Conflicts inevitably developed between differing interests in the mining areas, and the rights claimed by the early miners to occupy and work ground that was currently in the possession of others is amply illustrated by a situation that arose near Grass Valley in 1850. Two men had a large field of meadowland that they had put a brush fence around, all with the purpose of mowing the two crops of hay the meadow would yield each year. Hay was a valuable commodity in those days and sold for eighty dollars a ton, and the two farmers expected to make four hundred dollars per acre in one summer. But one day, while the grass was still growing, a prospector from outside the area climbed over the brush fence, sank an exploratory hole in the field and struck pay dirt. In less than twenty-four hours the entire meadow was staked out in claims of fifty square feet while the farmers stood by in disbelief. But no matter what objection they had to the takeover of the land, there was nothing they could do for, according to the prevailing laws of the day, the land they had possession of for the purpose of mowing hay was subject to mining by anyone who found gold on it.
From the early days of statehood the Supreme Court of California upheld that the regulations established by miners should be the law of the land in that district. It decided that all gold and silver mines in the state, though on lands belonging to the United States government were the property of the state by virtue if its sovereignty, and the state had the right to authorize them to be worked, to affix terms and conditions it thought proper for their use, and to impose licenses on foreign miners. And since in 1852 the state legislature had adopted the customs and regulations currently in use as its own, the Supreme Court decided that any person had the right to work any mine on public land notwithstanding that the land was in the possession and enjoyment of another person for agricultural purposes.
But even though the court held that the rights of mining interest held precedence over agricultural ones it did limit that power so that prior improvements such as houses, orchards, vineyards, currently growing crops, and reasonable enclosures around buildings were protected. Then in 1855 the legislature, recognizing the justice of the same principal, passed a law prohibiting anyone from destroying for mining purposes any growing crops of grain or vegetables or injuring any buildings or fruit trees. It further provided that no person could occupy or use any mineral lands on which there were crops or improvements without giving a bond sufficient to pay for all damages the current owner might sustain and making it misdemeanor punishable by fine and imprisonment to violate the act. There was a further provision, however, that allowed that nothing could prevent miners from working any mineral lands once the crops growing there had been harvested.
John Putnam is the author of Hangtown Creek, a thrilling saga of the early California gold rush now available in paperback, kindle and nook formats.