Claim Jumper
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Basic Information

A Claim Jumper is a person who has stolen the land someone else planned to mine for mineral wealth. In effect, he is both a prospector and a criminal. Most instances of claim-jumping involve gold, but other minerals, gemstones and ores are certainly a possibility (and a motive).

Staking a Claim

During the Old West Gold Rush era of United States History the government effectively gave away public land for free. Anyone could claim a small parcel of public land just by staking your claim and developing the land. Staking your claim was quite literal: you had to mark the edges of your territory with labeled 4-foot-tall wooden stakes. That land was yours, as long as you worked it continuously and made improvements to the land in some way. Digging a mine shaft, erecting a building, setting up a panning sluice, etc, would satisfy the improvement requirement. If for any reason you were going to leave the site lie undeveloped or unmined for more than a year, you would legally lose control of the land parcel unless you paid a hefty fee to the government (who were often quite remotely located from the frontier, so paying this fee would often involve a long trip and some hardship). If two different people both had their eye on a particular parcel of land, whoever started working it first legally got ownership of it. The practice in the US began in the [[[California]] in 1849, was legally confirmed by Congress for all US territories in 1866, and further refined in 1872. The 1872 law further specified that property improvements alone weren't enough to guarantee mineral rights. You had to specifically take actions towards seeking out minerals on your new property to own the mineral rights. If you just built a house, but someone else came along and discovered gold in your backyard, they could legally stake their own claim on land you'd thought was yours.

Similar laws also provided land via the Homestead Acts for people to claim several empty acres for themselves, and have free ownership of that land provided they planted crops and built a home on it. These acts started in 1850, but as noted above, didn't include mineral rights by default and homestead claims could be trumped by mineral claims.

Other places and eras have had similar laws, such as Mexico and Australia. The exact details of a mining claim varied with time and place, including the allowed legal size of a claim. In some locations instead of using wooden stakes, you would (or at least could) make small stone cairns at the corners of the property.

It's also worth noting that when the 1848 treaty between Mexico and the US was signed ending the Mexican-American War, at first the US seemed to recognize all the mining claims previously made by Mexican nationals in California. A mere six months later, however, an act of the new Military Governor of the new US territory declared all those previous claims invalid, and officially allowed people to stake out claims in places that had previously been owned by Mexican citizens as though no prior ownership had existed. So a fair number of those miner forty-niners were really state-sponsored claim jumpers.

Stealing a Claim

Techniques for claim jumping varied significantly. A subtle and sneaky con man-type with a lot of patience might stake a claim "next door" and gradually shift the claim stakes to steal your way into the valuable mineral vein inch by inch. More commonly (and crudely) claim jumping is likely to involve threats and coercion to force the claim owner to literally pull up stakes and abandon their land. In it's most extreme form, claim jumping may involve murder of the property owner, and a cover story along the lines of "oh, he got a letter from his family, and had to move back east in a hurry". The bureaucratic record keeping and law enforcement of frontier regions are usually pretty sparse and chaotic, which unfortunately made such violent claim jumping somewhat easy to get away with. If you were friends with the local sheriff, or were popular in whatever community your illicitly acquired claim was near, or the claim was sufficiently remote, it was very unlikely anyone would ever search the claim for evidence of foul play.

Marking property via narrow wooden stakes in the corners isn't fool-proof, and it's possible for accidental disputes to come up where two people mark slightly overlapping property and each thinks the other is trying to claim jump. This is more likely in wooded or mountainous areas where there may not be clear line of sight from one staked corner to another, or in places with extreme weather such as flash flooding, high wind, battering storms, avalanches or rock slides that might displace, knock over or bury a stake. confidence artists might take advantage of such ambiguities to stake a competing claim.


Game and Story Use

  • Many unsavory characters in the old west may have been claim-jumpers previously. It's likely that a lot of claim jumpers were hoping to get rich in a quick and easy (though potentially dangerous) way. It's not much of a stretch to imagine them not being terribly happy with their new "job" and all the back-breaking labor of pulling gold out of the ground once they got ownership of the land. Being a one-time claim-jumper would make for an interesting back story to a villain or retired gunfighter type.
  • You could have a complicated slow-burning three-sided struggle where a conman engaged in a salting the mine game to sell a fictitious or played out claim to a prospector or determined homesteader. An unrelated wildwest outlaw or bandit gang also heard rumor of the salted claim and didn't realize there was a con game going on. So they start making moves to jump the new claim. The prospector reaches out to the PCs asking for their help in driving off the bandits or reclaiming the land they stole, and offers to pay the PCs with a share in the claim or a particular amount of gold ore once he's able to return to the land and resume digging. The PCs agree to the deal, and start an ongoing struggle with the bandits. After they've knocked off a few of the bandits and passed the point of no return, they discover the claim is worthless. The smart move might be to walk away, but PCs being PCs they're now most likely going to start a subplot of hunting down the conman, and either punishing him or trying to pit the bandits against him.
  • Giving the PCs a part-ownership in a land-claim is a fun way of giving them treasure payouts over time, but also tying them to a home base or community that they have to defend from time to time. Once the PCs own part of a mine, it's a natural and obvious plotline that someone's gonna try to jump that claim sooner or later.
    • And like what happened just after the Mexican-American War, a distant government might suddenly change mining policy and invalidate the PCs claim. Now you not only have to fend off random claim-jumpers, but the PCs may have to "go rebel" and take on the government.
  • For real fun, try sneaking onto the boundary of two claims whose owners are already at loggerheads and moving their boundary stakes about - unless you are actually seen and shot, neither will believe that a third party is involved.
  • Most of the discussion so far concerns one man operations - presumably claim disputes between larger entities (whether groups of miners or corporations) - could lead to larger conflicts, up to and including some species of private war.
  • Needn't necessarily be mineral resources at stake - encroaching on your neighbour's agricultural land or forestry is just as common, and anywhere newly settled without the benefit of a central land registry and "official" surveyors is quite likely to have a rash of boundary disputes until government or custom settle the lines.
    • Although note the need to seek minerals to preserve rights - potentially wildcat prospectors could suddenly stake up on an working farm or ranch, tearing up grazing or crop with a (semi)legitimate claim.
  • In a remote enough location, claim jumping could include all out identity theft - simply kill the previous holder and pretend to be them, or at least their co-owner, sibling, parent, child or other partner. A black widow gambit might work, especially on the frontier where women are scarce.
    • The fun really starts when things from back home start to catch up - old friends, enemies or genuine relatives for example. In the Old West, with its population of Civil War veterans, there are and additional layer of possibilities.
  • How about corrupt local officials allowing claims to be staked in areas that aren't technically in scope - Indian land, or on the wrong side of the Mexican or Canadian border for example.
    • Which could complicate things if they need to be arrested - against one power, they can claim citizenship and patronage from the other than endorsed their claim "in good faith", whilst against the other, they can quite legitimately "suddenly notice" that they are on the other side of the border. Wars have begun over less - and in remote places, even an undeclared border incident can go on for some time before the age of radio and beyond the reach of the telegraph.

Making This Character

This character is a hybrid. They are committing a criminal act, but the reward they hope to gain isn't a one-time score you can take with you and spend. The reward is a long-term full-time job involving hard labor. There's probably a lot of claim jumpers who don't think it through and jump a claim at the first opportunity, only to get fed up and abandon the site they just murdered for because they don't have the patience or determination to work it long enough to get rich. Conman types might manage to turn around and sell the land for a profit, but the kind of man who's not thinking far enough ahead to realize he doesn't really want the job he just murdered for isn't particularly likely to be a good salesman or be known for his sound business decisions, either.

Such a rough-and-tumble failed claim jumper, is likely to be built along the lines of the Wild West Outlaw, making sure to emphasize that he's not great at planning ahead (meaning he may have low mental attributes such as an intelligence or wisdom score)

The criminal who really does want to work the claim is little more complex of a character. For them, you might work in some nuance by blending two tropes or character concepts, a little from column A and a little from column B:

You might use stats and skills that are typical for the two concepts you chose (one from A and one from B), with a slightly stronger set of physical attributes than they might otherwise have because they've been working long days breaking rocks. (Or, conversely, this might have impacted their health in a negative way if the claim is in a harsh environment.)

If willpower is a stat in your game system, they've probably got a good rating in that as well. Less determined men would have given up and tried to flip the property.

Depending on the era, the education level, the nature of the claim and how long they've been working it, the Claim Jumper may also have higher skill ratings in mining, geology, metallurgy or even smithing than is normal for a criminal.

They're likely to be better at intimidation, marksmanship, and possibly stealth than you'd expect a more scrupulous prospector to be.

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