First settled in the summer of 1848 by a party of miners from Sonora, Mexico, the place was
logically named Sonorian Camp, later shortened to Sonora. The area was one of rich placers;
contemporary reports tell of three Frenchmen who took out three and a half pounds of gold in less
than three hours work. At a spot known as Holdens Gardens, a party of eight men unearthed the
famous Holden Chispa, a gold nugget weighing over twenty-eight pounds. The owners turned down an
offer of $4,500 at the time of the discovery. When all the mining was panned and done, the
placers had produced over $11 million in gold.
The first Americans to settle in Sonorian Camp probably arrived in the spring of 1849. Among
those men were were George Washington Keeler, R. S. Ham, Joshua Holden, Emanuel Linoberg, Casimir
Labetoure, Theophilus Dodge, Terence Clark, James Lane, and Alonzo Green. Ham was elected the
camp’s first Alcalde and gained quite a reputation for dispensing frontier justice with an
News of the rich diggings traveled quickly and by the fall of 1849, Sonorian Camp was the
largest mining town for miles in any direction. With a population in the thousands, the town
suffered numerous problems brought on by overcrowding. Food supplies were short and unvaried; the
unbalanced diet resulted in a serious epidemic of scurvy which caused many deaths. So severe was
the problem, on November 7 of 1849, the camp organized a town government whose first civic
enterprise was providing a hospital to care for the sick. Doses of lime juice, fresh potatoes and
other items rich in vitamin C helped stop the epidemic.
As no wagon roads were present during the first few years, travel to and from Sonora took
place on foot, or by horse or mule. Supplies were brought in from Stockton, seventy miles
distant, and during 1849 and 1850 the travel between these two towns was so constant that, “the
campfires along the route were near enough together to show the traveler his way, even at night.”
When Tuolumne County was created in February of 1850, Sonora was made (and still remains) the
county seat, and soon became known as the “Queen of the Southern Mines.”
Sonora survived several disastrous fires over the years, the first occurring in 1849 when
flames nearly consumed the entire canvas and brush camp. The next major blaze took place on June
18 of 1852. At one o’clock in the morning, a fire started in the “Hôtel de France,” which was
located on the plaza facing Washington Street. Known simply as “The Great Fire,” it burned nearly
every building in town, only those far enough removed from the flames being saved. One life was
lost, a Swiss named Mollier, who was in the Hotel de France when the fire started. The total
losses exceeded $700,000. After the fire was extinguished, some rogues tried to jump the land on
which buildings had stood, but their vile attempts were thwarted by the posting of an armed
Sonora’s worst year for fires proved to be 1853. On August 17, October 3, and November 2,
fires ravaged the town, causing thousands of dollars in damages and once again taking one life.
But the citizens bounced back after each conflagration, rebuilding, restocking and carrying on
business. Most of the original Gold Rush buildings which remain in town today date from 1853 or
after as a result of these severe fires.
Today, Sonora’s location and the activity associated with being the county seat combine to
create a busy and prosperous town. It’s easy to miss the historic sites and buildings while
driving through town, as the traffic is usually pretty heavy and before you know it, you’re past.
Stop, get out of the car, and take a walk along downtown Washington Street. Many of these
buildings date from the early 1850’s, making the town a favorite location for film makers
requiring an “authentic” western town look. In addition, numerous other historic sites and
structures are located on the streets adjoining Washington and can be reached with a short walk.