Sonora began as a mining camp when Mexican miners came into conflict with Americans while mining at Woods Crossing, a mile south of where Jamestown is today and where gold was discovered in early 1848. The Mexicans moved a few miles up Woods Creek and established their own camp, known variously as Sonoran or Sonoranean camp, and finally just Sonora.
The town grew along Washington Street, previously an Indian trail. At first it was a town of tents and the brush houses that the Mexicans built. Later, permanent buildings began to be built. There were many nationalities, and each built structures in the style they were accustomed to, including many adobe houses. Wooden houses began to be common when a sawmill was built just south of Sonora, making it easier to get wooden planks.
The creation of a town government was precipitated by the need for a hospital. Many of the miners, particularly the Mexicans, were sick with scurvy. At that time there was little agriculture in California, particularly inland, and fruits and vegetables with the vitamin C that would prevent scurvy were scarce and expensive. A town was thus organized in November, 1849, and a hospital built just west of here, on Hospital Hill, financed by the sale of vacant lots and by contributions.
Later, in 1851, Sonora was incorporated as a city and a mayor and a Common Council elected. With its five thousand inhabitants, it was not much smaller than San Francisco. An early action of the new council was to pass an ordinance regulating gambling, including prohibiting such games as French Monte, which were thought to invite cheating.
Conflicts between Americans and foreign miners, especially Latins, persisted. Americans felt that since the land was U.S. soil, the gold in it belonged to Americans. Mexicans were incensed that their land had been taken from them by force. The feelings surely intensified as gold became harder to find. The conflict led to the enactment by the new California legislature of a Foreign Minerís Tax. The tax, set at twenty dollars per month, which most miners could not afford, was disasterous for Sonora. It immediately lost four-fifths of its population, with merchants in the town losing most of their customers. Some foreign miners moved to remote areas where they could continue mining but hide from the tax collector. Others went home. A few Mexicans, Chileans, and other foreigners hid out in the hills to prey on the population as highway robbers.
The Foreign Minerís Tax was later reduced to $3 per month, although by that time the Gold Rush was beginning to wind down.