After gold was discovered near Bannack, Montana, in 1862, prospectors scoured every gully and creek searching for the next bonanza. In 1863, Walter Washington DeLacy led a 40-man expedition that explored the Snake River to its source. The party didn’t find enough “color” for a paying proposition, but they did bring back a wealth of information about the Yellowstone Plateau. DeLacy included that information in his famous 1865 map of the Montana territory. DeLacy was a civil engineer and his account of the Snake River expedition is one of few prospector accounts by an educated man. At time when a man could make a fortune from a few gold pans of dirt, prospectors were ever hopeful of striking it rich. In the virtually lawless territories prospecting parties made their own rules to assure that everybody has a fair chance. Here’s DeLacy’s description of an effort to draft some “miners’ laws.”
I halted the men at the creek as they came up, and when all had arrived I suggested to them that we should go on to the next water, pick out a good camp, and remain some days and prospect the different streams, which were in sight. This was agreed to, and we went forward about three miles to the next creek, near the outlet of Lake Jackson and established ourselves where wood, water, and grass were abundant.
After unpacking and staking the animals out, another meeting was called in order to decide upon our future action. It was decided to build a “corral,” to put the horses in at night that should be left in camp, and that four parties should be formed: one to remain in camp as a guard, and three others to prospect the streams in sight.
The men were then detailed for the different expeditions, and it was suggested, that as there was a strong probability of finding good “diggings,” we should adopt some mining laws for them.
We therefore organized ourselves into a “miners’ meeting,” and, after appointing a chairman, etc., one of the members moved, and another seconded the motion, that the following regulations should be adopted:
1. That every person present should be regarded as a discoverer in each and every gulch found by any party or member of a party.
2. That each member, as discoverer, should be entitled to five claims of two hundred feet each along the gulch, viz., a discovery claim, and a pre-emption claim in the main gulch, a bar claim, a hill claim, and a patch claim. (I never knew exactly what a patch claim was, but I think that it meant all that you could grab, after you got the other four claims.)
These liberal and disinterested regulations were voted in the affirmative with gratifying unanimity, and the chairman was just about to put the question to the meeting whether there was any more business before it, when a big, burly Scotchman named Brown, who had apparently been turning the subject over in his mind, jumped up, and inquired with great earnestness, “But, Mr. Chairman, what shall we do with the rest of it.”
Adapted from “A Trip up the South Snake River in 1863.” Walter W. DeLacy, Contributions to the Historical Society of Montana, Vol. 2, 1896. For more stories about early visitors to Yellowstone National Park, see M. Mark Miller’s Adventures in Yellowstone: Early Travelers Tell Their Tales.