The following description from Mining Districts of Nevada by the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology gives some historical background on how mining districts were first established in the west, and how they evolved over the decades.
Mining Districts - Historical Background
Ricketts(1) defined a mining district as:
. . . a section of country usually designated by name, having described or understood boundaries within which mineral is found and which is worked under rules and regulations prescribed by the miners therein. There is no limit to its territorial extent and its boundaries may be changed. . . . The organization of mining districts is entirely optional with the miners, as there is no law requiring such organization.
The term mining district was coined in the gold camps of California’s Mother Lode in the early 1850s. California, along with Nevada, Utah, and large parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming, had been acquired by Mexican cession in 1848. A military government set up in California quickly abolished Mexican laws but no attempt was made by the U.S. Congress to extend federal laws over California until September 1850 when the state was admitted to the Union.
Therefore, when gold was discovered in California in 1848 and a rush to the area developed, thousands of miners found themselves outside the boundaries of effective government with no legal means of taking and holding mineral claims.
In an attempt to bring order to this situation, California miners, by 1850, had begun to organize local government for the mines. At mass meetings held in the scattered camps of the gold diggings, local rules and regulations were voluntarily adopted covering mainly mining matters but sometimes extending to civil rights and criminal punishment as well. Mining was the primary interest however, and the main object of the regulations was to fix the boundaries of the district, the size of claims, the manner in which claims should be marked and recorded, and the amount of work that should be done to hold claims.
Within a few years, the mining district meeting had become a necessary part of each new mining rush, and the codes therein developed, known as “the rules and regulations of mining districts,” were accepted as legal by the California courts.
Local rules and regulations bridged the time from 1850 to 1866 when the first national policy regarding mining lands became a statute. This law, known as the General Mining Act of 1866, contained a provision that stated local rules should be recognized and confirmed. According to Lindley(2), the Mining Act of 1872, which, with additions and amendments, is the law under which federal mining rights are now acquired, contained a similar provision concerning mining-district regulations by miners that stated:
Subject to the limitations enumerated in the act the miners of each mining district may make regulations not in conflict with the laws of the United States, or with the laws of the state or territory in which the district is situated . . .
Thus the mining district concept, which grew from need in the absence of legislation, became legitimate through legislation. This same legislation, however, essentially eliminated any further need for organized mining districts. Lindley in 1897 stated:
. . . generally in California the district organizations are a thing of the past . . . . They have performed in the scheme of evolution, and have, for the most part, disappeared, to be replaced by higher forms of legislation.
Regardless of fallen stature, however, miners continued to organize mining districts until well after the turn of the century, and the term is still used, although it is now applied very loosely and then only as a geographic reference.
1. Ricketts, A.H., 1931, American mining law: California State Division of Mines Bulletin 98, 811 p.
2. Lindley, C.H., 1897, A treatise on the American law relating to mines and mineral lands within the public land states and territories and governing the acquisition and enjoyment of mining rights in lands of the public domain: San Francisco, Bancroft-Whitney Company, 560 p.