Life in the Old West

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Mining claims lay at the heart of prospectors’ dreams, schemes


Mining claims lay at the heart of the prospectors’ dreams and schemes in the days of Old West gold rushes. Fundamentals of organizing the gold fields (and regions rich in other precious metals) were pretty much the same. Prospectors wisely knew that mining claims were fundamental, but organizing into recognized districts run by elected officials and even lawmen chosen and empowered by voters (usually) were crucial to everyone’s well-being and success.

(An excellent overview of prospecting and mining in the Old West is the very detailed volume “The Miners” in the Time-Life Books series on “The Old West.” All of these books are must-have for lovers of the Old West, and all are uniformly well done for an overview of each of the subject areas.)

Most miners traditionally respected the mining claims staked out by others; but as the gold fields filled up and claims began being bought and sold, sometimes changing hands rapidly, the miners set up districts, mining district governance, and rules limit claim ownership. In most early mining districts, miners were allowed to stake one claim in the district. If a person were the discoverer of one of the gold fields, he was allowed to stake two mining claims.

According to the book mentioned above, the physical size of mining claims varied widely. In areas of rich ore deposits, they might be as small as 10 feet square; in areas with less gold or silver being found, they might be as large as 100 feet square. Every claim had to be clearly marked with boundaries staked out and the date of the claim noted. In addition, the claim had to be registered with the mining district’s recorder — often a local storekeeper or saloon keeper.

Claim rights included equal access to local water supplies (especially important to placer mining), and claim owners were not allowed to dump their waste or rocks onto a neighbor’s claim. To keep title to a claim, the miner/prospector was generally expected to work it at least one day in three, and in many mining districts if he didn’t show up at all for 10 days to two weeks, his claim could be taken by someone else.

Although mining claims lay at the heart of many dreams in the West, it has been said that merchants and hotel owners, cooks, and other support people made far more off the gold and silver rushes of the Old West than most of the dreamers who risked health and lives to find and mine those precious metals.