The "New" West Essay

1022 words - 5 pages

In his book, The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, author John Rollin Ridge introduces readers to a fictional character, who is a larger-than-life bandit. According to the story, Murieta set out on a path of revenge and organized a large band of outlaws to terrorize Californians. Murieta and his men committed terrible and bloody crimes (including robbery and murder). This pattern of criminal behavior continued until the band was pursued by mountain rangers, ending the story in a dramatic climax for the protagonist. However, this story is not an accurate depiction of the important elements of the “New” West according to author Patricia Nelson Limerick, in The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. Instead, the character Murieta exemplifies many of the myths of the American West and the idea of innocence.
In her book, Limerick describes the “idea of innocence” that permeated the American West (36). According to the author, the underlying motive for every action was pure (even when it really was not). According to Western American folklore, early settlers did intend to victimize Indians and trespass on their land, but instead came to America to pursue new opportunities and improve their lives (Limerick 36). The same ideological theory may be applied to the motivations of the sensationalized outlaws from the time. For example, in her book Limerick details the life of John Wesley Hardin, an outlaw, who began his violent life of crime at the age of fifteen (36). According to the story, Hardin shot and killed a black man (Limerick 36). However, idolized as the son of a preacher, Hardin hid his crimes behind the veils of “bravery” and “honor” (Limerick 36). He claimed that he actually shot the man -- a bully -- in self-defense (Limerick 36). Hardin held himself out to be an innocent victim of social injustice, as opposed to a blood-thirsty killer of twenty plus men (Limerick 37). Even in jail, Hardin reportedly read scripture and lead a bible study group (Limerick 36). He defended his crimes because they were committed against those who he viewed as “[subjugators] of the South (Limerick 37). This characterization of the Western outlaw is strikingly similar to Ridge’s fictional outlaw, Joaquín Murieta.
Much like Hardin, Murieta was celebrated for being a model citizen, well-versed in the bible and theology. Also like Hardin, Murieta was the son of “respectable” parents and was well-educated (Ridge 8). According to Ridge, he was noble, generous and well-liked by everyone (8). The author also describes Murieta as being physically attractive, increasing his overall appeal to the reader (Ridge 9). Further paralleling Hardin, Murieta’s life of crime resulted from an oppression, after being victimized by a group of “lawless men” (Ridge 10). Murieta was beaten, tied up, his mistress was raped, his half-brother was framed and then killed, and Murieta was tied to a tree and beaten again (Ridge 10-12). Following the...

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