Historians say there’s a place up Dragoon Gulch on Woods Creek where a man was fatally stabbed in the back in June 1851 over a sale being paid in gold, and two of the accused killers were executed by Sonora citizens who used their arms and backs to haul the convicted men to their deaths below an oak tree in the same spot.
The murder of Capt. George Snow, who sold a long tom trough for washing gold-laden rock, dirt and mud to Mexican miners accused of killing him, was first covered by the Sonora Herald newspaper.
Mention of the Gold Rush murder in the earliest days of Sonora and Tuolumne County does not appear on any signs on Dragoon Gulch Trail. But it is mentioned in a Dragoon Gulch Trail history page online.
The exact location of the murder and the hanging is unknown, according to available historical records.
We’ll come back to the 1851 murder and the swift justice in a bit. For perspective on what’s new up in Dragoon Gulch, here’s trails advocate Karie Lew.
“I was there just last night,” Lew said in early May. “It was fading light. I had to watch my step more. There are more flowers. I think they’re called fairy lanterns. They were delightful. I saw some quail run across the trail in the past week or so, around dusk. There’s a profusion of fairy lanterns.”
Lew said it was nice because it’s so quiet and then you hear this cacophony of frogs down by the creek. Lew, who walks Dragoon Gulch Trail frequently, said she is also noticing some people are leaving little pieces of art, made of leaves and sticks.
“The last one I saw was a little heart up on the summit trail,” Lew said. “A little expression of love at the top. It’s so nice people are making these things and leaving them for others. Plus seeing all the lights of the city. It was nearly dark.”
More trail coming soon
Lew is helping coordinate the next trail addition with the nonprofit Volunteers for Outdoor California, which helps oversee trail construction projects. The plan will add another mile of single-track trail. It was approved by the City Council two months ago and it’s on target to happen over the course of about 48 hours in October.
Rachelle Kellogg, community development director for the city, has been working on where the new trail will be added. The existing trail network is 3.1 miles, Kellogg said Monday. Two trail segments, hopefully complete in October, will link the center of the summit trail to the creekside trail and the top of the vista trail to the creekside trail.
“When the Dragoon Gulch Trail is fully developed we anticipate a total of 7.5 miles of trails,” Kellogg said.
Lew said she is impressed with the enthusiasm from scores of local people who live in the Sonora area, Tuolumne County, and elsewhere in the Mother Lode..
“I’m recruiting heavily from locals here,” Lew said. “Anyone out here who wants to come and join in they’re more than welcome.”
Lew said people are excited. They love the trails system here and they want to help. She’s had 60 to 70 people tell her they want to help.
“Our max on volunteers is 150 and we’re about halfway there,” Lew said. “But I don’t want to discourage anyone from signing up.”
A first day on-site for organizers and volunteers who intend to camp is set for Oct. 11. Work days are scheduled Oct. 12-13. Camping is approved for volunteers at Woods Creek Rotary Park the nights of Oct. 11 and Oct. 12 only. Since most volunteers are expected to be from the Sonora area and Tuolumne County, Lew said she anticipates many volunteers will prefer to spend nights at home.
A murder and two hangings
Lew said she remembers reading about some of the history of Dragoon Gulch, but she doesn’t remember a murder up there. She said a murder would seem consistent with the history of Sonora and Tuolumne County.
Murders were common in Sonora and Tuolumne County back in the mid-1800s, city and county historians say. Miners killed each other over gold dust, gold nuggets, mining claims, card games, food, drink and women. Robbers killed miners, ferry toll collectors, bridge toll collectors and others for their gold and gold dust.
Sonora was established in 1848 by miners from the Mexican state of Sonora. The early settlement was known as Sonoran Camp. The Gold Rush, gold mining and supporting newly arrived gold seekers from around the world were driving forces behind Sonora’s early development. By 1849 the population had grown to 5,000 people, about the same number who live there today.
Mining began in Sonora in 1848 and one of the first documented discoveries was in Woods Creek, near today’s Sonora High School, in March 1849, historians say. The notch Woods Creek flowed through was named Dragoon Gulch for a group of mounted horseback soldiers from the U.S. Army who stayed there and mined for gold in the ravine. Historians say it’s unknown if the soldiers were deserters or if they had legal time off to mine for gold. Soldiers probably started mining the gulch in early 1849.
Woods Creek had water but it didn’t have enough to support water-needy gold miners year-round. In the early days some gold-rich gravel from Dragoon Gulch was hauled out two miles northeast to springs at Springfield to be washed. Other miners dug wells or used water impounded from ravines at the head of Dragoon Gulch. The first outside water supply came from Sullivan’s Creek in February 1851.
By mid-1851 Dragoon Gulch was a hive of lucrative activity, busy with miners and water-assisted mining. According to the Sonora Herald newspaper and other accounts, on June 10, 1851, Capt. George W. Snow was robbed and murdered at Dragoon Gulch by three Mexicans. Two of the killers, Antonio Cruz and Patricio Janori, were captured, tried at Shaws Flat by a people's lynch law court, and hanged at the murder site in Dragoon Gulch.
Snow was 31, described as well-liked and respected and known for carrying quantities of gold and gold dust. Snow had sold the long tom trough, for washing gold-laden deposits, to Cruz, Janori and a third man, and on that day Snow came to their tent or cabin in Dragoon Gulch to receive his payment.
Inside, one of the men weighed out gold or pretended to do so, and someone stabbed Snow at least two times in the back. Snow broke free, got outside the tent, and yelled out. The killers fled. According to various accounts, Snow verbally identified his killers before he died hours later that day after sundown.
Dragoon Gulch was teeming with hundreds of miners. Investigation showed the killers had planned ahead. Inside the accused men’s dwelling, a shallow grave was covered in rawhide, blankets and a table.
News of the shallow grave aroused the anger of people in Sonora, even more than initial news of the murder.
A posse formed to find Cruz and Janori, and they were located in the outlaw ferry town of Melones, over on the Stanislaus River.
An account published recently in The Union Democrat newspaper detailed how citizens of Sonora hastily carried out the two death sentences. A rope was thrown over a branch of the oak.
“At one end the prisoner is haltered around the neck while at the other end some 20 to 30 volunteers stand by and wait for the signal to heave, tug-of-war style,” Bob Holton wrote for The Union Democrat. “When the order is given, the doomed man is violently launched into eternity in a manner that extinguishes sensibility and life almost instantly.”
The bodies of Cruz and Janori were then buried in the same shallow grave they had allegedly prepared for Snow, according to Holton and other accounts.
According to Tuolumne County historian Carlo M. De Ferrari, a former slave and black pioneer in Sonora named Tom Gilman owned claims in Dragoon Gulch in the 1850s and he was called upon 20 to 30 years later to help identify skeletal remains and bones found in graves in the Woods Creek watershed.
Gilman had come from Tennessee. The California Gold Rush was triggered in January 1848 by discovery of shiny yellow fragments in Sutter Creek in today’s El Dorado County, about 80 miles north of where Sonoran Camp would soon be established. A year later, Gilman and his master sailed more than 13,000 miles from New York City, around Cape Horn through wild, dangerous seas off the southern tip of South America, to arrive in San Francisco in September 1849. The journey took them more than six months.
By late spring 1850, Gilman’s master had set up a trading tent at Shaws Flat, above and upstream from Dragoon Gulch. He took part in streambed placer gold mining and land speculation. Gilman worked his master’s claim in Dragoon Gulch and was allowed to keep some of the gold he found. In July 1853, Gilman’s master recorded an agreement to free Gilman from slavery for a payment of $1,000. His former master left the Mother Lode soon after, and Gilman stayed in the Sonora area to begin life as a free man.
A skeleton, a skull, big teeth
Gilman lived in a cabin at Shaws Flat. He made money loaning sums to other residents, and in 1857 he was part owner of the Old Dragoon Claim near where Sonora-Shaws Flat Road crossed Dragoon Gulch. The claim dated back to 1850 and it was bound on one side by the Hell Roarers Claim. He and four partners built a tail race drain that ran 1,500 feet along the east fork of Dragoon Gulch, which eventually became known as Gilman Flume.
In 1860, Gilman was still placer mining in Dragoon Gulch, and in 1870 he built a reservoir in upper Dragoon Gulch. By the 1880s and 1890s, Gilman was known as an old-timer with firsthand knowledge of the boom days in Dragoon Gulch. According to De Ferrari’s account in a 1990 edition of the Tuolumne County Historical Society Quarterly, Gilman was called on in his later years to try to identify human remains unearthed from a shallow grave in Dragoon Gulch.
Gilman looked at the skeleton and the skull and quickly named the deceased. He said the body dated back to the violent period in spring 1851 when Capt. Snow was murdered in Dragoon Gulch. Around that same time, several other men, lone miners working on their own, had disappeared. Some people figured the men had left for richer diggings. Gilman said the skull belonged to one of those men, and he was sure of it because the skull had unusually large, distinctive teeth.
This gold miner with the big teeth, buried in a shallow grave in Dragoon Gulch, had apparently been murdered too. His killer was never detected or located.
That’s the way it used to be in the Mother Lode, historians say. Gold and greed were everyday factors. Many people met untimely deaths. Frontier justice ruled. Gillman died in December 1911 and The Union Democrat paid the former slave front-page tribute.
Contact Guy McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.