Claim and Property Rights in the Goldifelds of the American West (Part 3)

It's time to move forward once again with this series of posts. Some of you may think these "gleanings" from the mining history of the West have no real meaning for you but in thinking that you're dead wrong. Everything I write in this series has a direct relationship to you and your mining endeavors. If you cant see that...well, more's the pity.

A Civil Matter

So the astute comments keep rolling in. Bernadette L. said she's in the process of filing a claim in Northern California and was wondering what sort of legal recourse she would have if she found "jumpers" busily at work on it. As I replied to her in the comments section of that post, I really didn't know the answer to her question from a legal standpoint but I'd try and sort things out for her. Then "Sniper" pitched in with some very good advice to Bernie that pretty much follows the path in a "real" claim jumping situation. First off, your only first-line legal defense against a claim jumper or jumpers who blow you off or are overtly hostile when you confront them courteously (assuming that's your initial approach) is to get on your cell phone and call your local county sheriff's office. If you're wondering why sheriffs would get involved in a claim jump situation, your answer is that you pay county taxes each year on your claim (or you should be doing so, anyway) and the county sherriff's office works for yep...the county your claim is in. But many claim areas have no cell phone coverage (as "Sniper" noted) and even if you get through to the sherriff's office, don't expect them to come hauling ass to help you out with a claim jumping situation immediately unless there have been threats of, or actual, violence (not the path you want to take, by the way) or other forms of potential criminal behavior. You see, a standard claim jumping situation is a civil matter, not a criminal one unless there are extenuating circumstances or repeat offenses that you have proof of.

The Long and Short of It

Again, as "Sniper" suggested, gather as much physical evidence (cell photos of them and any illegal work they've done, license plate numbers, make-model-type of vehicle the jumpers are in, and so on). Some claim owners use game cameras to gather this sort of evidence or to provide an "eye" on their claim while they're away. But game cameras won't prove useful in most desert or dry placer claims...they're too easily spotted. Otherwise, you really can't do much except to inform jumpers that they are illegally working your claim and politely ask them to back off and NOT dig, metal detect, or pan on your claim (let alone use a dredge, highbanker, dry washer, and so on). Most good folks who are on your claim unintentionally (and some who are intentionally there) will accede to your request, apologize, and stop what they're doing. Those who won't stop doing their dirty deeds on your claim regardless of what you say (whether politely or in anger) are going to be tough nuts to crack without a lawyer or the sheriff's office backing you up. You can file a report with the nearest BLM office (good luck on that one) or if you have gotten their names and personal info somehow, someway, you can take them to court. That'll cost time and money and the outcome may...or may in your favor. Who knows? So in other words, you're pretty much screwed, blued, and tattooed if push comes to shove. That's the long and the short of it. And PLEASE don't start this half-crazed shit that some nutcases do on their claims by threatening physical violence, brandishing a rifle or pistol, or otherwise acting like you own the land your claim is on. The point of fact remains that you DON'T own that 20 acres and acting like a damn fool ain't gonna change that. It's only gonna result in something very bad happening to someone, with the end result you might be facing a judge or jury (not the jumpers themselves) on serious charges.

Take Note

Now let's transport ourselves back in time to the goldfields of the American West. Once again, claim jumping was considered a very serious offense that could include criminal intent. The idea that claim jumping was a "civil" matter for the courts to decide wasn't even a gleam in the eyes of the miners of the time. It was a serious offense that had to be dealt with directly, firmly, and with consistency over time. In extreme situations in the old mining camps violence toward claim jumpers was considered acceptable or even righteous, as were some of the harsh punishments meted out to claim transgressors or those who stole or vandalized a miner's property. There was little latitude in this regard in the goldfields. So what is unacceptable today regarding mining claims and claim jumpers is vastly different from what was acceptable in 1853, 1867, or 1878. However, you need to understand this if you're a current-day claim owner. I'd say probably 90%-99% of you guys and gals who own claims don't work them 24-7, 365 days a year (with or without weather considerations). In other words, you're not a full-time gold miner. Nor are your unpatented claims the complete or full source of your annual income in most cases. Finally, your domicile of residence is NOT on your unpatented claim. So take note. For the old timers who worked the goldfields of the American West just the reverse was true in the majority of instances. It was a life or death struggle of sorts where one's livelihood was at stake, not to mention being able to gather enough gold to provide at least one good meal on a daily basis.

I've Been There Too

So, does all this mean I am discounting your legal rights as a mining claim owner or trying to minimize how upsetting it is to find jumpers on your claim? Of course not. I've been right there with you for long periods in my small-scale mining career and I hate the claim jumping thing as much as anyone. In fact I downright despise it and those who do it intentionally. I'd like to put my size 12 boot in their asses at the very least. But I've learned that your rights as a claim owner in this regard are "limited" (for lack of a better term). You should always take the "high road" approach with claim jumpers and let them know what's going on...that they are on your claim and cannot do any mining or treasure hunting on it. Taking the "low road" approach with threats, intimidation, weapon brandishing, or even telling jumpers they are trespassing is not gonna get you anywhere from a legal standpoint. You don't own the land your claim is on so there is NO trespass law in effect. Anyone can come onto your claim anytime and camp, fish, hunt, hike, shoot, or do anything else they want as long as those activities are not illegal in that time and place. They just can't do ANY sort of mining activity on your claim. So you see...we've come full circle here.

 (A proper claim notice sign. Note it says nothing about trespassing.)

What You Do is Your Thing

To tell you the truth, I'm glad I'm not a claim owner any longer. Early on in my mining career it was a good thing without a lot of expense, hassle, or frustration involved. But I got really tired of the BS as the decades went by. And as an "absentee landlord" with my last couple of claims being hundreds of miles away claim jumpers had free reign pretty much. That was too sour a note for me and the rest was history. So what you do with your claims and anyone who might jump them is your thing. Like "Sniper," I recommend you politely ask them not to mine on your claim, gather "evidence," and if need be call the county sheriff's office. But trying to pull an Earp brothers confrontation against a claim-jumping Ike or Billy Clanton is the absolute worst thing you could ever do. Your claim is NOT the OK Corral.

(End result of the OK Corral confrontation.)

I'm just saying...

(c) Jim Rocha 2018

Questions? E-mail me at


  1. I really appreciate these articles Jim!
    It sure makes for interesting food for thought.
    Any thoughts on what a claim owners liability would be if:

    Upon encountering a illegal dredger the claim owner jumps on the side of the dredge and turns it upside in the water?

    Upon encountering a illegal hard headed gold panner or sluicer, would it be okay to take a dump on or piss on their equipment?
    If you do that while they are using it is that assault?

    If the claim owner suddenly became ill because of being robbed of their gold and without warning started vomiting and blowing chunks on the claim jumpers and their metal detector, or whatever, would you be in trouble for getting sick like that?

    You could tell the person not to worry about HIV, that your doctor has it under control with drugs.
    (Which I am not afflicted with by the way. I'm not the least bit gay)

    Do you think that trained monkeys with machetes roaming around the claim could possibly result in liability issues for the claim owner?

    I'm just asking for SWIM.

    Thanks again Jim and have a wonderful day!

  2. So.......let me get this straight....
    1)You file a claim and pay the fee to have exclusive mineral rights to an area.
    2)You get the "privilege" of paying yearly taxes on your claim.
    3)You are required to do yearly work on your claim to be considered active.
    4)You can only stay on your claim for 14 days at a time.
    5) You may be required to file an environmental impact statement before being "allowed" to work your claim.
    6) If these rules are violated by you, you can loose your claim or be fined for abuse, but if someone else violates the rules the police will not help you, and no harm will come to them.
    7) Anyone can cross file on your claim.
    8)The Police, BLM, Forest Service will not help you deal with claim jumpers.
    9) For all your hard work, you can no longer file to patent your claim.
    10) You can no longer build a permanent camp on your claim.

    And in return for all your paid fees you get.........nothing really. The right to make blisters on your sweaty hands with no guarantee of finding anything.
    So tell me why anyone should file a claim notice today?
    Is there a fine for posting claim notices on claims you don't have rights to? I wonder if they would enforce it if you did?
    This is frustrating JR, as well as maddening and down right sad....
    Good series of posts here though. It really makes me think, and rethink things..
    Thank you.

    1. There are a couple of things...the county sheriff's can and do respond to claim jumper issues or are supposed to...I never called them myself though. The 14 day thing for stays on your claim may no longer be in effect...I don't know for certain. Or I could've been wrong there...that was my take when I had claims. All in all it ain't worth it unless you're hitting things full time and getting decent gold amounts. Id never file a claim again myself...


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