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Mineral Patent Law


MINERAL PATENT LAW. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 occurred in a legal vacuum. The regulation of the race for wealth on the public domain was accomplished by rules growing out of the needs of the miners through the organization of districts and the adoption of bylaws for those districts. It gradually became apparent that a national policy for the administration and disposal of the mineral resources of the public lands was essential. The resulting Mining Law of 1866 adopted the idea of open mineral exploitation of the public lands. A claimant who discovered a mineral lode, made a minimum investment in labor and improvements, and complied with filing and posting prerequisites could secure a patent from the United States on the lands covered by his claim. In 1870 similar legislation was enacted that specifically covered placers—that is, surface deposits of gravels of mineral value, as opposed to lodes or veins of ore.

The laws of 1866 and that of 1870 were combined in the Mining Law of 1872. Locations based on discovery of a lode were limited to fifteen hundred feet by six hundred feet, while placer claims were limited to twenty acres. Patents were issued upon payment of $5.00 per acre for lode claims and $2.50 per acre for placers. Although oil and gas were included under the placer mining provisions, the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 provided that exploration and production of these substances was to be leased, with royalties paid to the United States, and not patented.

Although there were a number of supplementing land limiting statutes, such as the Wilderness Act of 1964, the 1872 act still governs most of the public domain of the United States. In the 1990s, however, the 1872 act came under intense criticism from environmental groups and the administration of President William J. Clinton. In 1992, in order to reduce speculation and clear unworked claims, legislation was enacted to require a $100 annual holding fee per claim. Congress also imposed an effective patent moratorium by enacting legislation prohibiting the Bureau of Land Management from spending any funds to process mineral patent applications. As of 2001, this prohibition remained in effect.


Miller, Charles Wallace, Jr. Stake Your Claim!: The Tale of America's Enduring Mining Laws. Tucson, Ariz.: Westernlore Press, 1991.

John A.Kidwell

Richard C.Maxwell

See alsoMines, U.S. Bureau of ; Mining Towns ; Public Domain ; Western Lands .

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