Tuolumne County was discovered in the early part of summer in 1848 when a party of Philadelphian miners came to Woods Creek. It is said that the countryside was one of the most picturesque in the world. Woods Creek was named after their leader Reverend James Woods. Others in the party were James Savage, J.H. Rider and Charles Bassett. They were searching for gold, which was plentiful in the first mining settlement of Woods Crossing. In fact, it was so plentiful that word spread quickly, bringing immigrants of every nationality including a group of Mexican miners who founded the Sonorian Camp. The inhabitants of the area, which would be known as Sonora, were strictly of Spanish decent until the arrival of the first Americans, Keeler and R.S. Ham, who arrived in the spring of 1849.
In August of 1848 a San Franciscan lawyer, Colonel James, moved to Woods Creek, and Jamestown was founded. Colonel James became deep in debts he could not pay, which incurred such ill will of his neighbors that upon his departure, the name of Jamestown was dropped as revenge. Although known for a short time as “American Camp,” the name proved to be too long. The people were used to “Jim Town,” and the name Jamestown was eventually revived. This was the same year in which Judge Tuttle arrived in Mormon Gulch and built the first log cabin in the county. This cabin became the nucleus of the village that would come to be known as Tuttletown. Neither of the latter were as notable as Jackass Gulch, a name which the accidental loss of a long-eared animal contributed. Despite the name, Jackass Gulch immediately took rank as one of the richest diggings yet struck. Lumps of gold weighing several ounces were a common occurrence, and it is said that two of the earliest prospectors, Major Means and his brother Julius, took out $10,000 worth of gold in a claim of just 100 feet. They also discovered a quartz vein that yielded two-thirds of its weight in gold.
Numerous discoveries took place in the latter part of 1848, and the county rapidly filled with seekers of hidden treasures. Prospecting was now abundant and new places were discovered almost daily. With a population of about 500, the mortality rate was great, especially among the Mexican population, and it was with the idea of ending such suffering that the hospital was built and maintained. The first drugstore in Sonora, Dr. Strothers, opened in the fall of 1849 in the vicinity of Bassett’s Camp or near the present location of City Hotel.
The favorite day for bartering and trade was Sunday. Sonora’s streets were thronged with miners in town for their mail and purchasing supplies. It is said that on these days, the number of people in town could not have been less than 10,000.
In March of 1850, the diggings in Columbia were discovered by a group of Mexicans from Santiago Hill. These men were seen by a party of Americans, Dr. Thaddeus Hildrith and his brother George, John Walker, William Jones and Alexander Carson. Having been informed the place was rich, they stayed to try their luck. Finding the result beyond their greatest expectations, they located permanently at their new discovery. Wonderful stories were circulated, which spread into the most remote mining regions. The result: an abundance of new discoveries. The trails were now crowded with men. One of the first to come to Columbia was Captain Avent, who had the good fortune to take out 2.5 pounds of gold on his first day’s work and another 2.5 on the second day. After that, he averaged 12 to 15 ounces daily. Bassett came from Sonora and located on the north side of the creek, building corrals for cattle and sheep. He also opened a store, combining it with a restaurant, butcher shop and dairy.
July 4, 1850 brought the first issue of the Sonora Herald, the first newspaper published in the California mines. In May of 1851, the Herald announced that the census of the county was nearly completed and the population would prove to be between 18,000 and 20,000. About this same time, Martin Arnold and Co.’s stage line was established, making daily trips between Sonora and Stockton.
From 1900 to the early 1920s, gold production in the county was on the same high level, but with lack of materials and labor during World War I, Tuolumne County had been forced to see the closing of some of the richest gold producers in the world. With the decrease of gold mining, the county rapidly came to be known as a great lumber producer. Some of the finest strands of Ponderosa, Sugar Pine, White Fir and Douglas Fir in the state are found here in Tuolumne County. S.S. Bradford and George W. Hale operated on the earliest lumber mills.
Although natural resource production has declined over the last several years, tourism is taking on a more important role in the local economy. Now estimated to be the largest industry, the tourism service sector will continue to expand as people enjoy all the various recreation activities available in Tuolumne County.
The proceeding is just a synopsis of the beginnings of a county that boasts beautiful scenery and a rich history.