California’s Gold Rush was launched when the first nuggets were found at Capt. John Sutter’s lumber mill at Coloma on January 24, 1848. President James Polk confirmed the richness of the California diggings in December 1848 and the rush was on.
Tuolumne County is located in the area known as the Southern Mines. It was the home of Native Americans for over 8,000 years until the early summer of 1848 when a party of gold seeking Philadelphians arrived in the county’s western portion. They named their camp Woods Crossing and the nearby creek Woods Creek in honor of one of their leaders, the Rev. James Woods. Gold was so plentiful that word spread quickly, bringing would-be fortune hunters to Tuolumne County from such distant places as North and South America, Canada, Mexico, the British Isles, Ireland and the Orient. Some American southerners even brought slaves with them. It was a group of Mexicans from Sonora, Mexico, who established a camp a few miles east of Woods Crossing in March 1849 that would become Sonora.
In August 1848 Col. George F. James founded Jamestown just east of Woods Crossing, but later made a hasty departure leaving behind a mountain of debt. Jamestown’s name briefly became American Camp to erase the memory of Col. James but its original name soon returned. 1848 was also the year Judge A. H. Tuttle arrived at Mormon Gulch, built the first log cabin in the county and established Tuttletown. Nearby Jackass Hill immediately took rank as one of the richest diggings and over a decade later was visited by Mark Twain who drew inspiration for “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” while in an Angels Camp saloon.
For approximately 10 years Tuolumne County was in the grip of gold fever and rapidly filled with men hoping to strike it rich. New bonanzas were discovered almost daily and colorfully named places sprung up such as Sawmill Flat, Confidence, Shaws Flat, Garrote, Gold Springs and Algerine. With a rapidly rising population and primitive medical facilities, Sonora’s trustees established a hospital. The first drug store in Sonora was opened in the fall of 1849 by Dr. Stothers in downtown Sonora. Sonora was incorporated on May 1, 1851, but had become the county seat on February 18, 1850. One year later the entire town burned to the ground in a fire that began in a French restaurant. It was quickly rebuilt and many of the buildings in the downtown area date from 1852.
Sonora’s population often swelled to 10,000 on Sundays when miners from throughout the region came into town to buy supplies, frequent the town’s many saloons and often gamble away all of the gold they worked so hard to get. Sonora quickly became known as the wickedest gold camp in California. In March 1850 the diggings in Columbia were established by the Hildreth party from Maine after they observed a group of Mexican miners meeting with some success there. Finding results beyond their expectations, they located permanently there and as word spread of their good luck, hundreds of miners soon arrived, new discoveries were made throughout the area and the town of Columbia was born. One of the first Argonauts to arrive was Captain Francis Avent who reportedly mined two and a half pounds of gold on his first day.
The first newspaper published in California’s gold country was the Sonora Herald which issued its premier edition on July 4th 1850. The next year it announced that Tuolumne County’s population had reached almost 20,000 people!
Tuolumne County experienced a second gold rush between 1890 and 1915 aided by large investments of capital and industrial age mining technology. These modern miners tapped into areas left behind by the ‘49ers.
Tuolumne County’s first sawmills were established in the Gold Rush and the timber industry grew to considerable size by harvesting prime ponderosa and sugar pines, and white and Douglas firs. The Sierra Railway arrived in Tuolumne County in 1897 and helped get products to market and passengers to their destinations. Today, tourists flock to Tuolumne County to experience its rich history, shop and dine in vintage buildings and walk in the footsteps of the pioneers.