Friday, April 23, 2021

Sonora, California- "Queen of the Southern Mines" by Zina Abbott


The area known today as Sonora in Tuolumne County, California, was originally the land of the Mi-wuk Indian people. What became Sonora is in a narrow sheltered valley that has two all-year creeks: Sonora Creek and Woods Creek. This was a favorite wintering area these people. They left only after the population in the region increased due to those arriving seeking gold.

What became the city of Sonora was founded during the California Gold Rush. It was established in 1848, by miners emigrating from the State of Sonora in Mexico. The early settlement was often referred to as the “Sonoran Camp,” and was once known as the “Queen of the Southern Mines.”

Although there was mining activity in the Sonora area in 1848, the first documented discovery was in Wood’s Creek near the north part of town on March 17, 1849. Unlike many Gold Rush towns, no specific individual is credited with the discovery of gold in Sonora.

News of the gold discovery at the Sonoran Camp spread, and fortune-seekers came from all over, including from Mexico, Chile, and other South American nations. In addition, many of the city’s early residents came from Germany, France, England, Ireland and Italy. By 1849, the population of the town was approximately 5,000. (According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the city’s population remains about that number.)

1866 downtown Sonora

Many gold-seekers boarded ships on the East Coast and sailed to Panama where they crossed the Isthmus on foot or horseback and vied for passage on crowded ships bound for San Francisco. From San Francisco it was an additional two day trip by schooner to Stockton and then a dusty stage ride through the foothills to Sonora. They found that Sonora was mostly a camp of dirt streets. Most of its structures were tents. There was very little in the way of accommodations.

The first record of Sonora organizing as a town was on November 7, 1849. After a scurvy outbreak during the preceding winter affected many members in the region, the citizens gathered to discuss a hospital. Through contributions from the locals and the sale of town lots, the hospital was built and maintained throughout the rainy season that followed. Lime juice, fresh potatoes and other items rich in vitamin C were given to sufferers to stop the epidemic.

Early merchants on Washington St.

No wagon roads were present during the first few years. Travel in and out of Sonora was done on foot, or by horse or mule. Supplies were brought in from Stockton, seventy miles distant. It was said that, during 1849 and 1850, travel between these two towns was so frequent that, “the campfires along the route were near enough together to show the traveler his way, even at night.”

The Old Town Well was dug at the edge of the town’s plaza in 1848. Fed by an underground spring, it was the camp’s first public water well and was responsible for providing fresh water to the inhabitants for many years. (With all those men panning for gold, you can imagine what was in those two creeks.)

Starting on July 4th of 1850, Enos Christman established and operated the Southern Mines first newspaper, The Sonora Herald. It was printed on wrapping paper. A year later, he commented on the human variety to be found in the camp: “Sonora is a fast place and no mistake. Such a motley collection as we have here can be found nowhere but in California. Sonora has a population hailing from every hole and corner of the globe-Kanaka, Peruvians, Spaniards, Mexicans, Chilians, Chinese, British convicts from New South Wales, known as ‘Sidney Birds,’ Englishmen, Frenchmen, Dutch, Paddies, and not a small sprinkling of Yankees. We have more gamblers, more drunkards, more ugly, bad women, and larger lumps of gold, and more of them, than any other place of similar dimensions within Uncle Sam’s dominions. The Sabbath is regarded as a holiday, granting men and women a more extensive license to practice vice than any other day in the week.”

Like so many Gold Rush towns, Sonora had a wild reputation in its early days. According to Frank Marryat, who wrote about his 1851 experiences in Sonora, “No church bells here usher in the Sabbath… every man carries arms, generally a Colt revolver, buckled behind, with no attempt at concealment.”

The area was not completely devoid of religious influence. Catholic Padre Arnault was in Sonora in the fall of 1849 and he established St. Patrick’s. However, Sonora was a pretty wild place. The Mormon “gold missionaries” who came to the region to find a place to pan for gold came first to Sonora. Because Sonora was such a rough town, they soon abandoned the area and set up along Mormon Creek west of Columbia about five miles to the north.

As California became a state following the Treaty of Hilgado marking the end of Mexican-American War, Tuolumne County was established as one of California’s original 27 counties on February 18, 1850. Sonora was established as the county seat. Unlike other counties where the county seat moved from one city to another, Sonora remains the county seat. It remains the only incorporated city in the county. As pack trains, freight wagons, and stage lines all passed through town on their way to the mining camps lying south, it became an important commercial center for the region.

The following is taken from “California State Highway 49: The Golden Chain” written by Bob Dylan (

Sonora became the center of the controversy created when the State Legislature passed the so-called “Foreign Miners Tax” in 1850, requiring all non-American miners to pay a monthly tax of $20. The tax was primarily aimed at Mexican miners, as the white miners had decided that “only Americans had the God-given right to mine for gold, and that Mexicans most certainly were not Americans.” What it really boiled down to was racism and greed. 

The tax was deeply resented; resistance to its collection led to violence and bad feelings between the white and Mexican miners. Soon the “Americans” had the rich placers virtually to themselves as most of the Mexican miners and their families left town. Some of those forced into leaving turned outlaw and took to raiding, robbing and murdering white miners whenever the opportunity arose. The worst violence took place immediately following the imposition of the tax, during May and June of 1850, when assaults became an almost daily occurrence. Dread and terror prevailed throughout the community and no one walked the streets unarmed.

The Foreign Miners Tax resulted in another problem for Sonora and the surrounding communities. The exodus of nearly two thousand Mexican, Chilean, and French inhabitants cut Sonora’s population almost in half, resulting in hard times for the business community. Business declined to such an extent that many merchants were forced into closing and the boom town suddenly became a rather quiet place. The tax was finally repealed in 1851, marking an end to most of the violence as law, order and civilization settle down over Sonora. 

Although Sonora would never again see the dangerous times it once knew, there was still gold in the rivers and the hard rock mines would continue to yield riches for decades to come. In fact, the region became known as one of the famous pocket-mining districts of the Southern Mines, yielding tremendous amounts of gold to those who stumbled across these rich pockets. One such pocket uncovered in the Bonanza Mine yielded 990 pounds of gold in one week, valued at over $300,000. Other mines, such as the Sugarman and the Negro, were known for their pockets of beautifully crystallized gold. In May of 1851, the town was incorporated as a city and was soon an important supply and commercial center. 

After incorporation as a city, Mayor Charles F. Dodge presided over the first town meeting on May 26, 1851. The first Council immediately enacted ordinances related to gambling. Ordinance Number 14 outlawed any game “having in its tendency deception or fraud.” Ordinance Number 15 allowed faro, monte, roulette, other gaming tables, and games of chance, for a license fee.

Sonora had several disastrous fires in its early days. The first took place in 1849 and nearly consumed the entire canvas and brush camp.

The next major blaze took place on June 18 of 1852. It started in the “Hôtel de France,” which was located on the plaza facing Washington Street. Called “The Great Fire,” it burned almost every building in town. A Swiss named Mollier, who was in the Hotel de France, lost his life. The total losses exceeded $700,000. After the fire was extinguished, some rogues tried to jump the land on which buildings once stood, but guards were posted to stop their attempts at stealing the land.

The worst occurred on June 18, 1852. It destroyed almost every structure from Church Street in the downtown, or older part of Sonora, to the northern uptown region where St. James Episcopal Church, also known as The Red Church, was built in 1859.

Prior to the fire, wooden buildings along Washington Street were built close together without side streets. 1853 was a year of three fires which took place on August 17, October 3, and November 2. They caused thousands of dollars in damages and one person lost his life. As a result of those disastrous fires, instead of there being one long, unbroken main street, Sonora rebuilt with side streets to help act as fire breaks. The street layout of Sonora’s downtown has remained relatively unchanged since 1852.

Side of 1853 building built of local rock

Most of the earliest buildings that remain in downtown Sonora were built in 1853 or later—after these fires. Many, like their contemporaries in Columbia, used brick. Quite a few structures were built with rock walls. The local slate in all manner of sizes and shapes were formed into thick walls.

An example is the Wells Fargo & Co. building built of stone by Emanuel Linoberg in 1856. (D.M. Kenfield served as the town’s first Wells Fargo agent.) This building no longer exists. A plaque marks this site located at 87 S. Washington. However, its description is as follows:

“The side wall of this structure provides a great look at one of the early methods of construction used throughout the Gold Country. Stones of countless shapes and sizes were painstakingly formed into thick sturdy walls, which offered excellent protection against fire and burglary.”

Other early buildings are the following:

Gunn House built 1850

The Gunn House is Sonora’s earliest residence and first two-story structure. Dr. Lewis C. Gunn arrived in nearby Jamestown in 1849 where he attempted mining for a brief time. Largely unsuccessful,
in 1850, he returned to medicine and moved his practice to the busier camp of Sonora. In November of that year, he bought an interest in the Sonora Herald. Soon after, he made plans to build an adobe house. Constructed by Mexican laborers, the Gunn House originally had a balcony across the entire front of the second story. The lower floor housed the Sonora Herald’s printing office. When Dr. Gunn was elected recorder in 1850, it also housed the county recorder’s office. The upper floor served as living quarters for Gunn and his family, after his wife and four young children arrived in Sonora on August 13th of 1851, after a six-month long journey from Philadelphia via rounding Cape Horn.

The City Hotel on S. Washington Street, completed in late summer of 1852, became a popular stage stop. It is constructed principally of adobe brick and cut stone. It was built by Alonzo Green and James Lane, two of Sonora’s earliest pioneers.

The Barber Shop on S. Washington Street first opened in 1859. The building has been remodeled with a new “old style” façade.

1883 of Yo-Semite House

The Brick Office Buildings which look so neat and lawyerly, were built in the 1850s to serve as an office building and a bank. Still complete with their iron doors, the buildings stand at 21 and 23 N. Washington.

The Yo-Semite House was built on N. Washington Street in 1858. It was first occupied by Fred Freund, cabinet maker, upholsterer, and undertaker. The building has served as a hotel, saloon, restaurant, hardware store, and general merchandise store.

St. James Episcopal Church, the “Red Church,” is the second oldest wood frame Episcopal church in California. Construction began in 1859 on a site donated by Caleb Dorsey at the north end of Washington Street. Funds for the building materials were also donated. The building was finished in 1860. The Reverend John Gassman, a native of Norway, served as both the architect and the first minister of St. James.

The Burden Undertaking Parlor was built on N. Washington St. during the 1850s for Charles Burden.

The I.O.O.F. Hall was erected during the early 1850s. When the Sonora I.O.O.F. Lodge No. 10 was organized on June 7th of 1853, the Odd Fellows purchased the two-story brick building on W. Dodge Street and have met there ever since.

I.O.O.F. Hall in continuous use since 1853

The Tuolumne County Jail housed prisoners from 1857 to 1960. The site on W. Bradford Ave. was acquired in 1857, after a grand jury determined that the previous jail was a “public nuisance.”


Old Tuolumne Co. Jail, now museum & history center

The first Tuolumne County Courthouse was constructed of wood in 1853. It was a two-story structure that faced Green Street between Jackson Street and Yaney Avenue. It remained in use until 1898.

First Tuolumne Co. Courthouse 1853-1898

By 1860, most of the “easy” gold had been panned out of the local creeks (Sonora Creek and Woods Creek). The city began to shrink as those chasing gold moved elsewhere. Yet, Sonora was a commercial and cultural center for the region. It was a county seat. It continued into the next decade and beyond.


Although my current book, A Lawyer for Linton, is set in 1885, years after Sonora was incorporated, many of the buildings mentioned in this post still existed at that time. They also existed at the time of last year’s novel, Kendrick, set in 1854 Columbia (with a few chapters taking him to Sonora), and in my book published the first of April, Cole, set mostly in 1866 Stanislaus County to the west of Tuolumne County, with Cole taking a few trips to Sonora to purchase land and register a brand.

To find the book description and purchase link for A Lawyer for Linton, please CLICK HERE.

To find the book description and purchase link for Kendrick, please CLICK HERE.

To find the book description and purchase link for Cole, please CLICK HERE.



Wikipedia: Sonora, California


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