While we’ve all read about the early (and continued) exploits of the Texas Rangers there was also a little known group of lawmen in California; The California Rangers. The leader of this band of men was none other than Captain Harry Love (no, really… that was his name). Harry Love was born in Vermont in 1810 and left home at an early age to go to sea. Some accounts have him captaining a ship and the tender age of 15.
In 1839 the ship Love was serving on came to California with goods to trade. Some accounts have Love working in Texas as a ranch hand and as a longshoreman in Alabama. Volunteering in the army during the Mexican American War with a regiment of Alabama volunteers he quickly made a name for himself as a courier working the border along the Rio Grande River.
Like many a man at the time, Love headed west to find fame and fortune during the California Gold Rush (1849-1855). His route was far less than typical however. In 1850 Love broke a trail from El Paso to Mazatlan, Mexico and took a steamer to San Francisco en route to Mariposa County. Being particularly unsuccessful, he began working as a bounty hunter.
Traveling south to Ventura, Love captured Pedro Gonzalez (a member of Joaquin Murrieta’s gang) in June 1852 for a sizeable reward. At this point the six foot tall strapping figure had built quite a reputation for himself. On May 11, 1853, Governor John Bigler ordered the creation of the California Rangers with the sold purpose of capturing or killing the “Five Joaquins Gang” and appointed Harry Love as Captain. The gang was reportedly responsible for more than 20 killings and countless robberies. Love hand-picked the twenty men under his command. The Rangers mustered on May 28, 1853 at Quartzberg, California and rode throughout the region for two months chasing down Murrieta. All the while apprehending various outlaws in the process.
Love’s determination paid off on July 25, 1853 when the Rangers cornered Murrieta and his gang at their hide-out near Cantua Creek called Three Rocks. In the ensuing gunfight, Murrieta fled on horseback but was knocked from his steed by Ranger Billy Henderson and killed by gunfire. Ranger Bill Byrnes decapitated Murrieta with his Bowie knife. The head, and the hand of three-finger Jack were preserved with liquor in jars. Some claim that Love had the wrong man while others positively identified the head as Murrieta’s and signed affidavits. I’m sure if he had the wrong head on display the mass of people that came to see it would have raised an uproar.
In 1855, Love married the widow Mary Bennett who was 16 years his senior with 8 children. BY all accounts they had a “rocky marriage.” After several separations she let Harry live in a house on her property (she was very well off) but never let him into the main house. On June 28, 1868 Harry Love was sitting on the porch of the main house and got into an argument with Christian Ivorson (who may have been Mary Bennett’s bodyguard). The ensuing brawl involved knives, pistols, shotguns and quite a bit of wrestling. It ended with Harry’s pistol firing and wounding him below the armpit. He died the very next day.
Some of you may recognize portions of this story as the romantic tale of Zorro. Of course Zorro is written from the bandit’s perspective and tremendously aggrandized. If you’d like more detail into the old west and the life of Harry Love, check out author William B. Secrest’s , "The Man From the Rio Grande" (2005). It’s a great read.
About The Author:
Charles Bennett was born in our Nation's Capital and grew up in the Maryland suburbs. Mr. Bennett has been working in all aspects of the publishing industry since the late 1980s primarily in the fields of commercial photography and magazine production. Moving to California in 1992 to attend college resulted in B.F.A and Masters degrees. California also supplied Mr. Bennett with his wife. The two of them are avid sports persons and participate in shooting, scuba diving, surfing, running and bicycling. As a long time hobby Mr. Bennett has studied the legends of American law enforcement which led to his writing these columns.