A trip to the almost ghost town of Hornitos, Calif., outside Yosemite

Around Hornitos, the former mining town 50 miles west of Yosemite National Park that’s all but a ghost town these days, there are many objects of intrigue. The one that gets people the most riled up tends to be the 1850s wanted poster hanging in a window near the post office. “WANTED: Joaquin & Alejandro Murrieta,” it reads. “Renowned bandits and killers… REWARD $200.00 gold pesos will be paid to the person who captures them DEAD or ALIVE.”

Murrieta is a legendary outlaw in California history. It is said that he endured racial injustices, witnessed the rape of his wife and saw his brother hang after a a false accusation for stealing a horse. Seeking vengeance, Murrieta supposedly went on a crime spree, robbing white settlers until he was apprehended and brutally killed by law enforcement.

The bandit’s life was fictionalized in a dime store novel, repurposed in a Pablo Neruda play and possibly drawn upon in “The Legend of Zorro,” though historians have long questioned the veracity of Murrieta’s story and even his very existence. In that wanted poster and several newspaper accounts of his time in Hornitos, however, Murrieta seems very real indeed. And Hornitos was exactly the sort of rough-and-tumble place where a notorious fugitive would hide out. 

A wanter poster offers a reward for infamous bandit Joaquin Murrieta, dead or alive.

Ashley Harrell

According to local lore, the town got its start in the mid-1800s as a rowdy tent camp of Mexican miners who left a nearby settlement when gambling and other indulgences were outlawed there. The population eventually swelled to 15,000, and the streets were soon lined with saloons, gambling halls and bordellos.

“It’s some of the most interesting history we have in the area,” says Miranda Fengel, the curator-director of the Mariposa Museum and History Center. “And now it’s almost a ghost town.”

Fengel once went on a date with her husband in Hornitos, and was mesmerized by its well-preserved and largely abandoned structures. The only sign of life is usually the town watering hole, Plaza Bar, which has been selling booze since the 1940s. These days, it’s only open on weekends (but not holidays). 

Plaza Bar in Hornitos has two liquor licenses: one for imbibing onsite, the other for buying the hard stuff to go.

Plaza Bar in Hornitos has two liquor licenses: one for imbibing onsite, the other for buying the hard stuff to go.

Ashley Harrell

The place was closed when I showed up on Easter Sunday, but a placard informed me that it was constructed in 1854, serving as a butcher shop before its current owners purchased it in 1948. Their son, Richard Ortiz, has been running it as a saloon to this day, and a few Sundays later I reached him at the bar by phone. 

Ortiz was born and raised in Hornitos, he told me, and he’s happy to be there. “You’ve got to live in a small town to appreciate a small town,” he says. “Everybody knows everybody.”

This Hornitos store opens occasionally, but not during the author's visit.

This Hornitos store opens occasionally, but not during the author’s visit.

Ashley Harrell

Around 40 people live there now, he says, which means that when car and motorcycle clubs roll into town, they can double or triple the population. Patrons especially appreciate the 1925 cash register and the old-timey back bar, which came around the Horn to San Francisco in 1852, he said. 

Hornitos is a definitely a goat's town, and nearly a ghost town as well.

Hornitos is a definitely a goat’s town, and nearly a ghost town as well.

Ashley Harrell

Another important thing to know is that the bar has a license for both on- and off-sale hard liquor, meaning you can drink there but also get the hard stuff to go. “I’m a unique bar,” Ortiz says. “There’s only supposed to be two or three [bars with two liquor licenses] left in the state of California.”

In strolling around the silent plaza beside the bar, I met numerous goats but no people. Some of the wooden homes I walked by were in disrepair and extremely creepy looking. Out in the fields, I saw a tall windmill, the remnants of a couple of old wagons and a brass door to nowhere.

A woman pretends to use a payphone next to a sign for Hornitos' annual enchilada dinner.

A woman pretends to use a payphone next to a sign for Hornitos’ annual enchilada dinner.

Ashley Harrell

Signs posted around town offer conflicting accounts of where the name Hornitos came from. One claims the name referred to the “little ovens” that the original Mexican settlers used for cooking, while another suggests that Hornitos was named for the town’s above-ground graves that were shaped like the cooking ovens used in Mexico.

The signs agree, however, on the importance of Hornitos. “Welcome to one of the most famous ghost towns of the 1800s,” they say.

I sauntered by the town jail, an 1855 Masonic hall and the site of an old fandango hall, a dancing venue where Murrieta is said to have hung out. There were also the red-brick ruins of a former store set up by Domingo Ghiradelli (yes, the famous chocolatier). He sold his goods here to up-and-coming miners for three years before relocating to San Francisco. And though the company owns the ruins and placed a placard on them, its website does not include any historical connection to the rowdy old settlement. 

What's left of a Ghirardelli store in Hornitos, California.

What’s left of a Ghirardelli store in Hornitos, California.

Ashley Harrell

Wells Fargo also opened one of its first offices here in 1852, and it sent some $40,000 in gold to the San Francisco Mint by stagecoach each day. By the mid-1850s, the once-booming mining camp was transforming into a hub of transportation and commerce, with outsiders of varying backgrounds moving to the area and starting businesses. The progress was short lived, though, and beginning in 1872, when the railroad came through Merced, Hornitos started to falter. In 1915, when Highway 140 bypassed the town, it slipped further into irrelevance.

These days, things are mostly quiet, but every year a pair of popular events livens the town up once more. One of those events takes place in March, when the annual Enchilada Dinner put on by the Hornitos Patrons Club lures enthusiasts of Mexican cuisine. Ironically, the town also comes alive for Day of the Dead, featuring a parade and graveyard visitation in which candles are placed beside tombstones.

Mostly, though, it’s history buffs like Fengel who make the journey out here, hoping to learn more about this forgotten corner of the Wild West and the infamous outlaw it harbored. According to a article published on March 12, 1853, the Hornitos community was being terrorized by “notorious Joaquin, who has recently paid us a couple of visits.”

This photo from the scrapboook of Marguerite Stoakes was taken by her father Frank Stoakes of the Olcese House store in Hornitos in 1893.

This photo from the scrapboook of Marguerite Stoakes was taken by her father Frank Stoakes of the Olcese House store in Hornitos in 1893.

Courtesy of John Anderson

He made two appearances with a gang of “desperados,” and although two men recognized him and attempted to take him prisoner, he shot them both, wounding one in the arm and the other in the abdomen, before making an escape unharmed, according to the article. “It is high time some means were adopted to arrest him in his mad career,” it states.

Another story published the same day says Murrieta was recognized while drinking and betting at a Hornitos gambling den. “If this is allowed to go on much longer it will be impossible to pass the roads in any directions safely,” the article says. According to “Hornitos; A Picture in Time” — a history book featured at the Mariposa History Museum — Murrieta and his men stole horses and mules and robbed people on the road, and not much was done about it.

“Will not governor Bigler offer a reward, a sufficient sum to pay a party of men to seek him out, and take him dead or alive?” a newspaper article continues. In the same year that he began visiting Hornitos, Murrieta was apparently captured by rangers and decapitated. His severed head was supposedly preserved in a jar and paraded around, then lost during the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire.

Visitors light candles in the Hornitos graveyard during the Day of the Dead each year.

Visitors light candles in the Hornitos graveyard during the Day of the Dead each year.

Courtesy of Tom Phillips

There’s been speculation, however, that it wasn’t actually Murrieta who met this ignoble end, but some other faceless bandit lost to history. The real story of this fabled figure may never be fully revealed, and historians have largely made peace with that. But a walk through Hornitos certainly helps to imagine the world he lived in, bringing visitors about as close as you can come to California’s past.

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