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Order Without Law? Property Rights During the California Gold Rush

By Karen Clay and Gavin Wright. Reading for week of November 25, 2003.

Leah Halvorson Email LeahHalvorson

Abstract:     
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. Drawing on a data set of mining district codes and a simple theoretical model, we argue that the main historical features of mining districts may best be understood by viewing them not as enforcers of private property rights, but as institutions for managing access to a nonrenewable resource, in what was fundamentally an open-access context.

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