It was said that the original name of this foothill town was “Santa Cruz.” It was named by Mexican miners, and later established in 1849, after the Mexican-American War, as one of the earliest settlements in Mariposa County. In 1855, a post office was established and the name changed to “Indian Gulch,” probably because of the two Native American villages nearby. The post office operated from 1855 until 1912.
It was a vibrant little town populated mostly by Mexican Americans, many coming from nearby Hornitos. But the names on the headstones in the old graveyard show that other countries were represented. There were names of residents from Italy, France, Germany and the Azores.
Very little remains of the old town where at one time there was several stores providing goods to miners, a blacksmith shop, livery stables, dance hall, several saloons, gambling places and two hotels. The population of Indian Gulch at its peak is somewhat of a guess. There have been documented figures from 700 to a few thousand residents. It was an important supply center for travelers and freight wagons. A small Catholic Church was constructed in 1885 within the cemetery grounds and remained there until about 1973 when it was moved to Mariposa for historic restoration. Sadly, the church was destroyed in a fire there in 1980.
Andrew Cathey who became the founder of nearby Cathey’s Valley first settled here in 1852. It was also rumored that the famed bandit Joaquin Murrieta and his “segundo” Three Fingered Jack (a.k.a. Tres Dedos or Manuel Duarte) made Indian Gulch their regular hangout. Two of Joaquin’s relatives ran the pack station there and it was rumored that Joaquin worked there sometimes as a packer.
It was an active community back in the day but hardly anything remains today. There is only a building that is partially brick and rock and old windmill with a few old olive trees. The trees probably date back to the active days of Indian Gulch and were used not only for food but could supply oil for lamps. The old remains of the Solari Store/hotel which was built in 1858 are no longer around. Now more modern cattle corrals and small barn are the on the site of the old town. JGJ Moray, a Frenchman, opened the first mercantile store, the French Company. It was also said that Joaquin Murietta worked there on occasion. One time Italian shop owner, Antonio Chichizola, moved from Indian Gulch to San Francisco and because of his business experience he became the first president of Bank of Italy which later became Bank of America. The old cemetery holds the remains of his infant children. Around 1900 the town had very few residents and some of them went into the cattle business which is still the main business of the area today. Angie Solari, the daughter of long-time resident Nicola Solari, was the last person in town and passed away there in 1979.
The site of the old town is now privately owned and none of the old buildings remain but you can stop and look around. Wander the old graveyard and just admire the view with the gently rolling hills in all directions. The only sounds you will hear are those of the cows, goats or maybe a distant coyote. The sign placed by E Clampus Vitus, at the entrance to the old graveyard, tells some of the town’s history.
The best time to visit is in the early spring when the hills are green and the weather is pleasant. If you would want to visit take the Indian Gulch road from Highway 140 over a rough and narrow road. You can also take the other end of Indian Gulch road about 2 miles east of Hornitos. Either way it is slow and rough. Be sure to stop in Hornitos and visit with Richie Ortiz at the Hornitos Bar. He is a wealth of history of the area.
Thanks to the Historical Society for a few of the old images.
Jim Cunningham and Flip Hassett are both retired, but they remain active in Merced County as community advocates, local history buffs and photographers.