in Old California, we could talk about them for hours. There was Emperor Norton, Oofty Goofty, George Washington … Well, I suppose you could google them.

Finding Joaquin began as a short story, which may be found in my recent collection, The Survivor and other tales of old San Francisco. After finishing that story I felt not quite satisfied, as if I had consumed enough to remove the edge of hunger, but not enough to fill me up. The novel is an attempt to complete that meal. I’m not sure if I’m done yet; it will take me some time to digest my tale.

Steve Bartholomew, April 24, 2017