Claim and Property Rights in the Goldfields of the American West (Part 2)
Despite the fact that the various goldfields of the American West were without concrete laws governing mining claim and associated property rights, order did evolve out of the chaos of the gold camps. As we've already seen, this was an unwritten law that was accepted by each miner (or group of miners) first on scene. Again, as far as claims and property were concerned it was "first come, first served" in the early days of the camps.
Sealed with a Handshake
A couple of my mining comrades in arms, "Muskrat" and "Sniper," both expressed some good comments at the close of my previous post. To elaborate further on their thoughts, personal honesty and a sense of honor could be found quite readily among the miners of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Back then, the spoken word and a firm handshake meant something and often sealed the deal between two parties. Lest you think I look back in time with my glasses tinted with too much rose color, the opposite was true as well. Yes, there were thieves, liars, con artists, and other types of dishonorable and dishonest men (and women) back in those days, but they were the exception...not the rule. Whether this fact remains true in our current century is up for debate. I'd like to think so, but I know better and so do you I suspect. A handshake on a deal nowadays could land you in hot water if there's no paperwork backing things up. Either way, the fact remains that unspoken or unwritten laws DID carry their weight in gold in the mining camps of the American West and a man's handshake was said to be as honorable as it was firm. "Muskrat" keyed in on this point and I thank him for that.
Current vs. Old Claim Woes
I can relate to "Sniper's" comments just as easily. He's had some issues with claim jumpers, or at least the evidence points in that direction. Sniper stated that he can't be on his claim 24/7 and he's absolutely correct. Not just from a practical or personal standpoint, but from a legal one. Current mining laws governing unpatented placer claims clearly state that a miner cannot build any sort of domicile on his or her claim, nor can he or she remain camped on that claim longer than two weeks at a pop (I am assuming the latter is still in effect). Aside from the increased fees and county taxes, one reason I let my last placer claim in Northern California lapse was that I was sick of finally getting out there from New Mexico once or twice a year and finding the place trashed and dug up. Now who does that sort of thing? Yep, claim jumpers. People who are NOT honorable and whose handshake is akin to the bite of a viper. The point I'm attempting to make here does not concern my former claim woes or "Sniper's" current ones. It has to do with the core of this series of posts. Back in the old mining camps and gold strikes of the West, you lived where you worked! You had to because the unwritten law of the day required your presence on your claim or it could become forfeit. More than that, your claim was your home, your immediate hunting ground, your source of water (if it existed nearby), and the fountain of your livelihood at that time and place. You either mined and made it work, or you walked away and opened the door for others to "jump" your claim. Nowadays it seems your claim will be jumped regardless.
("No man shall hold but one claim.")
The "Real" Basis
Now back to the topic at hand. I'm not trying to make a case here for miners of the early gold camps creating unwritten claim and property laws in a total vacuum. There's no doubt that the Anglo-Saxon penchant for "self government" ran strong in the blood of American miners. After all, that was the basis for revolting against Britain and creating a new nation, minus the yoke of outside interference and control. It may come as a shock to some of you, but the "real" basis for the mining "law of the land" principle in American goldfields could be found in Spanish and Mexican mining statutes. To back this up, allow me to quote attorney Henry Halleck in 1860:
"The miners of California (and the West) have generally adopted as being best suited to their particular wants, the main principles of of the mining laws of Spain and Mexico, by which the right of property in mines is made to depend upon discovery and development. That is, discovery is made the source of claim and property title and development (or working a claim), the continuance of that title. These two principles constitute the basis of all our local laws and regulations regarding mining rights."
Halleck was a smart man and knew his stuff. He was backed up in this regard by Gregory Yale, who wrote an extensive treatise on mining law in 1867. Yale argued that giving American miners all the credit for deriving their "own" mining and property codes was exaggerated, to put it mildly. He went on to say that on closer examination, those unwritten or unspoken laws of the American gold camps could be "easily recognized" as coming from "other" mining traditions. These had originated in Spain and had crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Mexico and Central and South America, and from there to the California Gold Rush and elsewhere in the American West via Hispanic miners who had worked under those codes in their native countries. And despite any howls to the contrary, California was Mexican until the "Bear Flag" had been rather abruptly raised there. I rest my case in this regard and heartily agree with both Halleck and Yale on this point. Here's the ironic thing. In the California goldfields and elsewhere, miners of Hispanic descent were often forced off of claims and treated poorly. Not as badly as the Chinese were treated in mining camps, but not welcomed with open arms in many instances either. Hispanic miners of the Gold Rush period had prior mining experience and expertise and they shared that knowledge with the Anglo Argonauts. Despite their contributions they remained, for the most part, second-class mining citizens in the gold camps of the West. So it goes...
(A group of Hispanic gold miners back in the day.)
I'm not relaying this information to you to ruffle anyone's feathers or play race cards. Just stating facts that are noteworthy for any small-scale gold miner who loves mining history almost as much as mining itself. After all, white, black, brown, or yellow...we are all miners. That's what truly counts.
More to come...
(c) Jim Rocha 2018
Questions? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org