Life in gold rush Sonora

The amount of gold mined near the town of Sonora was so great, and attracted so many men to the area, that no attempt to accurately weigh or measure it was made for normal day to day transactions. A pinch, or the amount that could be held between the thumb and forefinger, was called a dollar. A teaspoon full passed for an ounce; a wine glass was worth a hundred dollars, and a tumbler a thousand dollars. As the word spread Sonora’s population reached 5000 men by the end of 1849. And on Sundays, when miners from the surrounding flats and gulches came to town to buy supplies, get their mail, or make the rounds of the many saloons and gambling houses, it could climb to 10,000.

Sonora CA 1852 by George H. Goddard

Like most mining boom towns it was a rough place filled with rowdy miners, but there were men of intelligence and character there too. Some became members of the constitutional convention of 1849, others became prominent lawyers and judges and from these men a system of law and order evolved, and along with it a sort of town organization was agreed to and put into effect by the fall of 1849 whose purpose was to build a hospital for the sick. Many miners lived on a diet of salted meat and maybe some beans and suffered from scurvy. So the Sonora Samarians provided a comfortable shelter for the ailing, paid a steward and a nurse eight dollars a day each to provide care, mostly by feeding them lime juice, brought in at five dollars a bottle, along with fresh potatoes and vegetables.

Because Sonora was hastily built almost entirely of wood and sat in the arid Southern mines, exposed to a hot summer sun it was a highly combustible place. And like so many other gold rush towns it had many fires, the first hit in November of 1849. The flames destroyed most of the town and the threat of theft from the more rowdy elements in what remained was great while the fires still raged Charles Bassett organized a police force of ex-members of Stevenson’s 1st Regiment of New York Volunteers, most still in uniform and armed with muskets, who guarded the property of those lucky enough to have not been burned out without a single item reported as stolen.

Monte in the mines

By May of 1851 a  new town council was in place and in only a few weeks of meetings passed a number of ordinances. One, against gambling, prohibited ‘French monte, three-card games, the loop or string game, thimbles or lottery, the Chinese puzzle or lock game, or any game having in its tendency deception or fraud.’ Another imposed a license fee of 50 cents per day for every ‘faro bank, monte bank, roulette or other gaming table or game of chance.’ And yet another ordinance said that dancing saloons would pay a license fee of $80 a month but repealed all previous resolutions closing those houses at midnight. That same month the Sonora Herald announced that there had not been a single murder in town for two weeks.



  1. hi my name is chris weakley and i love history mainly about mining i have a great idea for a book and would love to tell you about it and maybe you can help me it about mining the then and now if you can give me a call my home number is 209-532-1501 plz i really need your help and input
    thank you for your time
    christopher weakley

  2. Seems a lot of the early mining towns suffered the dreaded ‘fire’. That this town was able to put into place a workable government is fascinating. Cripple Creek and Victor both had their devastating fires and came back stronger after.

    • Fires were a problem in places with wooden buildings and gas lamps, open fires and wood cook stoves. And there was little on the way of fire protection. We’ve learned a lot.

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