The Lure of the Land: A Social History of the Public Lands from the Articles of Confederation to the New Deal

By Everett Dick | Go to book overview

VII
The Diggings

THE LAND ORDINANCE of 1785 and other major land acts reserved all mineral lands from sale. In early times the principal known mineral lands were those bearing salt springs where people camped for a few days to boil salt. It was natural that the lawmakers should seek to keep these deposits for the free use of the public rather than allow them to fall into the hands of speculators, but they did not visualize the problems that would be involved in surface or shallow mining as large numbers of men made digging their permanent business and worked individually or in small groups, digging lead or gold. Indeed, it was not until a quarter of a century after American independence that this problem arose. In 1803, when Louisiana was purchased by the United States, there was an area southwest of St. Louis that had been mined for lead from time to time for eighty-four years by Frenchmen and Spaniards. The land had been granted by the European nations holding the area, and hence was private property. Shortly after the purchase, however, several hundred Americans moved into the area and made a number of rich new strikes on the public lands. The question then arose as to the method of safeguarding the interests of the United States, which owned the land, and at the same time giving the miner the benefits of his discovery. How much ground could he hold? How could he mark it to prevent another from moving in and taking possession in his absence? Legally, the miner was a trespasser, but it was customary on the frontier to regard the salt springs as a sort of commons open to all to boil salt. At least one writer has offered an explanation that the development of a system of mining claims in America is traceable to the medieval German custom of free mining, which allowed all persons to search for minerals without ownership of the soil; it recognized an estate in minerals that was independent of an estate in the soil.1 From whatever

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1
Charles Howard Shinn, Mining Camps, A Study in American Government ( New York: Knopf, 1948), p. 24; I am indebted to Shinn's thorough study for much of the information in this chapter.

-85-

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