Sugg House was built by William Sugg, who had come to California as a slave with his master about 1850. In 1854 Sugg purchased his freedom for a dollar. Sugg repaired and refurbished leather harnesses for a living, and although he managed to buy this property with his meager savings, he and his family were never wealthy.
The house was built in stages, beginning in 1857. Sugg could not afford new bricks and he and his friends made adobe bricks from mud, straw, and water from a well on the property. Large, 18 inch long bricks were used for the walls, making them especially thick, and then smaller bricks were added to the outside and painted red. The original roof was made from cut-up 5-gallon tin cans and nailed to the top of rafters.
Later additions were built of wood. These included a kitchen and two rooms on the ground floor on the east side. Also added were a second floor with 4 bedrooms and a large attic. The rooms were needed for the Sugg’s 11 children, although the Suggs typically rented the rooms on the second floor to overflow guests from the City and Victoria Hotels and to traveling salesmen, known as drummers.
William Sugg’s wife, Mary Snelling Sugg, traveled across the country in 1851 with her family’s wagon train, ending up in what is now near Merced. The Indians were often friendly, approaching and wanting to trade fresh buffalo meat. Although they were fearful of Indians stealing their horses at night, the bigger threat came when they rode through Utah and Mormons, short of horses, made two attempts to stampede the Snelling party’s horses.
Twelve-year-old Mary Snelling was the daughter of a white man and a black woman and had light black skin. Many of the Indians they encountered believed that Mary was a kidnapped Indian girl and wanted to rescue her. She was told to hide whenever the Indians came near. Her hiding place was usually an empty sugar barrel that hung at the side of a wagon, sometimes subjecting her to hours of a hot and bumpy ride.
William Sugg never attempted mining, but there were thousands of blacks in the mines during the Gold Rush, including about 500 in Tuolumne County. Although some were slaves who had been brought here by their masters, most were free. Many of the slaves came under an arrangement in which they would be freed after they had mined for a certain period of time, or found a certain amount of gold.
After the gold rush only a few blacks remained in the Sonora area. Some became relatively wealthy from mining and later farming and ranching. The Sugg children attended a separate school for blacks and other minorities. Schools in California were not desegregated until the 1870s.