A century before Zane Grey immortalized the Old West, an Indian village had formed around a hand-built well in the Southern California desert. The characters in this tale were to be the same he celebrated: Indians, explorers, pioneers, and prospectors; their actions framed against a rugged backdrop of mountains rising from a raw sand floor.
As early as 1823, the name "Indian Wells" was documented in the expedition diaries of Captain Jose Romero, who had been sent to find a route through the San Gorgonio Pass to Tucson. Though the site is no longer accessible, it was located near the north side of Highway 111 east of Miles Avenue, west of Point Happy. In 1853, W.P. Blade, a Smithsonian Institution geologist, reported the community was a thriving Indian village. But a decade later, all would change when gold was discovered on the Colorado River.
William D. Bradshaw knew a gold mine when he saw it. He built a trail from Los Angeles through the desert, used, along with his name, by the Alexander and Company Stage Line to transport prospectors to their potential fortune. Indian Wells became an important stop along the trail. In 1875, Bradshaw Stages abandoned the route because the Southern Pacific Railroad had begun extending its line through the Coachella Valley. But in 1876, Wells Fargo Company reactivated the route.
The ride to the stage station, called Old Rancheria, was often fraught with danger. Holdups and shootouts occurred. One 1906 incident, attributed to a gang led by Edington Ed (alias Endless Ed), left soldiers from Fort Yuma without their $9,000 payroll. Ed and Co. reputedly robbed the cavalry at the Indian Wells station.
To accommodate the increasing traffic through the desert, in 1870, the County of Riverside built what became known as the "County Well" some 100 feet south of the Indian site, which was abandoned. For nearly 40 years, the newer well was the valley's only established watering point.
In 1875-76, Lieutenants Eric Bergland and George Wheeler led reconnaissance parties of Army engineers to study the feasibility of irrigating the Imperial Valley by diverting water from the Colorado River. Lt. Wheeler's comments were a portend: "...at some future time," he wrote, "each cubic foot of waters of the Colorado is likely to become valuable in agriculture, mining or other pursuits..."
Despite the risks and extreme weather, a few years later, settlers arrived. Some of the earliest were the families of William Blair, Ernie Chapin Sr., Melvin Harmon and James O'Neal, who opened "Dan's Market" and established the first Indian Wells post office. The city's residential future was cast in 1913-14 when Melvin Harmon's father exercised his Civil War grant to homestead a section of what is now Indian Wells Country Club, and Will Hayhurst, a muleskinner from Twentynine Palms, began to develop Rancho Palm Springs, now Eldorado Country Club.
Caleb Cook and family also moved to the valley in 1913, and to Indian Wells in 1916. Widely credited with pioneering the valley's date industry, Cook established the first sizeable Deglet Noor garden, imported Saidy date palms from Egypt, and encouraged others such as H.L. "Bert" Cavanagh, Indian Wells' second mayor, to become successful date ranchers.
By 1922, the Date Palm, a local publication, noted, "No section of the Coachella Valley is now undergoing more rapid and substantial improvement than is Indian Wells." The writer had no idea what was coming next!