South County towns’ names rich in history

– Morgan Hill, San Martin and Gilroy are the three communities
located in the South Valley region of Santa Clara County, but how
did they receive the designations they now are known by? The
stories behind their names are filled with romance, tragedy, and a
touch of intrigue.
GILROY – Morgan Hill, San Martin and Gilroy are the three communities located in the South Valley region of Santa Clara County, but how did they receive the designations they now are known by? The stories behind their names are filled with romance, tragedy, and a touch of intrigue.


World famous for its festival celebrating the glory of garlic, the name of Gilroy has a story behind it incorporating a wealth of California historical lore.

In 1813, 18-year-old John Cameron, from Inverness, Scotland, boarded the merchant ship Isaac Todd, owned by the Northwest Company and bound for an outpost on the Columbia River. After months of voyaging from England, Cameron and his friend “Deaf Jimmy” jumped off the ship in Monterey (Another version of the story says that they were left at the port to recuperate from scurvy.). Concerned that he’d be tracked down by the Royal Navy, John assumed his mother’s maiden name of Gilroy.

In order to remain in California, John Gilroy became a citizen by swearing his allegiance to Spain and being baptized in the Carmel Mission near Monterey. He eventually hiked over the Gavilan Mountains to the Mission of San Juan Bautista, where he stayed for several months before making his way into the southern part of the Santa Clara Valley. Here, the young man reached a Spanish settlement of several adobe houses called Rancho San Ysidro.

Gilroy worked at the ranch making barrels for transporting tallow. He was the first to use redwood lumber from the Mt. Madonna region, and the high tannic acid in the wood worked well in preventing the growth of mold and mildew in the tallow. John met a beautiful and winsome Spanish woman named Maria Clara de la Ascencion Ortega. She was the daughter of the rancho’s owner, Lieutenant Jose Ortega, who, as the scout of Portola’s exploration party in 1769, was the first European to view the Santa Clara Valley.

Clara fell madly in love with the rugged John Gilroy and married him on Easter 1821. He settled in the South Valley region to work as a soapmaker and millwright, thus becoming California’s first permanent English-speaking resident. Although he was fluent in both English and Spanish, one source described his Scotch accent as so heavy few people could understand him when he spoke in his native tongue.

By 1850, the adobe settlement became an important link in the crossroads of El Camino Real and Pachecho Pass Road which led to the San Jouquin Valley. Gold-Rush settlers began to refer to the area as Pleasant Valley because the climate and natural beauty was so agreeable. As commerce came through, a small village developed around what is now Lewis Street in the downtown area of Gilroy. It was known as San Ysidro after the Ortega rancho.

As pioneers came to the area, they liked its warm climate and built their homes here.

John had become an important member of the community and served as the Alcalde, a position roughly equivalent to mayor. One myth describes Gilroy as having a weakness for gambling and drinking, and as his debts rose, more and more of his wife’s land and possessions were sold to pay them off. The story goes he died in poverty.

However, according to a biography thesis written by Truda Cooling Nelson in 1931, when John Gilroy died on July 26, 1869, at the age of 75, he left an estate of $12,000. In 1867 when the community petitioned for incorporation as a city, they changed the name of San Ysidro to Gilroy in honor of the California pioneer who had settled there.


Many people believe the city that calls itself “The Mushroom Capital of the World” received its name from the large, volcano-like hill prominently standing west of the community. But there actually was a man named Morgan Hill.

Standing along Monterey Road north of Morgan Hill’s downtown is a Queen Anne Victorian house that sets the scene of a bittersweet love story.

The story begins in 1844 when Martin Murphy, Sr., and his large Irish family were among the first pioneers to travel over the Sierras into California. Murphy purchased 98,000 acres of Mexican land grant known as the Rancho Ojo de Agua de la Coche (Pig’s Spring Ranch). His youngest son Daniel helped him manage the vast tract. In 1851, Daniel married Maria Fisher, daughter of George William Fisher and heiress to her father’s 19,000-acre Rancho Laguna Seca. In time, Daniel purchased property in California, Nevada, Arizona and Mexico, owning more than a million acres and making him one of the richest land barons of the West.

Daniel and Maria had one daughter, a spirited girl named Diana, who was considered just as radiant as the Roman goddess of the moon she was named after. In 1880, when she was 20, she met a dashing 32-year-old bank clerk in San Francisco. The blue-eyed Hiram Morgan Hill stood six feet tall and moonlighted as a Bullock and Jones clothes model. His charm and social prestige quickly won Diana over, and the two fell deeply in love.

Daniel Murphy didn’t want Diana to marry Morgan Hill, believing the young man’s socializing ways would not make him a decent husband. But headstrong Diana secretly eloped with Morgan in San Francisco. Two months later, Daniel caught a severe case of pneumonia while herding cattle in a snowstorm at his Elko, Nev., ranch. On his deathbed, he made Diana promise never to marry Morgan Hill. He soon died, never finding out his daughter had already wed the man he so disapproved.

Diana inherited her father’s immense estate. In 1884, the Hills built a beautiful home for themselves on the property her father had first purchased. The six-room Queen Anne house featured crystal chandeliers, Minton-tiled fireplaces, and 10-foot gilt mirrors. The verandah looked out at an unusual conical foothill called Murphy’s Peak. In honor of this breathtaking mountain view, they called their beautifully furnished home Villa Mira Monte.

In time the Hills had their only child, a beautiful girl named Daniella after Daniel Murphy. The proud parents spoiled the girl with lavish gifts from their European trips. But the Hills’ marriage was severely strained, some say from the guilt Diana felt of lying to her father while he lay dying.

Near Villa Mira Monte, the railroad line extended down into the valley’s southern region. Train operators began calling out the flag stop near this landmark house as “Morgan Hill’s Ranch,” soon shortening it to Morgan Hill. As settlers moved into the area, a small village called Morgan Hill began to grow around the stop.

As time passed, Morgan and Diana’s passionate love turned cold, and they finally separated. She spent her time as a socialite between homes in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, and he moved away from the town bearing his name to run the Elko ranch.

Diane grew up and on Dec. 6, 1911, married a French baron named Hardoun de Reinach-Werth, a man rumored to have a severe drinking problem. During their European honeymoon, Diane received word that her father had suffered a major stroke. This grave news caused a further rift in the already bad relationship with her new husband, causing the young woman to suffer a mental collapse.

In the St. Pancras sanitorium in London, she committed suicide by throwing herself out of a second-story window and fracturing her skull. Perhaps from the grief over his beloved daughter’s tragic death, Morgan died the next year, a lonely man in his last days. Ironically, he was buried in the Santa Clara Mission cemetery next to his father-in-law, Daniel Murphy, the man who had so despised him.

The train stop of Morgan Hill had grown into a town of 250 by 1896, incorporating as a city in 1906 when it reached the legal population of 500. Today, the city has grown to more than 34,000 residents. Villa Mira Monte, the house standing beside Monterey Road, served for several years as an antique shop and is now run as a museum by the Morgan Hill Historical Society. Visitors can see the home’s original front door, prominently displaying a floral design in Tiffany-style stained glass. Below the glass on the wood door are the initials H.M.H. for the man who once made it his home and was one of the two men responsible for getting the town incorporated.


This village of about 2,000 people located between Gilroy and Morgan Hill has the South Valley’s only public airport. Ironically, an accident in transportation gives the small community its origin.

On April 11, 1853, the 61-ton side-wheel steamboat Jenny Lind left the port of Alviso in the southern most tip of the bay on its regular run to San Francisco. Among the passengers planning to attend to business on the trip was Bernard Murphy, the third son of Martin Murphy, Sr.

The Murphy family was among the first American families to settle in the valley, and owned thousands of acres of land in the region. Just after noon, the passengers were enjoying lunch as the boat passed through the area just north of what’s now the Dumbarton Bridge. Without warning, the boiler exploded. Flames and scalding clouds of steam engulfed the ship as passengers were burned or severely maimed.

Among the 34 dead was Bernard.

Bernard’s grieving father built a small chapel near what’s now New Avenue and San Martin Avenue. Murphy named the church after his patron saint, San Martin, and on All Soul’s Day in 1853 dedicated it and buried Bernard’s body here. The chapel burned to the ground on April 2, 1877, but the small village kept the spirit of the chapel by taking its name.

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