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History of Sonora
The California Gold Rush really began when a man named Sam Brannan ran through the streets of San Francisco in May, 1848, holding a vial of gold dust, shouting "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River".

Gold had been discovered at Sutter's Mill, near Sacramento, the previous January, but this fact had been kept secret. Brannan, however--who made a fortune selling equipment and supplies to the miners--had an interest in stimulating the excitement.

This first part of the Gold Rush involved mostly those already in California. It was said that only nine men remained in San Francisco, everyone else having headed out to the gold fields.

Although most miners headed toward the foothills above Sacramento, many came south. It was not long—the early summer of 1848—before gold was discovered at what became known as Woods Creek. The creek was named for its discoverer, Benjamin Wood, and the town of Jamestown was soon established nearby. Within a few weeks, hundreds of miners were wading in the creek, seeking gold.

In 1848 there were relatively few miners, much space and lots of available gold. The idea of a "claim", or exclusive plot of land to mine, was unknown. Much gold could be had with a gold pan or a knife.

Although stories of gold discoveries in California were published in eastern newspapers, they were not necessarily believed. But in December, 1848, President Polk made a speech to Congress describing the credible report he had received, along with samples of the gold. Thus began the rush to California from the East Coast and internationally.

In early 1849 significant numbers of Mexicans from the province of Sonora began to arrive and prospect near Jamestown. By this time there were more miners and it was harder to find gold. And there was anti-foreigner sentiment—particularly against Mexicans, with which Americans had just fought a war. Conflicts began between Americans and Mexican miners. It was—politely and not so politely—suggested that the Mexican miners should move up Woods Creek and mine where the Americans thought there was little gold. The Mexicans did so and found not only gold flakes but, often, large nuggets.

The mining camp known as Sonorian Camp (and names like Sonoranian Camp) was thus established on the former Indian trail south of Woods Creek (now Washington Street).

The camp attracted not only Mexicans but miners from Chile, Peru, Argentina, China, Australia, and France. And it also attracted women—the Mexican miners brought their women, and when other women arrived in California they often heard about the large number of women in Sonora and came here.

The town had a strong flavor of Mexico, with the colorful brush houses that Mexicans built as well as the canvas tents favored by Americans. It had a central plaza. Gambling, particularly the Mexican national game of Monte was everywhere, as was liquor. Fandango houses were popular. There were bullfights and also fights between bulls and grizzly bears, which were common at that time in the mountains (now extinct) and that sometimes came within a few miles of Sonora.

In November, 1849 a town government was created, primarily to fund the establishment of a hospital, badly needed because many of the Mexican miners, with a poor diet and exhaustion, had come down with scurvy. The new Town Council of Sonora (the new name) was composed of Americans, many of whom were merchants who served the Mexican miners and were sympathetic to them.

In June, 1850 a major legislative blunder by the new California legislature took effect—the Foreign Miner's Tax. This required all foreign miners to pay a tax of $20 per month—a tax that the vast majority could not afford.

This tax resulted in the population of Sonora, then at its peak at 5,000, dropping by four-fifths and a consequent major recession. Many miners returned to Mexico, while others moved to more remote areas where the tax collector was unlikely to find them. Still other Mexican miners planned to resist the collector.

The merchants put together a fund and hired a well-known attorney to challenge the new Act as unconstitutional, but lost in the courts.

Sonora never recovered its full population after that. The town became more Americanized, with new buildings in American rather than Mexican styles. A year later, the tax was repealed, and later still reinstated with the much lower rate of $3/month, By this time gold was harder to find.

In May, 1851, Sonora was reorganized as a city. It quickly passed ordinances prohibiting certain games, such as Three Card Monte, that involved fraud and deception, as well as one prohibiting what were known as "Model Artists" exhibitions, considered lewd. Gambling and saloons with dancing were taxed.

Sonora early on could be violent. Americans carried pistols, and Mexicans carried knives. Minor disagreements often turned into serious fights, and murders resulted.

The Foreign Miners Act, though, seemed to stimulate an unprecedented level of violence. At first, scenes were nearly comical, with mobs of Americans forming and riding out to deal with rumors that Mexicans were grouping together and planning to attack the towns. At each stop the Americans became more liquored up and more suspicious. When they finally encountered the Mexicans the latter were simply packing up and leaving.

But murders became common, with individuals killed while sleeping in tents and, particularly, waylaid on the roads. Although many of the perpetrators were foreigners, many were simply criminals of American descent.

It became frequent for miners, when an act of violence had occurred, to take matters into their own hands and produce swift justice. A perpetrator was captured, a jury immediately impaneled, and a trial held. These were not necessarily sham trials—it did happen that a jury saw insufficient evidence and acquitted. But there were many examples of perpetrators being hung after a trial by "Judge Lynch"—as they were known— and later discovered to be innocent.

The first Sheriff of Tuolumne County, George Work, and the local judges often rode out to Judge Lynch proceedings and attempted to take the prisoners in custody and hold an official trial. There were sometimes successful, sometimes not. See the Green Flat Diggings Murders case. Work learned to wait until the heat of passion of a mob had subsided somewhat and then attempt to take control of the prisoners.

San Francisco had a serious crime problem, one that the creation of a Vigilance Committee—a private organization composed of leading citizens that held its own trials and punished criminals, seemed to solve. Soon, most mining towns had their own Vigilance Committee. Sonora's was composed of its most respectable citizens who were simply frustrated at the inability of the judges, Sheriff, and constables to deal with the crime problem. And the acts of the Vigilance Committee worked--after a few well-publicized cases of swift justice, the level of crime plummeted.

As with most other mining towns, fire was a major threat to Sonora. It mostly escaped the threat in its first years, having only one small fire in 1849. But in June, 1852 the Sonora Great Fire occurred, burning nearly every building in the town. As a result, the streets were widened and a Fire Department was organized. The town was rebuilt, with brick now the preferred building material. Two small fires in 1853 and a fire in 1854 were prevented from spreading by firemen.

For the residents of Sonora and the region surrounding it, the Gold Rush did not last long, with only one-third of the miners remaining by 1860. Most of the gold that could be easily found by washing gravel and dirt—placer mining— had been mined. Sonora, however, had what were known as pocket mines—deposits of highly concentrated gold, associated with quartz. This gold could be extracted by simple pounding of the rock. This was unlike the usual quartz, which had a relatively small proportion of gold embedded in the quartz and for which gold could not be economically extracted. Sonora had three major gold mines within its limits, including the Bonanza Mine, which was considered the most productive pocket gold mine in the world.

Sonora was also the business and government center of the county, and always retained a significant number of businesses, unlike other mining camps and towns such as Shaws Flat and Springfield that became largely ghost towns after the gold rush was over.

By the 1880s, many changes in mining technology had occurred. Dynamite had replaced black powder and was much more powerful and required much less labor. Pneumatic (air-driven) rock drills speeded up drilling and further reduced the number of men needed underground. A process known as "chlorination" allowed better recovery of gold from ore. Eventually, most ore was shipped to a smelter in San Pablo, which had the most efficient way of separating out the gold. Many underground mines around Sonora became profitable with the new techniques, with Sonora benefiting greatly because of its status as a business and financial center.

By 1875 there were four stages a day from Tuolumne County towns to the Southern Pacific depots at Oakdale and Milton. And there were many schemes to bring a railroad to Sonora, but none came to pass until the Sierra Railway was built. The initial line, completed in 1897, ran from Oakdale to Jamestown. Extending the railroad to Sonora was highly controversial, with business interests in Sonora that owned horse-drawn freight and stage lines opposed. The Sierra Railway wanted to build a line that passed down Washington Street in downtown and haul marble from Columbia that they hoped to sell to the U.S. government for a post office in San Francisco. Plans for a competing line from Stockton via Calaveras County (known as "The Woman's Railroad" for its promoter) goaded the Sierra Railway into action. It floated a plan to build an electric railroad through Sonora, that many Sonora residents feared would be replaced by an "intolerable" steam railway once a right-of-way agreement was made. The Railway also immediately began grading a line from Jamestown to Sonora. Sonora never agreed to a right-of-way, and a line was completed in 1899 with a depot (shown below) just south of the city limits that later continued on to what is now Tuolumne City.

In 1946, the Sonora Depot caught fire, and burned down to its marble foundations. The Sonora fire department watched it burn from the city limits, 200 feet away, out of their jurisdiction.