The first inhabitants of the Gilroy area were the Ohlone Indians. They lived by
hunting and gathering until the arrival of the Spanish missionaries and military
forces. Spanish colonization began in the area in 1800. Two Spanish grants, the
Las Animas and the San Ysidro, and many Mexican grants divided the area into
large ranchos which raised cattle for hides, tallow, and jerked meat.
John Cameron was born in Scotland in 1794. At the age of 19 he left England,
using his mother's maiden name of Gilroy, and arrived in Monterey in 1814. He
was baptized at the mission at Carmel in 1817 and took the name of Juan
Bautista Gilroy. He then made his way to Rancho San Ysidro where he was
employed by Ygnacio Ortega as a barrel maker. He married Clara Ortega in
1821 at Mission San Juan Bautista. The Gilroys had 17 children. Eight died,
but nine survived.
The first wagon train to successfully cross the continental divide and arrive in
California left Council Bluffs Iowa in 1843. In the winter of 1843-1844 the
settlers forged their way over Donner Summit, five years before the Donner
party met disaster in the same area. Among the 1843 group was the Martin
family who were the first Americans to settle in the Gilroy area.
Following the gold rush years, pioneers flooded the fertile Gilroy area with
farms of every size and description. Americans, English, Irish, and Germans
joined the Spanish and Mexican pioneers. These early settlers engaged in
stock raising and grain farming and soon what was then called Pleasant Valley
became known as the hay and grain capitol of California.
Gilroy got its start in 1850 as a stage stop along the San Jose to Monterey
Road. By the time the village was incorporated as the Town of Gilroy in 1867, it
was the third largest community in the county with a brewery, a flouring mill,
and a distillery. The railroad arrived in Gilroy in 1869 and made the community
the hub of the south Santa Clara Valley. In the 1860s and '70s, Gilroy also
became known for horse raising.
The Gilroy Hot Springs were discovered in 1865 and developed into one of the
leading resorts on the West Coast offering swimming, mineral baths, mud baths,
massage, and health drinks along with hiking, fishing, and hunting. The Gilroy
Advocate, the first newspaper was published as a weekly from 1868 to 1946. The
Gilroy Evening Dispatch, now a 5-day daily started in 1925.
The first church to serve Pleasant Valley was small St. Martin's chapel on
the Murphy's ranch in San Martin. Between 1855 and 1871, six different
denominations established churches in Gilroy. The first school in the area
was established in 1852 in the San Ysidro district and was followed in 1853
by a public school in Gilroy proper. A public high school was established in
1876. There were also many small rural schools which were operated by the county.
Henry Miller, known as the "cattle king", began buying land in the Gilroy
area in 1863. He eventually owned outright 1.5 million acres in California,
Oregon, and Nevada. The 26,000 acres he owned in this area included the
beautiful Bloomfield Farm and his summer home on Mt. Madonna, now a county park.
The City of Gilroy was incorporated on March 12, 1870. In the 1870s Gilroy
became known as the tobacco capitol of the United States and had the world's
largest cigar factory which produced over 1 million cigars each month. Dairying
and cheese making became the industry of the 1880s with the arrival of Swiss and
other middle-Europeans. This earned Gilroy the title of Dairy and Cheese Capitol
The arrival of the French prune in the 1890s led to acres of hay and grain
being turned into orchards. Apples, apricots, cherries, peaches, pears, plums,
and all kinds of nut crops were grown along with prunes. During the 1920s
and '30s Gilroy became known as the Prune Capitol of California. At the
turn-of-the-century, Italians and other southern-Europeans came to Gilroy
and brought row crop farming. Tomatoes, peppers, onions, and garlic were
grown and canned or dehydrated in Gilroy.
With the arrival of Japanese farmers about World War I, garlic was grown for
the commercial market in large quantities. The Gilroy Garlic Festival was
started in 1979 and has an annual attendance of over 130,000. The festival
has given more than $2 million back to the community and has earned Gilroy
the title of Garlic Capitol of the World.
Around the turn of the century, Gilroy received several modern public
buildings. The I.O.O.F. Children's Home for California was built in Gilroy
in 1897. It was replaced by the present building in 1921. 1906 saw the
completion of Gilroy's "Old City Hall". This unusual building has been
through two major earthquakes and numerous floods, but it continues to
stand as the one landmark that says "you're in Gilroy!". Gilroy's first
public library building was completed in 1910. This classic Carnegie
building now houses the city's historical museum.