Sierra history: Tracing California Highway Patrol’s roots to pioneer days |

Sierra history: Tracing California Highway Patrol’s roots to pioneer days

Joaquin Murrieta Carillo, killed by California Rangers in 1853, was sometimes called the Robin Hood of El Dorado.
Courtesy Sutter Fort Archives |

TAHOE-TRUCKEE, Calif. — Memorial Day commemorates American men and women who died during military service.

The holiday rightfully honors military personnel who made the ultimate sacrifice, but perhaps we should also take a moment to recognize the efforts of uniformed police and the highway patrol that safeguard our communities, roads and thoroughfares every day.

In their effort to protect those traveling California’s roads, highway patrol officers operate a fleet of muscular vehicles, motorcycles and helicopters outfitted with the latest in communication technologies.

But the California Highway Patrol’s roots can be traced back to pioneer days when stagecoaches rattled along the state’s dusty trails carrying vulnerable passengers along with a strong box often loaded with valuable gold coin or bullion.

It took armed lawmen to protect passengers and cargo from the inevitable road agents that infested California’s first roadways.

Unless a man was content to walk, horses and mules were the only means of overland transportation when Father Junipero Serra founded the first Franciscan mission at San Diego in 1769.

Long before the California gold rush, there were thousands of horses and mules grazing at the various missions in the sparsely settled Mexican province.

The early Californios were highly skilled equestrians who spent much of their time in the saddle galloping across their vast rancheros and open landscape.

Even simple spoke-wheeled vehicles came very late to California. Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, a Mexican military commander, rancher and politician, wrote: “There were no vehicles in California (before 1841) excepting crude wooden carts. The wooden wheels were made by felling an oak tree, hewing it down until it made a solid wheel nearly a foot thick on the rim. The carved hole for the axle was nearly a foot in diameter where a small tree was inserted to serve as an axle.”

The cumbersome carts were called carretas, which were pulled along by oxen whose yokes were lashed to their horns with leather thongs.


Contrasting this “Flintstone’s-era” cart with the railroads that crisscrossed the eastern United States and Europe at that time offers insight as to how primitive life in California was.

The 1850s brought rapid population growth and economic development to Northern California and especially in the foothill communities in the Mother Lode.

That transformation created demand for better roads, especially because men in the mines demanded quicker delivery of mail from their families and friends back east.

Safer routes were also needed for the gold being transported from the mines back to the cities by Wells Fargo and other express companies. Well-made, comfortable Concord stagecoaches entered the scene and passenger traffic increased dramatically.

It wasn’t long before desperadoes began lurking in the shadows along roadways waiting for opportunity to abscond with some loot.

One of the most notorious criminals of early California was Joaquin Murietta, who along with a large group of bloody henchmen, rampaged the countryside and roamed the roadways perpetrating acts of violence and mayhem.

In 1853, California’s State Legislature passed a resolution authorizing a group of young wranglers and ex-soldiers to hunt down and exterminate Murietta and his men.

The California Rangers were created to pursue these roving groups of bandits with orders to kill Murietta, and then return with his preserved head as proof of their accomplishment.

Led by Captain Harry Love, a tough Mexican War veteran and former Texas Ranger, the Rangers carried out their assignment, eliminating Murietta and most of his gang and collecting a $5,000 reward.

It was the State’s first official action for authorizing lawmen to tamp down crime on the roadways.


Although fortunes in gold rolled down from the mountains on practically every stagecoach during the first two years of the gold rush, no stages were robbed until Captain Tom Bell and his men pulled off an armed holdup in 1853.

Bell, a medically trained doctor turned vicious bandit, stopped the stage at gunpoint with a band of masked men brandishing large pistols.

After a rash of successful stickups by the likes of Tom Bell, Black Bart, Dick Fellows and others, Wells Fargo and their competitors promptly hired armed men to ride the coaches.

These shotgun messengers proved very adept at thwarting many of the robbery attempts by violent road agents. Every day these express guards risked their lives protecting human life and property on the highways and over time the era of stagecoach banditry fizzled into legend.

Over the years, stage drivers and their guards built up remarkable esprit de corps while working to protect and serve.

Most of those old dusty trails served as a bed for our modern road and highway system.

Local police and the California Highway Patrol continue to carry on the work of protecting travelers in true pioneer fashion.

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at Mark can be reached at Check out Mark’s blog:

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