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Order Without Law? Property Rights During the California Gold Rush

May 2004
Working Paper
By  Karen Clay, Gavin Wright
The paper reconsiders the nature of mining districts and property rights during the California gold rush. According to a widely accepted view advanced by Umbeck (1977, 1981), in the absence of effective legal authority, district codes established secure property rights in mining claims. Such accounts neglect essential aspects of the economic context, specifically that the gold rush approximated an open-access race for a small number of high value deposits. We show that mining district codes gave equal attention to the rights of claim-jumpers as to claim holders, a balance that in practice generated chronic insecurity and litigation. A simple game-theoretic model illustrates stylized features of the situation.