Claim and Property Rights in the Goldfields of the American West (Part 1)

Many people believe that the gold rushes of the American West (1848-early 1900s) were simply chaotic "scrambles" to get in on the best gold by any means necessary and there is some truth to this theory. In fact, there was no legal basis whatsoever for securing claim and/or property rights in the goldfields of the American West. At the same time, the "order" that eventually developed out of all this chaos actually set the tone (to a great degree, anyway) for mining claim and property rights as we know them today.

"First Come, First Served"

In virtually every gold rush (both great and small) of the American West the acknowledged principle governing claim and property rights was what I'll call the "first come, first served" standard. In other words, those who got to the goldfields early took what they saw as their ground and their "property." And by property I mean mean anything and everything from what the miners already had in their possession to water rights, trees for wood, areas for game, and anything else that was part and parcel of their claimed ground and immediate environs. This might sound heavy handed to us today, but back then in the absence of formal mining laws or law in general, it made perfect sense and essentially became the "law of the land" in the earliest periods of the various rushes. This "law of the land" principle was based on a common sense of fairness among miners and shaped by the cultural codes and customs of the day. To put it another way, there were certain things that were acceptable and certain things that were not. Some things considered unacceptable were thievery, claim jumping, and unprovoked violence or murderous intent. Or anything else that would interfere with, disrupt, or otherwise prevent a miner from doing what he needed to do...mine for gold to make living (or hit the "big one"). So the "Golden Rule" of the mining camps was to help others when and where you could, lend a hand, and act out the Judaeo-Christian ethic most miners of the day were raised with. At least these were the guiding principles that governed the earliest periods of development of goldfields in both the upper and lower 48 states or territories (as the case may have been) back in the day. These mining codes or "laws" as they eventually became were not etched in granite, however. They weren't written up, signed, sealed, and delivered to a judge or courthouse. They were unspoken and unwritten but understood just the same by the majority of miners in the gold camps. Anyone who displayed by action they did NOT understand these codes or laws became outcasts or criminals deserving of various forms of punishment created by the miners' themselves in the context of the time and place.

The Sin of All Sins

When miners staked a claim back then they did so not as a long-term prospect, but to determine its potential (which you and I both know varied widely then just as it does now). Some claims are better than others. Some are dynamite while others are shit, to put it bluntly. So it is and so it was back then as well. If a miner or association or "company" of miners decided their claimed ground was a humbug, they opted for greener grass...that is, any other "open" area that could be claimed. However, this did not have anything to do with "jumping" someone else's claim by hook or by crook. Most miners of the day played it straight and close to the chest. And when they vacated a claim there was always another miner to step into those abandoned works to try and make a go of it. But God help the man who jumped a valid claim. This was the sin of all sins, surpassing even the seven deadly ones. And the justice meted out to those who made this transgression was swift and brutal in most instances, except where cowards bowed to bullies. But a miner's claim was his life blood and the life blood of his companions and comrades. So violence often erupted over such transgressions. That was one aspect of the unwritten law of mining camp claims and property. And it hasn't changed all that much today...minus the actual violence perhaps.

("My claim, sir!")

The Rule of Thumb

There were no state, Federal, or territorial laws governing mining and mining-related property in the boom and bust mining camps of the American West. None whatsoever. It's a two-edged sword perhaps, but look at the mining laws and regulations we face today as small-scale gold miners. Makes you yearn for the old days, doesn't it? Freedom to choose, freedom to come and go, freedom to mine as you saw fit without petty bureaucrats or mini-tyrants lording it over you and making you dance to their tune. But there was no law and order either...however you may define those terms for yourself. You had to stand up for yourself and your comrades to the fullest extent possible in the face of depredation and potential violence. Again, mining claims were under no law of real or concrete order. Each claim fell under the unwritten law of the "law of the land" as that unspoken law was discerned and accepted by the miners themselves. After a gold rush camp was in full swing miners did hold meetings to discuss and sort out issues regarding claims but any enforcement of the same was as vague and diaphanous as morning mist in the mountains since there were no written claim laws. Back in those days, the basic rule was this...a claim had to be worked to be considered "valid." That was the rule of thumb. You couldn't get away with many of the claim manipulations I've seen in my mining used as recreational camping spots, claims lying fallow as the claim owner tried to get higher prices for it on eBay or elsewhere, or claims mistakenly assumed to be real property. The miners of the past had a hard and fast rule about fallow claims...if they weren't being actively worked they could then be "jumped" or claimed over.

(A modern claim boundary monument or marker.)

Boundary Lines and Codes

Early on in a rush claim boundaries often meandered and were as mysterious as the pyramids of old Egypt. The first miners in a gold area accepted someone else's stated claim boundary lines as valid, whether those lines were adequately marked or not marked at all. Obviously, this created a certain amount of dissension and frustration at times, but only rarely did boundary line disputes devolve into violence of one sort or another. However, as more miners rushed into a gold strike area the need for more accurate and well-defined boundary lines became readily apparent. At this point the miners or their representatives from each claim would meet to sort things out. For example, in 1851 at Poverty Hill in the Southern Motherlode Region of California, a meeting of the minds created nine separate "codes" governing claims in the area. Two of these placed limits on the size of claims, two restricted the number of claims that could be "claimed," another outlined stringent claim boundary marking procedures, and the last two required that a miner or his compatriots be on the claim or claims and actively involved in digging for gold. The miners brought these codes or rules or laws forward. Not bureaucrats or politicians. In fact, if some outsider without mining expertise had shown up to "direct" the miners in the fine points of any governmental directives aimed at their claims or their work, that poor soul would have been at risk for being tarred and feathered and run out of camp on a rail, with hoots and laughter and catcalls as part of his fond farewell.

There's more to come...stay tuned.

(c) Jim Rocha 2018

Questions? E-mail me at


  1. Back then it all boiled down to honor. Your word meant everything, go back on it or cheat, you were only vermin from that point on to anyone that knew you. Some didn't care and preyed on those that did care........not a whole lot different than today, except the lawyers and police get involved.
    My two year stint as "Water Master" (I quit that horrible job) was a carry over from this very thing. Applied mostly for agriculture now, water rights are still measured in "Miner's inches" or CFS (Cubic Feet per Second). Learning that was the only thing that I enjoyed about that job. Basically, it was first come, first served, as you say. First in line got the most water, new comers get what is left over while it lasts. When the creek gets low, they get no more water.
    Today, water rights are bought with the property, but there are still yearly fees.
    As always JR, good post! Thank you!

    1. Most miners of that era were honorable men. Most. But as always, there were snakes and varmints of one sort or another waiting to jump a claim or steal someone's goods.

  2. I have had claim jumpers this summer.
    There are at least two places I have found where it appears 99% positive somebody has snuck in there and done some dredging.
    And I'm not sure yet how to keep it from happening again.
    I can't just live up there 24/7.

    1. You hit the key point there Don. Same thing for me when I still had my N. Yuba claim. I could only get out there from New Mexico once or maybe...twice a year. And every time I did I found where jumpers had camped , tossed their trash, and mined. Back then though, men lived on their claims. That was their homes AND workplace.

  3. Sniper & JR, it seems a mine claim ain't worth much anymore......maybe it never really was.

    1. They're not worth it for me any longer, that's for sure.


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