Sawmill Flat was named for two sawmills built at the fork of Woods Creek some three miles southeast of the town of Columbia. The mill provided employment for nearly 1,000 Mexicans and Peruvians. Mining towns repeatedly burned to the ground when built exclusively from lumber. Eventually sawmills disappeared when mining towns switched to using brick as a building material instead of lumber. In this territory, most Anglos preferred to work the mines and stayed clear of the mills.
Although nothing remains of the town of Sawmill Flat, it is better known as the headquarters for the legendary murderer and bandit, Joaquin Murieta.
Folklore, fiction and fact about Joaquin Murieta’s life, crimes and death are tough to untangle. Like Billy the Kid and many other notorious figures of the West, the fictional stories are more exciting for audiences to hear than the known facts. Murieta’s life story in its many forms has been widely depicted in more than a dozen novels, films, television programs and in music. “The Ballad of Joaquin Murieta” is one of many songs composed about him. What is generally accepted as true consists of:
- He was one of five notorious Joaquins who stole, burned and viciously murdered miners and spared no ethnic group.
- Called the “Robin Hood of El Dorado” for his fight again Anglo oppression.
- Inspired the creation of the movie and television Zorro character.
- The California legislature assembled the California Rangers in 1853 to capture and kill Murieta’s gang. The legislature paid the rangers $1,000 reward although the murdered men were not positively identified.
- His severed head and that of 3-fingered Jack preserved in a bottle and paraded at different mining camps is generally accepted as true. The jar was on display in San Francisco and destroyed during the 1906 earthquake and fire.
The historical marker is placed at the site where he was thought to have been fatally shot and killed in a gunfight. The marker is located at 22041 Sawmill Flat Road, 2 miles southeast of Columbia. This area is also a part of the Mark Twain and Bret Harte trail.
A treasure of natural wonders and lively gold rush history, Tuolumne County offers visitors vivid scenery. A portion of Yosemite National Park lies within the county, along with giant redwood groves and impressive geological features. Both Bret Harte and Mark Twain wrote stories set in this area during the Gold Rush.