A Brief History of Gilroy

Early History

The first inhabitants of the greater Gilroy area are often referred to as the Ohlone Indians. They were part of the Mutsun Nation, which at one time was comprised of some 22 Central Coast tribes; this region was home to the Amah Mutsun, officially titled the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of Ohlone/Costanoan Indians. They lived primarily by hunting and gathering, and some gained extensive knowledge of the healing powers of the flora and fauna that surrounded them. Their lives were tragically altered by the late-1700s arrival of the Spanish missionaries and their military units. By the late 1790s, the local native people had been forcibly relocated to Mission sites at either Santa Cruz or San Juan Bautista where they served as laborers and suffered further, grievous abuses. Spanish settlement increased in this region in the first two decades of the 1800s. The earliest Spanish land grants in the Gilroy area were the Las Animas (covering much of present-day Gilroy) and the San Ysidro (east of town) grants.   After Mexico seceded from Spain in 1821, and took control of California in 1822, many additional Mexican land grants were issued.

John Cameron (Gilroy): First English-Speaking Settler in California

 John Cameron was born in a southern district of Inverness-shire, Scotland in 1794.  At 19, he left home, hiring aboard a British trading ship which arrived, in 1814, at what was then the Spanish harbor of Monterey. It’s unclear when the young sailor changed his surname to Gilroy, his mother’s maiden name, but he was baptized Juan Bautista Gilroy at the Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo, and before long was conversant with Spanish. Eventually, he journeyed further inland to Rancho San Ysidro where he made barrels for the Rancho’s owner, Don Ygnacio Ortega. In 1819 Gilroy received permission from the Viceroy of Spain to remain in California and to marry. Two years later Gilroy wed the Ortegas’ daughter, Maria Clara, at Mission San Juan Bautista. Of their 17 children, 9 survived to adulthood.  In 1833, Gilroy became a naturalized citizen of Mexico; Don Ortega died in this same year. The Governor of Mexico granted that Rancho San Ysidro’s land be divided equally amongst Ortega’s three adult children and their spouses. On his portion of the rancho, Gilroy raised cattle, wheat and also ran a soap-making business. Known for his hospitality and community spirit, he served as alcalde (mayor) of San Ysidro, and in 1846 was appointed Juez de Paz (Justice of the Peace) for the district. Gilroy died in July of 1869 and left many descendants who live in the area.  He is buried in the Old St. Mary Cemetery. 

Gilroy Grows and Incorporates

 After the Mexican American War (1846-48) and following the gold rush years, disillusioned miners and pioneers from many parts of the world were drawn to this fertile, crossroads community, sparking agricultural enterprises and new businesses in the area that often reflected their diverse cultures.  Like the Spanish and Mexican settlers, the newcomers raised livestock and were grain farmers. They also planted tobacco and orchards; their vineyards led to fine wineries, and dairy farming led to butter and cheese production. A logging and lumber enterprise, several small hotels, and the first blacksmith shop are just a few of the businesses begun by immigrant settlers. From its start in 1850 as a stage and postal station along Monterey St.—part of the original El Camino Real—the village was incorporated in 1868 as the Town of Gilroy.  In March 1870, an act of the state legislature incorporated Gilroy as a full-fledged city. Our early leaders lobbied for railroad access, and in 1869 a connecting rail line was completed, making this community a hub of the southern Santa Clara Valley. The Gilroy Advocate, the first newspaper, began publishing a weekly edition in the fall of 1868.  In May of 1949, the Advocate was absorbed by The Dispatch, which continues to serve the Gilroy community.

The Gilroy Hot Springs

Francisco Cantua is credited with the discovery of the hot springs in 1865. In the fall of 1866, some 240 acres of surrounding property were purchased by George Roop. Beginning the following year he and his partner, Charles Twombly, developed the property into what would become a well-known resort destination. The property was successively owned by several different operators. In 1938 H.K. Sakata, a successful Watsonville farmer purchased the resort, which had deteriorated through the Depression years. He renamed it Gilroy Yamato (meaning Japanese) Hot Springs Resort and set to work giving it new life as a sanctuary for aging Japanese Americans. But then, the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor sadly changed everything; Sakata and thousands of his fellow countrymen were interned for the duration of WWII. After the war, a bright period ensued when Sakata reclaimed his facility in the fall of 1945 and operated it as a refuge site for Japanese-Americans, both servicemen, and their families, recently released from internment. After a few years, it was re-opened to the public. Day use was lively, but it wasn’t profitable enough, and by 1964, Gilroy Yamato Hot Springs Resort was no longer open to the public.  For more information click the link: Gilroy Yamato Hot Springs.

Churches and Schools

 The first church in the area, aside from the distant Mission Churches, was St. Martin’s Catholic Chapel, built on the ranch of Martin Murphy Sr. to serve his family and neighbors.   As Gilroy’s township area grew, St. Mary Church was established. The first structure stood just north of its present location but faced Monterey St. near the corner of First St. Between 1855 and 1871 five other denominations founded churches in Gilroy: Christian Church (then Disciples of Christ); Methodist Episcopal South; Methodist Episcopal; St. Stephen’s Episcopal and Presbyterian.

The first area school was established in San Ysidro district (John Gilroy’s neighborhood) in 1852 with a dedicated school building built in 1859.  This school would continue to serve local students until 2001 when it was closed as a public school. Our early school district records were lost to a fire in 1867, but most agree that the first classes in town took place in 1852, conducted by W.R. Bane in his home.  The first school building in town was erected in 1853, located on Church St. between Third and Fourth Streets. For many years, K-12 grades were taught in this one building, but by 1872, high school classes were held in a separate facility. In the early 1860s, a private school for girls was built on Railroad Street, “The Miss Sarah M. Severance Seminary”, and managed by its namesake. In 1870, a Catholic girls’ school, “The Immaculate Heart of Mary”, was founded near St. Mary Church on Monterey St., with classes taught in the Convent proper. In 1877 local benefactress, Catherine Dunne gave $5,000 for the construction of a school for boys, built south of the Convent proper. In addition, nearly a dozen small public elementary district schools served the children of Gilroy’s outlying areas.

A Prominent Pioneer

Heinrich Kreiser came from Germany to New York in 1846 and was lured west by “Gold!” in California. Having used the ticket and passport of an acquaintance named Henry Miller, he chose to keep the name and first worked as a butcher in San Francisco. Miller went into partnership with Charles Lux in the late 1850s, purchasing land and cattle until he eventually became known as the "Cattle King". In the late 1850’s Miller purchased much of the enormous Los Animas Racho, eventually owning over 12,000 acres in the Gilroy area.  For years Miller’s Bloomfield Ranch, near the junction of highways 101 and 25 south of Gilroy, was a way station/feeder lot for cattle herds driven from the central valley to the San Francisco market. Amenities at this site included a 44-room mansion, a general store, a blacksmith shop, and its own railroad shipping station. Given his massive land holdings, Miller had considerable influence in bringing the railroad to Gilroy.  His summer ranch atop Mt. Madonna, Miller’s favorite place to spend time with family and friends, is now a Santa Clara County Park.

From Cattle to Farming

 In the late 19th century the local property owned by Miller and Lux began to be partitioned and sold.   This partition allowed the physical boundaries of Gilroy to expand, and farming, rather than ranching, to increase dramatically.  The farmland became primarily orchard crops such as prunes, cherries, and apricots.  Farming co-operatives such as Sunsweet were formed to facilitate the dehydration of these crops.  Tree crops dominated agriculture around Gilroy until the early 1960s, when orchards were supplanted by row crops such as tomatoes, sugar beets, and, of course, garlic.  Additionally, Gilroy’s surrounding fertile land became home to a thriving seed industry pioneered by Lin Wheeler of Pieters-Wheeler Seed Company.

Gilroy’s Development into the 20th Century

While the agriculture business was booming, the city was also expanding. In 1906, a large crowd celebrated the opening of Gilroy’s new City Hall at Sixth and Monterey Streets; it housed Gilroy’s first public library, a jail, the courtroom and judge’s chambers, and the city’s early police and fire departments. The clock on City Hall’s tower was a gift of local philanthropist, Caroline Hoxett.  In addition, she donated the land at the northeast corner of Fifth and Church Streets, upon which was built Gilroy’s 1910 Carnegie Library, designed by renowned architect William Weeks.  After the Gilroy Library moved to its present site in 1975, this Neoclassical Revival-style structure then became the Gilroy Museum. The next major institution built in Gilroy was Wheeler Hospital built in large part through the generosity of Lin Wheeler, local seedsman, in 1929. 

In the latter half of the 20th century, Gilroy’s economy began to shift from an agricultural base to an urban service-oriented community.  City services, which were limited and to a high degree volunteer, were now staffed by paid professionals.  Gilroy’s schools were consolidated into a single district now encompassing thirteen public schools.

Garlic Capital & More

While Gilroy has grown enormously it still retains some of its small-town feel and honors its agricultural roots. Every summer Gilroy’s Garlic Festival (held on the last full weekend of July) draws thousands of fans of ‘the stinking rose’. They come from around the world, all ages and sizes, to enjoy the tangy food, the upscale art and entertainment, the Cook-off competition and so much more. The Festival’s pulse is fired by a vibrant, community-volunteer Spirit, one that radiates gracious and fun-loving hospitality to all attendees—a force that has driven Gilroy’s development from its earliest days. For more information please click the link: Gilroy Garlic Festival.

This brief, historical overview is only meant to introduce the reader to the City of Gilroy’s history.  To learn more about Gilroy and its environs please visit the City of Gilroy Museum.