The Gold Minerís Law

The California gold rush miners working on the creeks were nearly all Americans, but there were others which exhibited a great variety of mankind. Some, it was very evident, were men who had hitherto only worked with their heads; others one would have set down as having been mechanics of some sort, and as having lived in cities; and there were numbers of unmistakable backwoodsmen and farmers from the Western States. Of these a large proportion were Missourians, who had emigrated across the plains. From the State of Missouri the people had flocked in thousands to the gold diggings, and particularly from a county in that state called Pike County.

In some respects, perhaps, the mines of California were as wild a place as any part of the Western States of America; but they were peopled by a community of men of all classes, and from different countries, who though living in a rough backwoods style, had nevertheless all the ideas and amenities of civilized life; while the Missourians, having come direct across the plains from their homes in the backwoods, had received no preparatory education to enable them to show off to advantage in such company. And in this they labored under a great disadvantage, as compared with the lower classes of people of every country who came to San Francisco by way of Panama or Cape Horn. The men from the interior of the States learned something even on their journey to New York or New Orleans, having their eyes partially opened during the few days they spent in either of those cities en route; and on the passage to San Francisco they naturally received a certain degree of polish from being violently shaken up with a crowd of men of different habits and ideas from their own.

 

 

They had to give way in many things to men whose motives of action were perhaps to them incomprehensible, while of course they gained a few new ideas from being brought into close contact with such sorts of men as they had hitherto only seen at a distance, or very likely had never heard of. A little experience of San Francisco did them no harm, and by the time they reached the mines they had become very superior men to the raw bumpkins they were before leaving their homes. It may seem strange, but it is undoubtedly true, that the majority of men in whom such a change was most desirable became in California more humanized, and acquired a certain amount of urbanity; in fact, they came from civilized countries in the rough state, and in California got licked into shape, and polished.

The Mining laws of the creek, as was the case in all the various diggings in the mines, were made at meetings of miners held for the purpose. Not established at the hand of hungry lawyers, they were generally very few and simple. They defined how many feet of ground one man was entitled to hold in a ravine how much in the bank, and in the bed of the creek; how many such claims he could hold at a time; and how long he could absent himself from his claim without forfeiting it. They declared what was necessary to be done in taking up and securing a claim which, for want of water, or from any other cause, could not be worked at the time; and they also provided for various contingencies incidental to the peculiar nature of the diggings.

Of course, like other laws they required constant revision and amendment, to suit the progress of the times; and a few weeks after this trial, a meeting was held one Sunday afternoon for legislative purposes. The miners met in front of the store to the number of about two hundred; a very respectable-looking old chap was called to the chair; but for want of that article of furniture he mounted an empty pork-barrel, which gave him a commanding position; another man was appointed secretary, who placed his writing materials on some empty boxes piled up alongside of the chair. The chairman then, addressing the crowd, told them the object for which the meeting had been called, and said he would be happy to hear any gentleman who had any remarks to offer; whereupon some one proposed an amendment of the law relating to a certain description of claim, arguing the point in a very neat speech. He was duly seconded, and there was some slight opposition and discussion; but when the chairman declared it carried by the ayes, no one called for a division, so the secretary wrote it all down, and it became law.

Two or three other acts were passed, and when the business was concluded, a vote of thanks to the chairman was passed for his able conduct on the top of the pork-barrel. The meeting was then declared to be dissolved, and accordingly dribbled into the store, where the legislators, in small detachments, pledged each other in cocktails as fast as the storekeeper could mix them. While the legislature was in session, however, everything was conducted with the utmost formality, for Americans of all classes are particularly au fait at the ordinary routine of public meetings.

 

 

Very near where we were at work, a party of  half-a-dozen men held a claim in the bed of the creek, and had as usual dug a race through which to turn the water, and so leave exposed the part they intended to work. This they were now anxious to do, as the creek had fallen sufficiently low to admit of it; but they were opposed by a number of miners whose claims lay so near the race that they would have been swamped had the water been turned into it.

They could not come to any settlement of the question among themselves; so, as was usual in such cases, they concluded to leave it to a jury of miners; and notice was accordingly sent to all the miners within two or three miles up and down the creek, requesting them to assemble on the claim in question the next afternoon. Although a miner calculates an hour lost as so much money out of his pocket, yet all were interested in supporting the laws of the diggings; and about a hundred men presented themselves at the appointed time. The two opposing parties then, having tossed up for the first pick, chose six jurymen each from the assembled crowd. When the jury had squatted themselves all together in an exalted position on a heap of stones and dirt, one of the plaintiffs, as spokesman for his party, made a very pithy speech, calling several witnesses to prove his statements, and citing many of the laws of the diggings in support of his claims. The defendants followed in the same manner, making the most of their case; while the general public, sitting in groups on the different heaps of stones piled up between the holes with which the ground was honeycombed, smoked their pipes and watched the proceedings. After the plaintiff and defendant had said all they had to say about it, the jury examined the state of the ground in dispute; they then called some more witnesses to give further information, and having laid their shaggy heads together for a few minutes, they pronounced their decision; which was, that the men working on the race should be allowed six days to work out their claims before the water should be turned in upon them. Neither party was particularly well pleased with the verdict a pretty good sign that it was an impartial one; but they had to abide by it, for had there been any resistance on either side, the rest of the miners would have enforced the decision of this august tribunal. From it there was no appeal; a jury of miners was the highest court known, and I must say I never saw a court of justice with so little humbug about it.

Return To The Main Page: California Gold Rush: True Tales of the 49ers

 

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