2 Replies Latest reply on Oct 23, 2019 11:05 AM by Jen Baldwin

    How did mining claims actually work?


      OK, I'm trying to get a mental picture of how the Land Office did business in the mid- to late- 19th century. I'm not so much looking for a specific record of a claim, as trying to get a miner's eye view of how this all worked.


      What I have so far is that miners would rush into an area based on a strike, or rumors of a strike, or possibility of a strike. They formed ad hoc 'Mining Districts' that create by-laws about how much land you can claim and how it should be marked to prevent 'claim-jumping'. The first ones in 1849 in California are based on Mexican laws, because that was the guideline they had. The miners elect one of their number to be the Recorder of the mining district, and he keeps track of the claims. This custom becomes de facto standard practice across the West.


      1872, Congress passes the General Mining Act, combining two previous acts, and regularizing the customs of the miners in the West, who until that time were basically squatting on Federal territory. In this act, there's a discussion of the General Land Office, and in Section 12 of the act, we see

      "each applicant shall file with the register a sworn statement of all charges and fees paid by said applicant for publication and surveys, Applicant to together with all fees and money paid the register and the receiver of the land-office, which statement shall be transmitted, with the other papers in the case, to the commissioner of the general land office."

      Now, when I started poking into the land office records, I see that for instance in Utah, there are a mix of County Recorders and Mining District Recorders whose records are now held by the State Archival Service. So who is this Register and receiver of the land-office? Are they agents hired by the General Land Office who take over the previous records of the ad-hoc districts? Are they still elected by miners? Do they function alongside the Mining District Recorders?

      The follow-up question to this is were these records considered public in the way that, for instance, I can look up who owns such-and-such property in my county today? Could a person walk into the local land office and ask "Who owns this plat" or "Where is John Smith's claim located?" I presume an officer of a court or a sheriff could do so in performance of their duties, but could a typical citizen?

        • Re: How did mining claims actually work?

          Great questions.  Like many processes in the Federal Government land claims and specifically mining claims have changed over time.  How this process looked to the miners themselves we can only speculate on, given there are no accounts in the National Archives collection.  What we can speak to is the process.  Most scholars agree that the mineral claims process grew out of the both the English(Welsh) and Spanish traditions, see Paul W. Gates, History of Public Land Law Development, 1979, pp 700-723. 


          Federal land claims, whether it be mineral, homesteading, or etc., record the transfer or lease of public lands (Federal) into private ownership (as in homestead) or leases (as with mineral claims).  Because the land is owned by the Federal Government leases or homesteads had to be issued out of the General Land Office (GLO) for each territory and subsequent state. 


          Every state has its own unique history and the records held by the National Archives reflect that. Your question regarding the Utah records is a prime example.  Because Utah was settled before the GLO surveyed the state there is a unique set of records. Some of the records have been retained by the State Archives and some by the National Archives in Denver.  I would suggest you contact the staff at the National Archives in Denver with any specific questions you might have regarding Utah records.  They can be reached at dever.archives@nara.gov.


          Federal land records of the Bureau of Land Management, the successor agency of the General Land Office, reflect the daily management of the land.  Records of mineral districts may or may not fall under the GLO/BLM’s management. If the records are created by the GLO about the mineral district they would be federal records, however if the records are created by a group of miners who are, for example, providing self-regulation or advise to the GLO those records are not Federal records. That doesn’t mean copies cannot be found within our holding but they are rare.  Records of the County Recorder’s office are strictly State records.


          To your question can you, or any other member of the public, find who owns a property.  The answer to this is yes.  These records are considered public information.  The one caveat to this would be that no Records Officer will give you any personal information on how to contact the owners of the parcels. That information is protected under the FOIA (b)6 Personal Privacy on a Federal level or a similar State protection laws.


          BLM offices throughout the country hold master title plats for all their leased or purchased land. If you are looking for historical use, obviously the National Archives is a good place to start.  If the land has transferred out of the ownership of the Federal Government, like for a homestead, you would need to check with the County Clerk or Registrar’s office.  Whenever you are looking for a specific parcel of land or mine you need to know the legal land description (State, Township, Range, and Section).  Additionally with mines it helps to know the name of the mine, the owners, or the mineral lease number.  If you have a specific question about a specific state I would suggest your reach out to the National Archives facility that covers that state.  A listing of all our offices can be found online at https://www.archives.gov/locations.

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            • Re: How did mining claims actually work?

              County records can also be very eye-opening when it comes to mining claims. As mentioned already, policies and laws changed a great deal over time, and that is true locally (county level and state level) as well as federally. You can find property owners (historic and current) utilizing the GIS office of the local county courthouse; in my experience, they often welcome the challenge of identifying a historic claim on a modern map. Historically, remember that western Territories were in play, so records from what is now Colorado may actually be in Utah, and so on.

              In addition to the text above, I would also recommend the book, "The Mining Law of 1872: Past, Politics and Prospects" by Gordon Morris Bakken (Univ of New Mexico Press, 2008), which thoroughly discusses how these laws came about.

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