‘Searching for Joaquin’ debunks myths about bandit
Bruce Thornton could have just accepted the stories he heard during his childhood.
Like many other San Joaquin Valley residents, the young Thornton liked Gold Rush bandit Joaquin Murrieta.
“He was the outlaw, the hero, the guy we admired because he rights wrongs, opposes injustice, the typical cowboy outlaw we all grew up on,” said Thornton, whose family had a cattle ranch near Three Rocks, the area where Murrieta and his gang supposedly hid and stored their loot and where the outlaw was fatally shot.
“I’ve been interested in this topic for a long time,” said Thornton, who fed cows every morning and night in Fresno County until he left home at age 20 to attend the University of California at Los Angeles.
“It’s part of San Joaquin lore. How could you miss being interested in a story about a head in a bottle?,” said Thornton, a classics and humanities professor and former chairman of the Foreign Languages and Literature Department at California State University at Fresno.
After researching newspapers published from 1851 to 1853 and looking at historical documents for two years at the university’s Henry Madden Library and the state library, Thornton had enough evidence to bust the widely accepted truths of John Rollin Ridge’s fictitious “The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murrieta.” Ridge’s words were penned in 1854, a year after Murrieta was killed in a gunfight by California rangers.
Over the years, Murrieta acquired weighty roles: He was the chivalric outlaw who settled conflict with violence, the symbol of a simpler world where life was lived passionately, and the avenging angel who rectified Anglo misdeeds against powerless Hispanics.
Thornton chose to publicize his research findings, which negated those roles, in his “Searching for Joaquin: Myth, Murrieta, and History in California,” released today nationwide in bookstores.
“I don’t want an academic to confuse myth with history,” said Thornton, who sounds more like a natural storyteller than a longtime professor.
Today, Thornton can easily admit that Murrieta was just a cutthroat.
“He probably killed a lot of people, including Chinese, who were indentured servants and feared for their lives,” Thornton said. “Knowing that, what’s the point of glorifying violence? There’s no point at all.”
While stressing he’s not the first writer to debunk the myths surrounding Murrieta, Thornton understands the myths make for good Gold Rush and outlaw stories.
“In the book, I tried to give a comprehensive overview of the reincarnations of the myths,” Thornton said. “I also did more extensive coverage on historical background, Gold Rush, Mexican War and the Miners Act.”
“What I hope is I bring back to attention a fascinating story still important to Mexican-Americans,” the author added. “Every year in Three Rocks, on the anniversary of Murrieta’s death, 50 to 70 riders ride by horseback for community pride, ethnic pride.”
Thornton received his Bachelor of Arts in Latin and his doctorate in Comparative Literature from UCLA. Thornton’s books are “Eros: The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality,” “The Plagues of the Mind: The New Epidemic of False Knowledge,” “Greek Ways: How the Greeks Created Western Civilization” and a humanities textbook. He co-wrote “Bonfire of the Humanities: Rescuing the Classics in an Impoverished Age.”
“Searching for Joaquin: Myth, Murrieta, and History in California” was a departure from Thornton’s typical book topics; he’ll return to writing next about ancient Greece.
Thornton had fun, though, writing about the Gold Rush bandit.
“I’m a Californian, I love California. California history is completely fascinating, especially right before and after the Gold Rush,” he said. “It was amazing to read what was going on, the impact of the Gold Rush, the changes, variety of people coming to California from all over the world.”
KNOW & GO
WHAT: Bruce Thornton, Ph.D., discusses and reads from 3Searching for Joaquin: Myth, Murrieta, and History in California²
WHEN: Tonight at 7
WHERE: Odyssey Books, 11989 Sutton Way, Grass Valley.
ADMISSION: Free. Refreshments will be served.
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