|California Gold Rush
Law and Order
Gold was usually found in sparsely populated areas that had little or no government. The miners were forced by necessity to create their own laws. They would call a camp meeting, elect a presiding officer, a recorder, and sometimes a marshal. The meetings were democratic and had two purposes: first, they made laws; second, they enforced these laws. If a miner felt mistreated or wanted a problem solved, he could call a meeting by posting a notice. A judge and jury would be selected, hear the miners case, and render a decision. This decision was backed up by other miners in the camp.
Staking a Claim
The most important laws to the miners were those that governed the staking of a mining claim. The first task in any mining community was to decide how much land a miner could claim. The size of a claim varied from camp to camp, depending on the amount of gold, usually a miner could claim 100 square feet at the richer sites and as much as 10,000 square feet at the poorer sites. Once a miner had selected a claim, he had to mark it so that other miners knew it was taken. This procedure was usually done by driving a stake into the ground (hence the term “staking a claim”) and filing the claim with a camp recorder. A miner could keep a claim as long as he worked it. Generally this meant the miner had to be present one day out of three. If a claim went unworked for more than 10 days, another miner could claim it.
Justice in the camps was quick and rough. Trials were short and punishments were handed out immediately. For capital crimes such as grand theft and murder, the punishment was hanging. Lesser offenses such as petty theft usually resulted in a flogging and banishment from the camp. Eventually legal systems replaced the miners’ version of camp justice. Sheriffs and judges were hired, and jails were built. Most of the judges were fair, but there were some exceptions. One judge, for example, seemed interested only in collecting fines. In one case this judge fined a man $110 for robbing a miner of his gold. Since the thief didn’t have any money to pay the fine, the judge ordered the man who had been robbed to pay it! Until a standard legal system was established, the miners’ brand of justice was fair and reasonable for those in the mining camps, although there were exceptions, especially for minorities.
The mining camps were populated by people from all over the world. Although most of the miners were white-skinned and English-speaking, the camps had many minorities, including Native Americans, Latin Americans, Chinese, and nationals from all over the world. These people were frequently mistreated and not protected by the miners’ system of justice. Native Americans were driven from their land. They saw their beautiful landscape destroyed, their streams polluted, and wildlife scared away. The miners who came from Mexico and South America were called “Chilenos.” They were beaten, robbed, and had to pay high taxes. Although they were allowed to stake a claim, they were forced to leave any claim that proved to be rich. Chinese miners came to the gold fields by the thousands even though they received the worst treatment of any non-white group. They could mine only where the whites had already mined or where no one else wanted to mine. Frequently they were beaten, run out of town, or had their homes and businesses destroyed. Many miners were hostile and cruel to people who were not like them. Racial prejudice was a common part of mining life.