Today’s column addresses the second question; Wednesday’s will address the first.
Walter Murray was one of key formative personalities in San Luis Obispo County as the region made the transition from Mexican rule to American.
The English born and educated in law, Murray came to the U.S. at age 17, a lottery winner among law clerks. By 1846 he was off to California, with the Stevensen Regiment, volunteers charged with taking California from Mexico. President James Polk wanted the nation to grow west and if that required war to clear the way he would provide one.
Murray’s term of service included fighting in Mexico.
After discharge Murray then sought fortune in the gold country. For a little over a year he was co-owner of the Sonora Herald and married a young widow from Chile.
He brought his growing family to San Luis Obispo in 1853, a lawyer in a nearly lawless town.
An anonymous letter appears in the San Francisco Bulletin in 1853 describing San Luis Obispo in a voice that sounds like Murray, “I know scarcely a month has passed…without the disappearance of several travelers, or the finding of dead bodies or skeletons on the roads.”
Cattlemen driving from the cow counties to the marketplace feeding San Francisco and the gold country could make easy money.
Even easier money could be made in a cash-gold economy with a gun as long as no witnesses were left behind.
Historian Dan Krieger writes that “El Barrio de Tigre” as San Luis Obispo was known, was one of the most lawless towns the west.
Murray took at least one commission to defend in court a friend of Jack Powers, a fellow Stevenson Regiment veteran. Powers had a notorious reputation as a gambler, womanizer and associate of a gang that included Pio Linares and Joaquin Valenzuela.
Murray won the case but his relationship with Powers would end, as Murray became an active organizer of vigilante group in 1858.
Linares and his gang surrounded Murray’s home, near the present day Motel Inn, and gunshots shattered windows as the vigilantes held a meeting.
The Linares gang failed to press home their attack and soon the tables would be turned.
Linares would later be surrounded by the vigilantes and shot to death near Los Osos. Murray’s left arm would be wounded during the two-day skirmish and another vigilante killed.
The vigilantes would administer lethal frontier justice at the end of a rope not far from the Murray Adobe, on the Broad street end of the Mission.
Though wild west stories tend to get the most written attention Murray would move on to more significant accomplishments. As a political leader he would take on roles as, state representative, district attorney, county supervisor, treasurer and judge.
As community leader he would be a founding member of the King David Lodge of the Masons.
He would be founding editor of the San Luis Obispo Tribune in 1869 with partner Horatio Rembaugh.
Though there was already newspaper, the Pioneer, Murray felt that the pro-Southern Democrat perspective of the Pioneer was not what the community needed.
Democrat’s paper folded within months, though it had over a year’s head start, in large part because the Tribune under Murray was a significantly better paper.
The Tribune is the oldest continuously operating business in the county and his editorial voice of logic, brevity and sharp wit enabled the Tribune to weather challenges from rival newspapers that were more partisan and less grounded. The first edition of the paper on August 7, 1869 was likely printed at the Murray Adobe.
Murray would sell the paper to his partner Rembaugh as his political fortunes rose.
Though he had the burning ambition to become a judge, the duty was hard, as he had to ride a circuit that included Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties. Hearings could be as far away as San Buenaventura, as it was still a part of Santa Barbara County at the time.
The first sign of trouble came less than two years into his tenure on the court. Murray had several attacks of what was termed gastritis and his doctor advised rest. Murray continued to work. In Santa Barbara he presided over a notorious murder trial and returned home exhausted.
While conducting business at the office of Judge Venable, Murray was struck with a violent chill and was taken to the nearby Cosmopolitan Hotel on September 21, 1875. He died October 5, 1875 at the age of 48 of what was likely appendicitis.
Though at times he expressed bitter regret at moving here Walter Murray lived in San Luis Obispo for about 22 years, longer than any other address in his eventful life. In a little over two decades he had a large influence over the fortunes of the region.
Many of the details in this column came from Tribune columns by historian Dan Krieger, a biography of Jack Powers, “Devil on Horseback” by Dudley T. Ross and previous Photos From the Vault posts on Walter Murray.