Hornitos California: A Hidden Gold Rush Town

Updated on May 7, 2018
Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle's interest in California history was rekindled when she began leading tours at a local museum in an 1850s gold rush town.

Doorway to the past. Native stone and a lot of hard work built structures that still stand strong.
Doorway to the past. Native stone and a lot of hard work built structures that still stand strong. | Source

A small town off the beaten path, Hornitos has existed since before California's statehood. Though it is sometimes called a "gold rush town," it was actually established much earlier by Mexican settlers. The Spanish name "Hornitas" means "little ovens." Some say that the appellation came from the fact that early burials were made in stone tombs resembling outdoor bake ovens because the ground was too rocky to dig graves.

The village did gain notoriety during the gold rush as a place that was home to thieves, roughnecks, gamblers, and various miscreants that had been run out of other "more respectable" settlements. It has the reputation of being the hideout and haven of one of California's most infamous criminals, Juaquin Murrietta, who was said to have committed many robberies and murders in the early 1850's.

Juaquin is long gone, but the memory of him lingers.
Juaquin is long gone, but the memory of him lingers.
Wooden buildings and shacks exist in a state of arrested decay and add to the ghost town aura of Hornitos. If spirits remain, this house seems to be available for occupancy.
Wooden buildings and shacks exist in a state of arrested decay and add to the ghost town aura of Hornitos. If spirits remain, this house seems to be available for occupancy.

None of These

Present day Hornitos has no ATMs, gas stations, traffic signals, supermarkets, dollar stores or restaurants. There are no coffee shops or laundromats or banks. If you are craving a fast burger and fries, you are out of luck here.

It does have one existing bar that is open on weekends. They may serve a few munchies along with beer and Bloody Marys. The gift store down the street at the historic Gagliardo store has a few packaged snacks but specializes in souvenirs, decorative items and works by local artists . . . if it is open.

Ruined Remains of Ghirardelli Store. The first level was built of native stone with a second story of fired brick.
Ruined Remains of Ghirardelli Store. The first level was built of native stone with a second story of fired brick. | Source

As home to rough and rowdy outcasts and desperadoes, Hornitos gained a tainted reputation for mayhem, but there were some respectable souls who did what they could to preserve order and build up the town with honest enterprises.

By 1870, the town was incorporated and had at least three general stores and a couple of cafes in a place that previously hosted only gambling halls and saloons. One of the early businessmen was Domingo Ghirardelli an Italian confectioner. Partial stone and brick walls of what must have been an impressive structure still stand in Hornitos as a reminder of his store. Domingo's chocolates became famous in gold country and he soon moved his enterprise to the San Francisco Bay area. The company he started still thrives today and Ghirardelli chocolate is widely available.

The old jail in Hornitos. At some point it was decided that it didn't really need a front window. There are six-inch windows on two sides.
The old jail in Hornitos. At some point it was decided that it didn't really need a front window. There are six-inch windows on two sides.

This temporary holding cell for horse thieves, gunfighters, and other transgressors, was outfitted with iron rings and shackles to secure individuals until a justice could hear their case and decide if they could be held for trial in nearby Mariposa.

The stone jail is slightly smaller than the Masonic Lodge.

Hornitos Masonic Lodge.
Hornitos Masonic Lodge.

Hornitos Lodge No. 46 F & AM is the smallest Masonic meeting place in California. Constructed of native stone with an interior area of a little more than 500 square feet, the lodge retains an active membership that continues to support the small community.

In the early days, Freemasons were businessmen, miners, builders, and innkeepers as well as farmers and ranchers. They also served as town and county officials. They had a significant positive impact on their community and current members continue to sponsor activities and projects to benefit Hornitos.

The resident population of Hornitos seems to vary according to what data source you reference. The 2010 census lists 75 residents, though the actual number may now be lower. Most prefer the solitude of this quiet town.

Though the permanent residents are few, the visitor population of this community swells during annual events that attract outsiders from near and far.

Hornitos Patrons Club sponsors community functions to support local charities, scholarships, and the preservation of historical sites in the town.

  • Hornitos Flea Market -- for the past 30 years or so the town has held a multi-vendor sale that attracts buyers and sellers from all over the state on the first Sunday in October. There are usually nearly 100 booths with antiques, collectibles, crafts, and food lining the streets and vying for the attention of buyers.
  • All Souls Day Candle Lighting -- ceremony every Nov. 2 draws hundreds of participants for the evening procession to the cemetery to place luminarias on the historic grave sites.
  • Annual Enchilada Dinner -- on the first Saturday in March includes music and craft vendors.

The tiny town of Hornitos still has a few ongoing activities. (Gourd class cancelled because of flu.)
The tiny town of Hornitos still has a few ongoing activities. (Gourd class cancelled because of flu.)
Some Hornitos locals decorate their properties to resemble an old western town.
Some Hornitos locals decorate their properties to resemble an old western town.

Donkeys, chickens, pigs and goats might be seen in some of the yards and gardens. Human residents are a bit more scarce, but you might see a car or pickup truck traveling down one of the roads. If the doors of the Gagliardo General store are open, one of the owners will likely tell you something about the local history.

Critter Residents of Hornito
Critter Residents of Hornito

Brick buildings with tin roofs and iron doors survived the ever-present danger of being destroyed by fire. They date back to the gold rush era. Signs and memorial plaques throughout the area provide visitors with the historical backstory of Hornitos.

Times Have Changed

So what happened to the wild and dangerous reputation of Hornitos? With the passage of time and the growth of law enforcement, things settled down quite a bit. Gold began to be scarcer and harder to find. Many fortune seekers left to follow rumors of strikes in Alaska, Colorado or Australia. Cattle ranchers came into the area and established a more stable population.

And what about the bandit Murrietta? He was captured and executed. In an act that seems horrific today, he was decapitated so his head could be preserved in a large jar of alcohol and taken on tour around the state to prove to the populace that his reign of terror was indeed over. No one knows what happened to this artifact, but it may have been stored in a San Francisco building before the calamitous earthquake and fire of 1906. It was therefore probably destroyed.

Some residents of the town will tell you that his vengeful ghost seeks refuge in his old hideout. So if you should glimpse a headless apparition, beware.

Speak softly. Don't disturb the ghosts.
Speak softly. Don't disturb the ghosts.

If you are in the area, you may want to visit Hornitos to make some of your own discoveries. Your route will wind through ranch lands where you might see modern-day cowboys with horses and dogs, moving their cattle to new pastures.

Have you ever been to Hornitos?

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      • Rochelle Frank profile image
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        Rochelle Frank 2 weeks ago from California Gold Country

        Thanks, Finn. I added a little more which I think brings the whole thing together a little better. I took the photos with my iPad mini, and they turned out better than I expected. Thanks for your comments and suggestions.

      • Rochelle Frank profile image
        Author

        Rochelle Frank 2 weeks ago from California Gold Country

        Actually the flea market is an annual event, only once a year but it is a big deal. I don't think the residents would tolerate a monthly event.

      • Peggy W profile image

        Peggy Woods 2 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        What an interesting place you described! I would definitely like to visit it if I was ever nearby. That monthly flea market must draw people from far and wide if there are 100 booths.

      • wpcooper profile image

        Finn Liam Cooper 2 weeks ago from Los Angeles

        Well a nice little article with some exquisite photographs. Would like to see it expanded or perhaps sections of it expanded upon and split into different articles.

        Great photos included too.

        You have a nice narrative style with some good lively descriptions of the various characters that once inhabited this place.

        would definitely like to check it out if i am in the area

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