Soldiers and mining law

Soon after the end of the Mexican War in 1848 soldiers, many from Stevenson’s regiment of New York volunteers, were discharged and headed straight for the gold country. Before they went, however, they organized into small companies of from three to ten men. Each company elected a leader then adopted written rules that differed generally only in minor points of interest to a specific company. Every member was required to share equally in the expenses, such as a team of oxen and a cart, horses, packs, tools and provisions. Except for unavoidable need, no person could separate from the company without the consent of the others, and if that were given he would receive an amount of goods or money equal to his investment less whatever he had consumed. If any man were to be caught stealing he was to be immediately expelled and forfeit all of his property and investment.

Col. Jonathan Stevenson

All miners would work together using the tools and equipment of the company, but each man would keep any gold he unearthed. In some companies it was provided that all the gold found would be held in common and divided equally at stated intervals, and, in a few cases, there was a rarely enforced provision that anyone who became intoxicated would be expelled. In the event of difficulty or danger all men of the company were to stand together. No sick man would be abandoned and all efforts possible to restore him to good health would be used. Every man in turn was to do his share of the camp work, cooking, chopping wood, carrying water, caring for the animals, and anything else that needed doing. But nothing was said about the size and administration of claims, because no one yet knew about this problem.

Stevenson’s Regt Drawing

While many of these rules were based on common sense, the failure to address the size of mining claims and how they should be secured and held was such an overwhelming issue that it quickly became of primary importance across the mining region. As soon as it was understood that the government of the United States would not interfere with the free and unrestricted working of mining claims, the need to fix the amount of ground a man might hold and the terms under which he might use it became immediate. From the moment that one particular piece of ground was known to be more valuable than another, and several people wanted the more valuable property, a regulation to decide the matter was instantly required.

occupations for a rainy day

Meetings were held and practical solutions, now based on experience, were adopted, all under the condition of the equality of the miners and the concept that every man had an equal chance at the riches of the mines so long as he didn’t infringe on the prior rights of another. Soon every bar, flat and gulch had its set of rules. Gradually they consolidated into larger districts and the rules became more uniform across the country until a system of regulations and customs evolved that was ultimately put into use from Sacramento to the Mississippi and from New Mexico to Alaska.

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