South Uniacke Claim Dispute

An 1890 dispute over boundaries illustrates how technology makes modern mining completely different from historical mining.

In English, “staking a claim” to something means you have a right to it or that it should belong to you. The expression comes from literally driving wooden stakes into the ground to mark a mineral claim – a specific area where a person/company has the right to explore and mine.

For a century and a half, staking claims in Nova Scotia was done by hammering stakes into the ground and marking the area in government ledgers and on a master set of 500 mapsheets, which were updated daily by hand at the Halifax offices of the provincial government’s Department of Mines.

This system inevitably led to disputes over the boundaries of staked claims, as it did in 1890 in South Uniacke.

The Department of Mines’ annual report for that year tells us that James Thompson, a builder from Halifax, and Runsman Randolph, a merchant from Bridgetown, staked nine claims in the South Uniacke gold district in 1887-88.

Their claims were adjacent to, and to the east of, claims held by John J. Withrow and a Mr. Hartlen, whose claims had been surveyed and marked with a wooden stake by a government surveyor.

Thompson and Randolph began work on their claims a few feet east of the boundary between their claims and those of Withrow and Hartlen because bedrock was closer to the surface there. This reduced the amount of overburden (dirt on top of the bedrock) that needed to be dug through.

Thompson and Randolph sank a shaft over 40-feet-deep near the boundary and then sank a second shaft, 70 feet in depth, 37 feet east of the first shaft, about 50 feet from the claim boundary. They also dug a 37-foot tunnel connecting the two shafts for ventilation, so air could circulate through the mine.

It was at this point that Withrow and Hartlen complained that the boundary line laid down by the government surveyor was incorrect – that Thompson and Randolph’s first shaft was on their claim. Withrow and Hartlen even started working east of the boundary, on what appeared to be Thompson and Randolph’s claims.

A different government surveyor was sent to settle the dispute. He found that Withrow and Hartlen were correct, that the boundary of their claim should be 39 feet to the east, overlapping much of the work done by Thompson and Randolph.

Thompson and Randolph, who had followed the boundary as marked by a government surveyor, appealed to the legislature’s Committee on Mines and Minerals for compensation. They said the new boundary meant they needed to sink a new shaft over 125 feet to fix the problem because of increased overburden in the new area. They also would have to dig a new ventilation tunnel and move buildings and their plant which were now on the claim held by Withrow and Hartlen.

Thompson and Randolph said the new work would cost them over $2,400.

The Committee members were sympathetic and asked the Commissioner of Mines to examine the situation and give Thompson and Randolph reasonable compensation if the Commissioner found their claim for damages to be legitimate.

Despite the setbacks caused by the boundary dispute, the Thompson and Randolph mine did very well. (Most records refer to it as the Thompson and Quirk mine, which suggests Randolph left at some point.)

The Department of Mines annual report for the following year said, “the new shaft on the Thompson property was sunk, striking the pay ground, which proved to be richer than to the westward.”

The Thompson and Quirk mine produced over 7,073 ounces of gold between 1889-95. At approximately $20 per ounce, it made about $142,000 in just six years, in an era when a day’s wages were about $1.00-$1.50 (all figures in 1890s dollars).

Today, technology makes this sort of boundary dispute very unlikely to occur. In Nova Scotia and many other jurisdictions, staking claims is now done using online, digital mapping systems ( Satellite imagery and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) also help ensure accuracy when determining boundaries in the field.

Staking claims in Nova Scotia began in 1862 when the legislature passed “An Act relating to the Gold Fields” in response to the province’s first gold rush, which started after the discovery of gold in Mooseland. Learn about early claim staking at

See the story of Rosario Siroy…or Joe Siroy…or Joseph Rosariere - whatever his real name was – who worked in the South Uniacke gold district: