California Statehood and the Establishment of Tuolumne County

In late 1849 the acting Governor of California, General Bennett Riley, called on John Sutter to participate in writing a state constitution, even though California was not yet a state or even a territory.  The United States Congress usually decided which lands were acquired from countries had adjourned without organizing a territorial government for California.  California contained more people than required for statehood and thousands more were arriving weekly.  Riley realizing the institutions left over from the Mexican era of government was inadequate, organized a convention without authorization from the United States Congress to cope with the large and growing population.  Seeking statehood in September 1849, forty-eight delegates, representing the diversity of Californians from all walks of life, gathered in Monterey.

The delegates adopted a bill of rights 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 many aspects of the boundaries of the state and settled on the present day boundary.  After six weeks, on October 12, 1849, they completed their work.  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 the area in the first State Legislature located in San Jose.  The next month the legislature met and selected Colonel John Fremont to be California’s first senator.

On February 18, 1850, Tuolumne County was established by the California Legislature and was given its name and divided into the six townships of Sonora, Mormon Camp, Jacksonville, Don Pedro’s Bar and Tuolumne City.  Tuolumne is translated  by some as a Me-Wuk word “Talmalamne” meaning a cluster of stone dwellings.  At the first California Legislature meeting in 1848-1849, the town of Sonora, named after the Mexican state of Sonora, became the county seat of Tuolumne County, only under a different name.  When Malcolm M. Stewart, who represented the San Joaquin district in the Assembly, went to that first meeting, he called the town “Stewart, formerly known as Sonoranian Camp.”  The name was changed back to Sonora by petition and an amendment approved by the State Senate on April 18, 1850.  By May 1851, the city of Sonora was incorporated.

In March 1850, Fremont and the other elected members of the California congressional delegation arrived in Washington, D.C.  Intense debates over slavery ensued for the next six months by many notable statesmen—Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster.  It was Senator Benton, John Fremont’s father-in-law, and Stephen Douglas who finally guided the passage of the Compromise of 1850.  California became the thirty-first state of the Union in September 1850 and was admitted as a “free” state.  Along with the its great increase in wealth, the pressing need for government, law and order and financial institutions, California skipped the normal process of becoming a territory first.

Tuolumne County completed a new brick courthouse, replacing the original wooden structure.  Today the courthouse is still in use and is on the National Register of Historic Places.