CityDig: How Indio Went From Cahuilla to Conchella to Coachella, as Told Through Two Maps

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Tribes will gather this weekend in Indio, a tiny town on the edge of the Colorado desert 133 miles outside of L.A., for weekend two of the Coachella music festival. These maps yield a story about old Indian hunting grounds and a railway stop in the middle of nowhere once known as Cahuilla, then Conchella, and now Coachella.

Just as the 16-year-old festival has two weekends (since 2012, at least), we have here two maps that show the region during simpler times. Geologically, the land thereabout was part of the Salton Trough, which once included the ancient Lake Cahuilla (now the smaller Salton Sea), a freshwater source active as recently as 1500. The shores of the lake were inhabited by the Agua Caliente band of the Cahuilla Indians, who were part of a Shoshonean language group like the Tongva of the Los Angeles area. By 1600 the Colorado River was flowing elsewhere; the valley dried up, but the tribe remained.

The Cahuilla were hunters and gatherers who also participated in agricultural practices, growing melons, squash, beans, and corn without ever shredding a single note on a Fender guitar. Visitors showed up around 1853, when the U.S. Congress sent out a mapping party to find the best rail route from the Mississippi river to the Pacific Ocean. Around that time the federal government subdivided the valley, giving half to the Southern Pacific railroad in order to entice them to lay tracks through the area. Forty-eight sections of that subdivision were “given back” to the Cahuilla, and by 1876, the rail connected Los Angeles to Indio.

Even before the railroad was completed, the area was accessible by the Bradshaw Trail, an historic stage route that connected California to Arizona. Up until 1900 the area was known as the Cahuilla Valley because of the Native Americans who lived there, even getting a post office established in 1901. However, there are stories of a lecturer who called the place conchella, a Spanish word that vaguely translates to “place of shells” (apropos considering the lake/sea). When the USGS came through at the end of the 19th century, a surveyor mistakenly labeled the tiny town on the rail line “Coachella.” While it was erroneous, not to mention pure nonsense, the locals liked the sound of the new name and allowed it to stand, which it has done to this day.

Despite the heat and the little valley’s proximity to a true desert, it was found to be a decent place to grow dates, grapefruit, cotton, alfalfa, and assorted other fruits and vegetables. By 1915 there was a graded highway (the Bradshaw highway) that became the 111 in the early 1930s; this was after the old U.S. 99, as seen on the Auto Club map below, would morph into Interstate 10 (which stacks up for miles around this time of the year—or so I am told by my grizzled, 13-time Coachella festival attendee daughter who is turning her veterana nose up at this year’s offerings).

There are several coincidences about the maps, the most prominent of which being the presence of “Mecca” up the road, which is appropriate for two reasons: one, the music festival lays claim to being such for live music in the West, and two, the tales of the valley as a place for the gatherings of tribes. At one time it was the Cahuilla tribes, but now it is the punks, the trust-fund posers, the metal-heads, the NELA nouveau-hipsters, the haters, and the tattooed millennials all sweating it out under the same sun.

Click maps to enlarge


Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason shares a map from the Central Library’s collection at CityThink each week.

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