Stories from the Grave
Thomas Robertson Stoddart
Final Resting Place Row 2, Plot 61
After several days of research for this sketch of Col. Tom, I happened upon the following article in the Union Democrat, Nov. 13, 2001. It was so well written, I felt it would be redundant to try and improve what was already a perfect summation of his life. Pat Perry kindly gave me permission to use the article for our newsletter.
Sadly, throughout his life Stoddart’s name was often misspelled Stoddard and unfortunately you will see this was also the case on his headstone.
Thomas Robertson Stoddart- “Col. Tom” By Pat Perry
San Francisco had it Emperor Norton and Sonora had its Col. Tom, said to have been born in Pennsylvania on April 14, 1811. However, most of what we now of Thomas Robertson Stoddart’s life was told by him and efforts to document many of his claims have proved futile.
An acquaintance of Stoddart’s from Philadelphia said he was the son of an English lord, and had been sent to America to be kept out of the way . In later live, Stoddart claimed to have been descended from a rich, noble Scottish family.
Whatever his actual beginnings, by how own accounts he lead a very interesting life. Evidently he was well educated, as he wrote several articles for local newspapers, including the Annals of Tuolumne County for the Tuolumne Courier.
He claimed to have been a newspaper editor and school master, and after he came to Sonora he advertised himself as a teacher of penmanship.
When he was 16, he was ready for adventure. In 1827, the Greeks were struggling for independence from Turkey and many Americans formed a volunteer corps to sail across the seas to assist the Greeks.
Stoddart joined the volunteers and sailed for Greece. According to Stoddart, he was complimented for the “coolness he had displayed while under enemy fire.” Apparently he continued his life as a soldier of fortune for several years, serving in a military or naval capacity in the forces of several foreign powers.
By 1848, however, he was back in Philadelphia.
Like many others, Stoddart was excited with the latest news from the California gold fields and couldn’t wait to start out for California , arriving here in the fall of 1849 via one of the northern wagon routes.
According to Stoddart’s obituary in the Tuolumne Independent, he was the “discoverer of the celebrated Gold Lake.” Gold Lake was said to be northeast of Downieville. There were some variations to the story, but central to all was that Stoddart with one or more companions found a mountain lake with gold nuggets shining up from the lake bottom. After finding the lake they were set upon by Indians and all killed except Stoddart. He was able to make it back to San Francisco telling everyone about his experience and the wonderful lake he had found. He promised that he could find the lake again.
In June of 1850, Stoddart and a selected group of men, apparently followed by hundreds not selected, struck out for the mountains in search of Gold Lake. Stoddart was thrilled to be the center of attention for such a wondrous adventure and at first led the group with great authority. But it soon became evident that he had no idea where he was going, and after leading the men to a lake that had no gold nuggets, they were eager to take out their frustrations on him. Although threatened with bodily harm or worse, calmer hearts prevailed and Stoddart was not harmed.
Until his dying day, Stoddart swore that he had seen Gold Lake and its gold nuggets.
Stoddart continued to mine around Downieville for the next few years and didn’t arrive in Tuolumne County until about 1857.
His first notice of Stoddart in Tuolumne County was when he responded to articles written in the Downievill Sierra Citizen newspaper. Stoddart questioned some of the facts obtained in the account and decided to write his own version, which he took to J.C. Duchow, then editor of the Tuolumne Courier. Stoddart wrote seven installments for the Courier which were entitled “Early Annals of Downieville and Neighborhood.”
Encouraged with the success of these articles, Stoddart began writing installments on the history of Tuolumne County. The first installment of the county’s saga was published on Feb. 23, 1861, in the Tuolumne Courier under the title of “Annals of Tuolumne County.” The history was published in 22 weekly installments, the last in the issue of Sept. 28, 1861.
According to Carlo De Ferrari, the annals preserve much of the early history of the county which might otherwise have been lost.
It is believed that Stoddart initially planned to publish more installments of the annals, but with the Civil War raging in the East and volunteers being recruited in Tuolumne County, it seemed more important to be a part of history than to write about it.
Stoddart was one of the first to volunteer his services with the “Tuolumne Rangers,” officially designated as Company E, Second Cavalry. There really wasn’t much for the company to do except for providing garrison duty at various outposts in California. They were mustered in at Camp Alert in San Francisco, then sent to Fort Humboldt in Northern California.
Later they were sent to Red Bluff and then Visalia. Stoddart was assigned to the Provost Marshal’s office in San Francisco, but was not happy in his assignment. On Dec. 7, 1862, he secured his discharge and returned to Sonora shortly afterward.
Stoddart maintained his belief in the Union cause and when Ulysses S. Grant ran for president in 1872, Stoddart was active in campaigning for him.
About this time, Stoddart was promoted, by public acclaim, from captain to colonel and was thereafter popularly known as “Col. Tom.”
After returning to Sonora he began to be actively interested in the Sonora Fire Department, an attachment which continued until his death.
At one time he presented the Washington Hose Company No. 3 with fire hooks, torches, and other equipment for which the company passed a resolution thanking him.
Stoddart was made inspector of Sonora’s Babcock fire extinguishers. He took his duties seriously and daily examined the fire extinguishers inter wooden boxed, located throughout the city.
Always being somewhat eccentric, as he grew older he became more so and became the target for practical jokes. The very earnestness with which he performed his tasks as inspector encouraged these pranks. Once a large dog was confined in a fire box which Stoddart was about to inspect. When he opened the door of the box, the dog sprang out to the surprise of the inspector.
Stoddart died on Sept, 6, 1878. His funeral was attended by nearly the entire community of Sonora. His body was escorted to its last resting place by the Sonora Brass Band and the three companies of the Sonora Fire Department. He was buried in the uniform of a fireman and the two rusty sabers which he had carried while in the service were placed by his side.
He donated his fireman’s hat and honorary medals to the Independent Hose Company, No 2 of which he was a member.
(Information for this article was taken from the “Introduction to the Annals of Tuolumne County,” written by Carlo De Ferrari.)