The history of Palm Springs is as varied as those who live here and come to visit. From the native Agua Caliente Cahuila Indians to the first pioneers to the early Hollywood stars to the mid-century modernist architects to celebrity mayor, Sonny Bono, to today’s rediscovery, Palm Springs remains an historical and ecological wonder.
Palm Springs History
More than 2,000 years ago, Palm Springs' first residents were the ancestors of today's Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. One of many Cahuilla bands, the Agua Caliente existed as peaceful hunters and gatherers, living off the land, and adapting to the extremes of desert summers and mountain winters. Much of tribal life centered on the lush vegetation and abundant water in the area known as Indian Canyons, site of North America's largest natural fan palm oasis.
The Cahuilla’s first encountered non-Indians in 1774, as Juan Bautista de Anza's expedition traveled through the area. In 1853, a government survey party mapped Palm Springs and its natural hot springs mineral pool - now the site of the Spa Resort Casino -and established the first wagon route through the San Gorgonio Pass. The Cahuilla culture was with the 1863 smallpox epidemic that killed thousands.
In 1877 as an incentive to complete a railroad to the Pacific, the U.S. government gave Southern Pacific Railroad title to the odd-numbered parcels of land for ten miles on either side of the tracks running through the Southern California desert around Palm Springs.
The even-numbered parcels of land were given to the Agua Caliente, yet federal law prohibited them from leasing or selling the land to derive income from it. In 1884, Judge John Guthrie McCallum of San Francisco arrived in Palm Springs with his family, seeking health for his tubercular son. The first permanent non-Indian settler, McCallum purchased land from Southern Pacific and built an elaborate aqueduct. His work to bring water to the Coachella Valley foreshadowed the area's current importance as a rich agricultural region. Dr. Welwood Murray built the first hotel, The Palm Springs Hotel, in 1886.
Palm Springs continued attracting more visitors and residents. Congress passed the Mission Indian Relief Act in 1891, authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to make individual allotments from reservation lands. However, it would be another 50 years before the Indians, taking their case to the U.S. Supreme Court (Lee Arenas v. United States, 1944), would win the legal rights to have allotments approved.
The success was short-lived due to the need for equalization of allotments and federal laws denoting the length of leases on Indian lands. It was not until President Eisenhower signed the Equalization Law in 1959 that tribes could realize profits from their lands and develop the 99-year lease.
The Desert Inn Puts Palm Springs on the Map as a Tourist Destination
During these years Palm Springs grew rapidly. In 1909, Nellie Coffman's Desert Inn opened, as did a garage for servicing the vehicles that brought visitors from the East Coast and Los Angeles, and a school for the children of a handful of year-round residents.
Sprinkled with Stardust
By the time it was incorporated in 1938, the Village of Palm Springs had become world-famous as a winter playground for Hollywood stars like Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, Bob Hope, Loretta Young. Today's stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, Dakota Fanning, Halley Berry and Gwen Stefani continue to seek rest and relaxation just hours away from the Hollywood glitz. European royalty and business tycoons all come to enjoy the endless sunshine and serenity of the desert.
During World War II, the desert became the training ground for General George S. Patton's troops as they prepared to invade North Africa. El Mirador Hotel, second home to the stars and the site of today's Desert Regional Medical Center, served as Torney General Hospital, treating U.S. wounded. Italian prisoners of war, housed at the adjoining detention camp, labored at the hospital.
The airfield, built to handle military cargo and personnel planes, would become Palm Springs Regional Airport. Once a small landing field and the first major Indian land purchase following the 1959 Equalization Law, the airport welcomed the 21st century as Palm Springs International Airport with flights nationwide and to Canada.
The post-war era ushered in tremendous growth as Palm Springs' natural environment was no longer a secret of just the wealthy. With tourism's growth, attractions and resorts flourished. Development spread "down valley" With the advent of air-conditioning, visitors and residents stayed year-round.
For more information about Palm Springs' history, please contact the Palm Springs Historical Society located in the heart of downtown Palm Springs.