Early History of Tuolumne County

The following early history of Tuolumne County was written by Elizabeth E. Bullard, with excerpts borrowed from the Tuolumne County History web page on the Tuolumne County Historical Society web site and from History of Tuolumne County CA web page on the the TonyKrieg.com web site and with information from Wikipedia articles, among other sources.

Jump to:
The Miwok People
Early California Visitors and Westward Migration
Gold in Tuolumne
Tuolumne Becomes a County
Agriculture and Ranching
Timber and Lumber
Sierra Railway

 

The Miwok People

The first known inhabitants of the area now known as Tuolumne County were the Miwok bands. Miwok (also spelled Miwuk, Mi-Wuk, or Me-Wuk) can refer to any one of four linguistically-related groups of Native Americans, indigenous to Northern California, who traditionally spoke one of the Miwokan languages in the Utian family. The word Miwok means "people" in their native language. Anthropologists commonly divide the Miwok into four geographically and culturally diverse ethnic subgroups. These distinctions were unknown among the Miwok before European contact. The subgroups are:

  • Plains and Sierra Miwok: from the western slope and foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the Sacramento Valley, San Joaquin Valley and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
  • Coast Miwok: from the present-day area of Marin County and southern Sonoma County (including the Bodega Bay Miwok and Marin Miwok).
  • Lake Miwok: from Clear Lake basin of Lake County.
  • Bay Miwok: from the present-day area of Contra Costa County.

The Miwok lived in small bands without centralized political authority before contact with European Americans in 1769. They had domesticated dogs and cultivated tobacco, but were otherwise hunter-gatherers. The Sierra Miwok preferentially exploited acorns from the California Black Oak. In fact, the modern-day extent of the California Black Oak forests in some areas of Yosemite National Park is due in part to preferential cultivation by Miwok tribes. They burned under-story vegetation to reduce the fraction of Ponderosa Pine. Nearly every other kind of edible vegetable matter was exploited as a food source, including bulbs, seeds and fungi. Animals were hunted with arrows, clubs or snares, depending on the species and the situation. Grasshoppers were a highly-prized food source, as were mussels for those groups adjacent to the Stanislaus River. The Miwok ate meals according to appetite rather than at regular times. They stored food for later consumption, primarily in flat-bottomed baskets. Miwok mythology and narratives tend to be similar to those of other natives of Northern California. Miwok had totem animals, identified with one of two moieties, which were in turn associated respectively with land and water. These totem animals were not thought of as literal ancestors of humans, but rather as predecessors. In 1770, there were an estimated 500 Lake Miwok, 1,500 Coast Miwok and 9,000 Plains and Sierra Miwok, totaling about 11,000 people, according to historian Alfred L. Kroeber, although this may be a serious undercount; for example, he did not identify the Bay Miwok. The 1910 Census reported only 671 Miwok total and the 1930 Census only 491. Today there are about 3,500 Miwok in total.

The Miwok of Tuolumne County lived in scattered, but permanent, villages, which typically were built below the heavy snow line near creeks, springs, or other sources of fresh water. During summer months, the Miwok would establish temporary hunting and gathering camps at higher elevations. The permanent villages contained a few different styles of structure. Every village had a large storehouse in which they stored a plentiful supply of their primary dietary staple: acorns. Each village also contained a sweathouse and a roundhouse, the former being a small shelter with a fire pit that was used primarily for healing ceremonies and the latter being a larger ceremonial building that was used for religious and social activities. The homes were cone-shaped shelters, usually comprised of bark, each with a fire pit in the center and a smoke hole in the top.

Miwok men were responsible for hunting, while the women gathered other edible items and crafted baskets, among other things. The Miwok often met with members of other tribes, with whom the Miwok would trade acorns, baskets and other things for items such as obsidian, pine nuts and salt. A replica of a Miwok village stands at the Summit Ranger Station on Highway 108 (at the Pinecrest turnoff). Located next to the Yosemite Museum and Visitor's Center is the Indian village of Ahwahnee, where basket weavers work at the ancient Miwok craft.

Return to Top of Page

Early California Visitors and Westward Migration

Prior to the discovery of gold in California, the area had few visitors. Portugal's Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, England's Sir Francis Drake and other European adventurers explored California's coast as early as the mid-16th century. In the late-18th century, Spain began colonizing California. Spain's missions failed when Mexico sought and won independence from Spain in about 1820. As a result, Mexico took control of California. Richard Dana's published account of his visit to California in 1834, in which he described California's land, climate and lack of inhabitants, created a great deal of interest in California in Easterners. Other writers described the God-given right to expand the U.S. Westward expansion began to catch on in earnest in the 1840s. In 1844, James K. Polk utilized a platform that included expansion of the western frontiers and was elected President. Polk worked with England to obtain a major portion of the Oregon Territory for the U.S. and also attempted to purchase California from Mexico. The U.S. annexed Texas in 1845, despite Mexican protests. The Mexican-American War, which began in 1846, was the result of Mexican and U.S. territorial tensions. That war concluded in January 1848, when the Gold Rush was just beginning in California. The annexation of Texas and Oregon, the war with Mexico and the Louisiana Purchase expanded U.S. territorial boundaries from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.

Americans moved westward in slow stages after the American Revolution. The Lewis and Clark Expedition, also known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition, was the first transcontinental expedition to the Pacific coast undertaken by the U.S. Commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson, it was led by two Virginia-born veterans of Indian wars in the Ohio Valley, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific in 1805. The 13 states showed little interest in the uncharted wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, however. The first settlers to reach Oregon arrived in 1836 and by 1840 that route west was well-known. The Bartleson-Bidwell party became the first settlers to reach California. After the discovery of gold in California, westward travel exploded. More than 30,000 individuals went west in 1849 and another 55,000 went west in 1850. By 1857, 165,000 people has crossed the continent overland. by the time the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 (connecting Omaha, Nebraska to Sacramento, California), 350,000 settlers had made the journey west along the Oregon/California trail. With the railroad, travel time from east to west was reduced to a week from six months.

Return to Top of Page

Gold in Tuolumne

In the early 1840s, James Marshall wandered down the Pacific coast from Oregon and began working for John Sutter. Sutter was building a farming empire, which became known as Sutter’s Fort. In August 1847, Marshall became Sutter’s partner and agreed to build a sawmill to support many of Sutter’s activities. In January 1848, Marshall discovered gold in the raceway of the sawmill in a valley called “Coloma” by the local Native Americans on the south fork of the American River. When Marshall and Sutter realized that they had found gold, they attempted to keep the discovery a secret for fear the farming lands would be overrun by gold seekers. Sam Brannan had come to Sutter’s Fort earlier and opened a general store there. Brannan was one of the first to hear the news of gold as it leaked out. He also was first to see an opportunity to make his fortune by supplying shovels, picks and other simple mining supplies to the gold seekers. Brannan purchased enough gold dust to fill a jar and traveled to San Francisco and walked the streets shouting and showing the gold. These events precipitated "gold fever" and the race for gold began in California in early 1848. Back east, people were not sure that this was the real thing until President Polk verified the gold discovery on December 5, 1848, when he made his official annual message to Congress. He reported that gold was being found daily in California, worth large sums of money, and displayed a small box filled with gold dust that had been sent to him by courier from California.

In the summer of 1848, gold was found in the streams and rivers that drained the Sierra Nevada and the foothills in what is now Tuolumne County. An Oregon prospector, Benjamin Wood, and his party, including James Savage, found gold on the banks of a branch of the Tuolumne River. The party named their camp Wood's Crossing and called the creek Wood's Creek. By the end of the summer 1848, Col. George James build a mining camp above Wood's Crossing and named it after himself - Jamestown. About the same time, a Judge Tuttle had found a rich site of gold on Mormon Creek and set up a log cabin and a camp known as Tuttletown. Similar camps were springing up rapidly at Melones, Don Pedro's Bar and Shaws Flat. In March 1849, some Mexicans and Chileans were working claims upstream from Wood's Camp in the area known today as Columbia Way in the northern portion of Sonora. The new gold diggings became known as Sonoranian Camp, named for the State of Sonora, Mexico, from which Mexican miners had come. Shortly thereafter, waves of immigrants began arriving in Tuolumne County. Gold strikes were found at places such as Curtis Creek, Sullivan's Creek and Savage Diggings. The town of Jacksonville developed where Wood's Creek met the Tuolumne River. Texas Bar and Indian Bar, Robinson's Ferry and Soldier's Gulch all became active mining camps. South of the river, in Big Oak Flat, gold was discovered on Rattlesnake Creek. Chinese Camp was established by the rapid growth of Chinese immigrants that lived and worked the gold diggings in that area.

Tuolumne's foothills were swarming with miners and other fortune-seekers. Since there were no California laws or system of courts, disputes were settled by each settlement individually. Residents used the old Mexican Alcalde system (similar to mayors and sheriffs) to select "lawmen", often bestowing those duties upon veterans of the Mexican-American War. Justice was questionable, at best. With the population of the Tuolumne area rising rapidly, conflicts broke out frequently between miners. Because of the overwhelming proportion of foreigners in the area, anti-foreign sentiment was prevalent throughout the county. In the spring of 1850, the Foreign Miners Act became a law, which required foreigners to pay a $20 per month tax for the privilege of mining in California. As a result, many foreigners left California, which also lead to several failed businesses. Some foreign miners struck back with violence and robberies and murders became prevalent. Vigilante groups formed in an attempt to hamper the crime wave, but many suspected criminals were hanged without be allowed legitimate trials to prove their guilt. Even after the repeal of the Foreign Miner's Tax, things were never the same between American-born and foreign-born individuals.

In 1853, other gold mining camps were established above the Mother Lode near Soulsbyville and beyond. The Confidence, Independence, Mary Ellen, Payboy and Little Jessie mines were established. In about 1855, the Cherokee and Arastraville mines were established just north of the Tuolumne City area and placer gold was located in Turnback Creek in 1856. That year, Cornish men discovered the Eureka Quartz mine in Soulsbyville.

Mining techniques evolved from simple knives and pans to special sluicing devices, such as rockers and long toms. That graduated into the diverting of waterways, damming, re-routing entire segments of rivers and dredging, which was the procedure of using a floating barge to scoop ore from the bottoms of rivers and creeks. Eventually, miners turned to hydraulic methods to wash small hillsides, which graduated to the use of nozzles and monitors at extremely high pressure that could wash portions of mountains. Hard rock mining where the gold was integral to the quartz required devices such as arastras and stamp mills, used to crush ore and separate the gold with water, mercury and cyanide. Each new concept increased the efficiency of mining and the extraction of gold. Major damage to the environment was a direct result of mining and logging activities during the Gold Rush era.

A second gold rush began in Tuolumne County in 1893 at the Old Rawhide mine, owned by Capt. W. A. Neville, when the mine was re-opened and miners struck an immense body of rich ore. The mine utilized three shafts and a 40-stamp mill and also rekindled interest in quartz hard-rock mining.

The Sierra Railway provided freight and passenger service to and from Tuolumne County. The railway brought in box cars from all over the U.S., loaded with grain, coal, crude oil, dynamite and lumbering machinery and took out produce, lumber and mining ore. At one time, Tuolumne County was one of California's leading mining districts, with over 300 patented mines and about 1,000 ore stamping facilities.

Return to Top of Page

Tuolumne Becomes a County

In late-1849, the acting governor of California, General Bennett Riley, called upon John Sutter to assist in the writing of a state constitution, even though California technically not a state, or even a U.S. territory. In an attempt to cope with the large and growing California population, Riley organized a convention without authorization from the U.S. Congress. Seeking statehood in September 1849, forty-eight delegates, representing the diversity of Californians from all walks of life, gathered at Monterey. The delegates adopted a bill of rights, which was based on the federal Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. The California Bill of Rights also included a ban on slavery. They debated the boundaries of the state and eventually settled up the present-day boundaries. After six weeks, on October 12, 1849, their work was done. In November 1849, the first general election was held in California and voters approved the State of California Constitution. Four senators and nine assemblymen were elected to represent California in the first State Legislature, located in San Jose. The next month, the legislature met and selected Col. John Fremont to be California's first senator.

On February 18, 1850, Tuolumne County was established by the California Legislature and the county was divided into six townships: Sonora, Morman Camp, Jacksonville, Don Pedro's Bar and Tuolumne City. The word Tuolumne is believed to be a transliteration of the Miwok word "talmalamne", meaning a cluster of stone dwellings. The town of Sonora became Tuolumne County's seat, though Malcolm M. Stewart, representative of the San Joaquin district in the Assembly, changed the town's name from Sonoranian Camp to Stewart. The name Sonora was restored by petition and amendment, approved by the State Senate on April 18, 1850. On September 9, 1850, California became was admitted to the United States as a free (slave-free) state - result of the Compromise of 1850. By May 1851, Sonora was an incorporated city. The Union Democrat newspaper was established in Sonora in 1854 and continues to this day. The oldest Episcopal Church in California opened its doors in Sonora in 1850, called the St. James Episcopal Church, or simply as "The Red Church". Built in 1860, the Columbia School House was a two-story brick structure that was utilized until 1937. The Jamestown Methodist Church was constructed in 1861. In 1898, construction began in Sonora on the three-story Roman pressed-brick building that became the Tuolumne County Courthouse, still in use today.

Return to Top of Page

Agriculture and Ranching

In the early days of California's history, economic life was centered around the cattle industry. A few hundred head of stock brought from Mexico by early settlers multiplied into thousands by the early-1800s. By 1825, grazing lands grew to the point that hundreds of square miles were required to support a single herd. The Gold Rush changed a lot about California, but agriculture and ranching always has been the mainstay of economic security for California's residents. As early as 1849, produce gardens in Tuolumne were planted in order to meet the local demand for fresh fruits and vegetables. Vineyards and orchards planted during the Gold Rush were irrigated by water from placer mining ditches and flumes. Twenty years later, fresh produce was being shipped by wagon over the Sonora-Mono Road to the new gold strikes at Bodie and Aurora on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. Fruit, apples in particular, became one of Tuolumne's most popular agricultural products. When placer mining dropped off in the 1870s and hydraulic mining was outlawed in 1884, many of the water supply systems were abandoned, making the irrigation of orchards difficult. Yet, by 1910, apple products shipped by the Sierra Railway were a major export of Tuolumne County.

From the late-1890s to the 1920s, Tuolumne County agriculture was a major activity, with livestock being the most important. There were a number of large ranches in the area. Cattle were driven into the mountains in the spring to pasture, then returned to the foothills in the winter. Livestock was not only important, but also profitable, as the Sierra Railway became a major source of exporting good from Tuolumne County. Today, California's agricultural and ranching enterprises as as diverse as any in the world.

Return to Top of Page

Timber and Lumber

The timber and lumber industry in Tuolumne County was shaped by early gold miners. Wood was a basic building material for gold mining devices and was required for transport of water by way of flumes. When places mining played out and as hydraulic mining was being curtailed, underground hard-rock mining expanded. The demand for timber grew rapidly. Lumber also was becoming the primary building material for homes and commercial businesses, which replaced the canvas tents and shelters used at the initial settlements. In 1848, planks of lumber were made by hand-sawing timber with whipsaws. Man-powered sawmills were common in mining camps. As the demand for timber grew, water-powered sawmills were established. Lumber production in that way was greatly improved, but still was limited to a few thousand board feet per day. The year 1850 saw the development of steam-powered sawmills in Tuolumne County and, by 1856, two dozen mills of various types were operating in Tuolumne County. It was not until the Sierra Railway incorporated in 1897 that large mills were conceived and built to cut lumber for local use and for export.

Tuolumne County's first major lumber operation was incorporated in 1899 as the West Side Flume and Lumber Company, later renamed West Side Lumber Company. In 1900, West Side Lumber opened a large mill in Tuolumne City and eventually added a drying kiln, planing mill and box factory. The second major lumber operation in Tuolumne County was the Standard Lumber Company, headquartered in Sonora and later moved to the company town of Standard. Standard Lumber was incorporated in 1901 by D. H. Steinmitz, who was joined later by T. S. Bullock after West Side Lumber was sold to a Michigan corporation. Standard Lumber was formed by the acquisition of S. S. Bradford's mountain sawmill, timber land, planing mill and sash-door company in Sonora. In addition, N. L. Knedsen's mill and lumber yard in south Sonora were taken under lease as part of the holdings of Standard Lumber.

Pickering Lumber Company acquired Standard Lumber, along with its Sugar Pine Railroad, in 1921. In 1925, Pickering also acquired West Side Lumber and its railroad. However, Pickering Lumber ceased all operations around the end of the Great Depression of the 1930s. In 1934, West Side Lumber and its railroad were returned to their former owners. In about 1937, Pickering re-opened its remaining operations after the company received a federal economic recovery aid loan. With the improvement of roads for automobile and trucking traffic, logging trucks were chosen over railroads as the preferred method of transport. In 1961, West Side Lumber Railroad was discontinued for good and, four years later, the Pickering Lumber Railroad (formerly Sugar Pine Railroad) followed suit.

Fiberboard Paper Products purchased Pickering Lumber in 1965. Following that company's bankruptcy, the company was purchased by Louisiana Pacific. In 1995, the company was purchased by it current owner, Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI). The Sierra Railroad hauled freight and processed timber products, as well as contracting to haul logs from out of state, which were then processed by SPI, which continued to operate next to the old company town of Standard. In 2009, SPI closed the Standard mill, ending 150 years of major timber/logging industry in Tuolumne County. Two years later, SPI re-opened the mill and operations continue there today.

Return to Top of Page

Sierra Railway

The Sierra Railway of California was incorporated February 1, 1897. Thomas S. Bullock, William Crocker and Prince Andre Poniatowski (who represented wealthy French investors) founded the railroad. Bullock brought rails and engines from his original railroad investments in the Prescott and Arizona Central Railroad. The first 41 miles were built from Oakdale to Jamestown by November 10, 1897. The roundhouse and central maintenance facility were erected at Jamestown. Over teamster objections and other delays, the connection to Sonora was completed on February 16, 1899. From Sonora, the railroad added another 12 miles to reach Carters-Summersville (later renamed Tuolumne City). By February 1, 1900, the end of the main line was completed at Tuolumne City, with a depot located only a few hundred yards from the new mill of the West Side Flume and Lumber Company.

The Sierra Railway was the main connection between Sonora, Jamestown and the company lumber towns of Standard and Tuolumne City. The West Side Lumber mill at Tuolumne City and the mountain mills of Standard Lumber Company furnished the largest source of revenue for the Sierra. West Side Lumber's railway and Standard Lumber's railway fed the Sierra Railway. The Angel's Camp branch of the Sierra Railway brought freight and passengers to the bustling gold mining towns in Calaveras County. After struggling with changes in elevation, which resulted in steep grades, a system of four switchback spur tracks was designed to bring the Sierra Railway 19 tortuous miles over trestles and bridges to Angel's Camp. The Angel's Camp branch was completed on September 15, 1902 and operated until 1935.

The Sierra Railway connected directly to the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific railroads in Oakdale, which provided access to the national rail network. It reached its peak passenger service in the years just before World War I, when ten regularly-scheduled trains ran every day. The Sierra Railway was used to supply the Don Pedro Dam project on the Tuolumne River and the Melones Dam project on the Stanislaus River in the early-1920s. It also supported the Hetch Hetchy Dam project (O'Shaughnessey Dam) in the 1920s and had access to the Hetch Hetchy Railroad, which ran up to the Hetch Hetchy Valley's major construction sites. The Sierra Railway also supported the Tri-Dam project, consisting of Tulloch, Beardsley and Donnell.

The Great Depression saw the Sierra Railway go into receivership and then emerge in 1937 as the Sierra Railroad. The last passenger service run was completed on May 12, 1939. In 1955, the railroad began to use diesel-electric engines and to haul freight exclusively. The original Jamestown complex of roundhouse, turntable and steam maintenance shops were sold in 1982 to the State of California Park and Recreation Department, which in turn opened the site to the public as the Railtown 1897 State Historic park, where steam passenger excursion trains operate today during spring, summer and fall months.

The Sierra Railway also is famous for its role in the film industry. It all began in 1919, when Hollywood discovered the old steam engines and rolling stock and then began to use them in silent movies. The Jamestown station became one of the first field facilities to use movie sound on location. More than 200 films and television programs, many of them notable, have been filmed using Sierra's rolling stock and steam engines and the station continues to play a role in filmmaking today. Among those films are titles such as The Virginian (1929), starring Gary Cooper and Walter Huston, High Noon (1951), starring Gary Cooper, The Cimarron Kid (1952), starring Audie Murphy and James Best, Apache (1954), starring Burt Lancaster, Jean Peters and Charles Bronson, Rage at Dawn (1955), starring Randolph Scott and Forrest Tucker, The Great Race (1966), starring Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood, Finian's Rainbow (1968), starring Fred Astaire and Petula Clark, Bound for Glory (1976), starring David Carradine and Randy Quaid, Pale Rider (1985), starring Clint Eastwood and Richard Dysart, Back to the Future Part III (1990), starring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd and Mary Steenburgen, Unforgiven (1992), starring Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman, and many others. Among those television programs are titles such as The Lone Ranger (1956), starring Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels, Rawhide (1960), starring Clint Eastwood and Eric Flemming, Lassie (1961-1962), starring Jon Provost, June Lockhart and Hugh Reilly, Petticoat Junction (1963-1970), starring Bea Benaderet, Edgar Buchanan and Linda Kaye Henning, The Wild Wild West (1964), starring Robert Conrad and Ross Martin, Gunsmoke (1971), starring James Arness, Amanda Blake and Milburn Stone, Bonanza (1972), starring Lorne Greene and Michael Landon, Little House on the Prairie (1975-1983), starring Michael Landon, Karen Grassle and Melissa Gilbert, The A-Team (1984), starring George Peppard and Mr. T., among many others.

Return to Top of Page

 

This page was revised last on Tuesday, July 24, 2012 23:46 .
   
           

 

Website Design  © 2011 CAGenWeb Project. All Rights Reserved.

Copyright Notice: The content of this website is a collective work that may contain some private contributions. Said private contributions are so-noted and copyright of those private contributions belongs to the original author. Most of the textual and photographic content on this site has been donated by Elizabeth E. Bullard and is free for the public to use at will, as long as the data remains free. Under no circumstances is any data from this site to be used on a pay-for-use site. Clipart found on this site is royalty-free, but may include some limited commercial rights.