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Gold in Tuolumne County

Gold Timeline

Harvard Mine - Jamestown

After gold was first discovered in January 1848 by James Marshall, that summer gold was found in streams and rivers draining the Sierra Nevada and the foothills in what is now called Tuolumne County.  An Oregon prospector, Benjamin Wood, and his party which included James Savage, found gold on the banks of a branch of the Tuolumne River.  They called their camp Wood’s Crossing and the creek, Wood’s Creek.  By summer’s end 1848, Colonel George James from San Francisco started 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.  Other camps were springing up at Melones, Don Pedro’s Bar and Shaws Flat.  Things slowed down when the winter cold set in. 

In March 1849, Mexican and some Chilean’s were working claims a short distance upstream on Wood’s Creek at a camp known as Santiago.  They secretly moved about four miles further up Wood’s Creek in the area of today’s Columbia Way in the northern portion of Sonora.  The new gold diggings became know as Sonoranian Camp, named after the Mexican miners from the State of Sonora, Mexico.  Shortly thereafter, waves of immigrants began arriving in Tuolumne County from the east and all parts of the world.  Gold strikes were popping up again at places like Curtis Creek, Sullivan’s Creek and Savage Diggings.  The town of Jacksonville sprung up where Wood’s Creek met Tuolumne River.  Texas Bar and Indian Bar, and near Melones, Robinson’s Ferry and Soldier’s Gulch overnight became pockets of gold seeking miners.  South of the River in Big Oak Flat, gold was discovered on Rattlesnake Creek.  Chinese Camp was established with a rapid growth of up to 5000 Chinese immigrants living and working the gold diggings there.

Mining in Columbia

The Tuolumne County foothills became covered with miners, gamblers and all sorts of people.  Crime became a problem and the original friendly atmosphere changed dramatically.  There was no California law or system of courts for settling disputes.  Each settlement made up rules of their own, about claims, how to stake one and how to hold on to it.  They used the old Mexican Alcalde system (similar to sheriffs and mayors), many times selecting men who were veterans of the Mexican War.  Justice was questionable at best.

Originating out of the Hildreth Diggings, Columbia found major new rich gold strikes in 1850.  Miners moved in from all the surrounding diggings and things grew and became more complicated.  In Columbia, as was the case with most of the southern mines, the camp was comprised of an overwhelming number of foreigners.  As mines played out, anti-foreign sentiment began to be voiced among American miners and they wanted help from the new legislature that was developing at the state level.

Columbia Placer Mining

The population in the mining camps of Tuolumne County continued to grow rapidly.  Conflict between miners over claims and lawlessness broke out, changing the earlier relationship between the people of various nationalities.  In the spring of 1850, the Foreign Miners Act was made law, requiring all foreigners to pay $20 per month tax for the privilege of mining in California.  At first many foreign miners left and many businesses fell on hard times.  Some foreign miners struck back with violence and the gold mining fields became dangerous as robberies and killings became frequent.  Vigilante groups formed to stop the crime.  However, they exercised their own law and punished many by hanging suspected criminals without legal trials.  Even after the repeal of the Foreign Miner’s Tax law, things were never the same and some trouble persisted up until 1858.

In 1853, other gold mining areas (the East Belt) above the Mother Lode mining camps were discovered up in hills near Soulsbyville and beyond.  The Confidence, Independence, Mary Ellen, Payboy and Little Jessie mines sprung up.  About 1855 Cherokee and Arastraville mines began just north of Tuolumne area and placer gold was found in Turnback Creek in 1856.  That same year, Cornish men, creating many more mining sites in this area, discovered the Eureka Quartz Mine in Soulsbyville.

By 1853, estimates of gold seekers had passed the quarter million mark.  Mining techniques changed from simple knives and panning to using special sluicing devices like rockers and long toms.  It graduated to diverting of waterways, damming, re-routing complete segments of rivers, and dredging using a floating barge to scoop up the ore.  The use of hydraulics’ mining started with simple washing down of small hillsides and graduated to the use of nozzles and monitors at extremely high pressures that could wash down portions of mountains.  Hard rock mining where the gold was integral to the quartz and devices like arrastras and stamping machines were used to crush ore and separate the gold with water, mercury and cyanide.  Each new concept increased the efficiency of mining and extracting the gold.  However, large investments in lumber, machinery and access to commercial water required men to work together and become part of larger corporations.  The era of the lone prospector was over; only corporations could afford the higher cost of extracting gold.  Depending on the value of gold, the cost of mining became a major consideration, which was never a factor in early days of 1848.  Major damage to the environment resulted from the mining and logging activities during the Gold Rush era.  New environmental laws increased the cost of mining and logging by the turn of the century.

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