It was written: “Gamblers, girls and roughnecks...they were a tough lot, the worst in the
southern mines. They reverenced nothing but money, cards and wine...blood was upon nearly every
doorstep and the sand was caked in it.” Hornitos. Gold camp.
The streams in the area were first worked in 1849, and by the following year a sizable camp
had been established near Burns Creek. The town’s early population was made up of Mexicans who
had been driven out of neighboring Quartzburg by their American counterparts, who considered any
non-whites “foreigners” with no right to own a mining claim. This was usually just an excuse for
the whites to take over any rich diggings being worked by other nationalities. In this case;
however, the Mexican miners had the last laugh as Hornitos became one of the most prosperous
towns of the Southern Mines, at one time being the only incorporated town in Mariposa County.
Meanwhile, the placers at Quartzburg soon played out and that camp dwindled away to nothing.
The ground in this vicinity is very hard and rocky. As a result, the original Mexican
residents preferred to bury their dead in above ground tombs built of rock and adobe. These
small, dome-shaped mounds somewhat resembled the common outdoor ovens used for baking bread in
Mexico and the Southwest, thus the graves were known as hornitos, meaning “little ovens” in
Spanish. Soon the word was being used to refer to the town as well, and Hornitos was born.
Gold, it seems, is always brighter on the other side of the county. Oddly enough, when miners
heard of a new strike they would often abandon well-paying claims to head out for the new
diggings, in hopes of richer dirt. This was exactly the case with Hornitos. Shortly after the
newly discovered gold was traded at Mariposa for supplies, the location of the new strike was
determined and a rush was on to Hornitos.
The camp grew quickly and its Spanish heritage is still apparent in the many buildings which
remain from the days of gold. Built around a central plaza, rock and adobe buildings lined the
narrow streets running out from the center of town. During its prime, Hornitos is said to have
had a population of over ten thousand, although the actual figure is undoubtedly quite less. The
town supported four hotels, six fraternal lodges and organizations, a post office, six general
merchandise stores, a Wells Fargo Express office, and numerous saloons and fandango halls.
Several of the infamous fandangos were built underground and lined the road leading to the plaza.
These subterranean saloons were all connected by doors so patrons could roam from one to another
without the inconvenience of having to step outside, where they might be seen.
The streams and gulches around Hornitos were extremely rich in gold, with reports of nuggets
weighing up to thirty-four pounds being found in the area. When the placers began to give out,
the miners simply concentrated their efforts on digging shafts and tunnels to reach the quartz
gold lying below the rocky surface. This proved so profitable that Wells Fargo opened an office
here in 1853, buying and shipping gold from their brick express office.
During those early years, Hornitos was known throughout the mines as a “lawless, wild place,
the scene of nearly unbelievable tales of knife duels, lynchings and other grim escapades.” A man
named Joseph Branson happened to witness an interesting event in the plaza during his youth. Two
fandango hall girls apparently had a romantic interest in the same man, resulting in heated words
and tarnished honor. To settle the matter, the two women armed themselves with daggers, wrapped
their left arms in their scarfs, and then proceeded to mortally carve each other up, much to the
enjoyment of the cheering crowd.
Mining was hard work, very hard work. And when the mining was done the miner was ready for
some fun. If he wasn’t watching a knife duel or hanging, he was probably drinking or gambling
away his hard earned poke in one of the saloons or fandango halls which never seemed to close.
Bull and bear fights were sometimes staged to create a little excitement and occasionally the
furious chicken race known as La Carrera del Gallo might occur. This time honored sport consisted
of tying a $10 gold piece to the leg of a live chicken, then burying the unlucky fowl with just
its head exposed. The object of the contest, open to anyone willing to pay the entry fee, was to
snatch the chicken from the ground while galloping past on a horse. When someone succeeded in
grabbing the chicken, the other riders would try to chase him down and wrest the chicken, and the
purse, from his grasp. Afterwards, the chicken was eaten.
The only things making much noise in Hornitos today are the dogs and a squeaky windmill on
the north side of town. Being located off the main roads accounts for the quiet, sleepy feel of
the town and is most likely responsible for the good number of Gold Rush era buildings and ruins
Visit Hornitos' Historic Sites