In this most entertaining and instructive book, Bruce Thornton uses as a cautionary tale the legend of the murderous post-Gold Rush bandit Joaquin Murieta. Now hailed by some contemporary Latino radicals as a liberator against oppressive whites, Murieta appeared in different guises throughout California and western history, ranging from thug to Californio (that is, pre-state native) Robin Hood. What is said to have been Murieta's head—Thornton casts severe doubts on whether it really was—was preserved in a glass jar, displayed around the state, and perhaps only recently destroyed. Thornton explores each of these appearances of a head variously described (blonde hair/black hair; light complexion/dark) and explains the rationale for each, while using the historian's craft to explain what really (or more likely) happened. He leaves the attempt to construct an identity politics of racial/ethnic oppression in rubble. In doing so, he underlines how far we need to go before having a reliable history of California.
From 1850 until July 1853, Joaquin (or cutthroats taken to be him) and his gang terrorized the state, killing Californios, Anglos, Mexicans, Chinese, whole families. He would leave the crime scene shouting "I am Joaquin!" A multiethnic coalition gathered to pursue his gang and cut off its leader's head, along with accomplice Three-Fingered Jack's hand, to assure (before the age of DNA identification) they got the right men. Unfortunately, there was no photograph but only unreliable eyewitness accounts of Murieta's appearance, now made more difficult by the pickled head's distorted appearance in the glass jar. Even a contemporary "snorted whether the living bandit robbed our citizens of more money than have those who are exhibiting his dead head." The comedy here only increased over the years.
From the beginning the Joaquin story was taken to mean more than the death of a ruthless criminal. Exemplified by Hubert Howe Bancroft, 19th-century "historians consistently idealized Spanish California as a lost golden age before the iron age invasion of the Yankee with his ethos of greed and profit and his nativist prejudices." An expurgated Joaquin story fit this pattern. In more benign forms it lived on in the Cisco Kid, Zorro, and Isabel Allende's Daughter of Fortune. Today, the romantic myth has been appropriated by the multicultural politics of victimization, producing an utter mockery of history and a disregard of the murderer's victims.
Thornton teaches at California State University at Fresno, where he and noted military historian Victor Davis Hanson form the classics division of its Foreign Languages Department. As Hanson has been a farmer, so Thornton grew up on a ranch. Their advocacy of manliness as part of a liberal arts education is not a romantic idyll. And more to the point, like Hanson, Thornton has diverse interests and writes both inside and outside his academic specialty, while remaining focused on the concern for saving western civilization from barbarians, both outside and within the gates.
Winning the war for Western Civilization will require the wisdom of the classics. Classicist Thornton has produced an engaging and admirable example of the application of high standards to track down a villain of the American West and reveal the folly of his admirers.