For several decades, historical gold mining in Nova Scotia largely relied on tributers, men who leased mines from their owners and worked them. The tribute system had advantages and disadvantages, but it kept gold mining alive through many lean years.

Nova Scotia’s first documented gold discovery was in 1858 in Mooseland and its first historical gold rush started in 1861. That gold rush featured mostly amateur prospectors, with no experience or expertise, prospecting claims that were too small to be worked effectively, with no money to invest in proper equipment.

Many prospectors in the 1860s, who had abandoned farms, fisheries and forests in the hope of striking it rich, just smashed gold-bearing quartz with hammers and tried to follow quartz veins at shallow depth. Many gave up and returned to their other professions, finding that despite all the excitement about the gold rush, gold mining usually did not pay off, especially for those with no scientific understanding of the work.

As these amateurs left the goldfields, companies with more expertise and financial resources took over claims. However, they also had a mixed track record. They often had poor management and spent too much while generating too little revenue. They were also constrained by the relatively primitive science and technology of the day, compared to the sophistication of modern gold mining.

This led to a new class of gold miners entering the picture: tributers.

The Nova Scotia Department of Mines 1872 annual report said, “Since the last report was written a complete change has taken place in the system of working the gold mines, and with the change there has been a great falling off in the number of men engaged, and a consequent decrease in the yield of gold. The change referred to is the almost total discontinuance from operating by companies and the introduction of the system of working the mines by tribute.”

The report explained tributing this way: “Two or more practical working miners agree among themselves to take a mine, often one that an agent for a company has failed to work at a profit, for a term of six months or a year, with the understanding that they pay to the owners a per centage of the gold extracted. They then venture their time and money in the speculation. Trusting by honesty, economy and by faithful working not only to make a fair day's wages but also earn a return on their capital, time, adventured.”

According to the report, “The ‘tribute system’ has become with but one or two exceptions general in all the districts, and although it is attended by some disadvantages, it promises to lead to excellent results. Already it is shown that some of the leads abandoned by companies can, in the hands of tributers working even under many difficulties, be wrought with profit and advantage.”

However, even as the Department of Mines endorsed the tribute system, it also noted concerns with it: “The great objection to tributing, as now conducted, is the desultory method it introduces. The backs of the leads are stripped and the trenches thus made become reservoirs for water. No more timber than is absolutely necessary for the immediate safety of the mine is as a rule used, and in districts where the country [host] rock is fissile, a crushing in of the walls sooner or later takes place.”

In other words, the tributers kept gold mining alive during lean years, when many companies had failed and were not working their mines. However, as temporary operators, they had no incentive to do long term planning to ensure a mine’s ongoing viability, to keep proper records that would help with planning and safety in future, or to spend extra money on safety measures, like additional timber supports, to keep a mine from caving in.

Because tributers did not own the mines, their focus was entirely short-term – to extract as much gold as possible at the lowest cost possible.

Just one year later, the Department’s 1873 annual report had this to say about tributers: “The subletting of mines to tributers is still largely practiced, and while it has advantages when properly conducted, it has evils which become more apparent as it continues… The men who take the mines on tribute are irresponsible, and Arab like, they are forever wandering, trying new places, opening up old mines and again abandoning them.”

The Department did not know how to “remedy the evil, without interfering with and crushing out adventurers from prospecting… Perhaps a remedy may be found by modifying the system of leasing, and by making the title of holders more secure, make them more interested in adopting a proper and more permanent mode of working.”

Put plainly, the Department wanted the good aspects of the tribute system but not the bad.

There were many references to this challenge in the Department’s annual reports throughout the 1870s and 1880s. For example, the 1876 report commented that “The success of the tributers in mines that companies failed to work profitably shows what can be done by the effective employment of labor.”

However, that report also complained about the lack of safety measures in a Wine Harbour mine: “When in mines worked by tributers I occasionally find the ladders not over secure, but worse than those in this shaft, I never met. They were vertical and loosely hung one from the other by bits of rope. That tributers should keep them as they were is surprising, for it is natural to suppose for the sake of their own necks, they would keep them secure.”

The 1879 report said, “The tribute system has been continued with its evils unabated.”

The 1916 annual report, written during another period of decreased activity at the province’s gold mines, actually lamented the lack of tributers: “A noticeable feature is the absence of tribute work during the year. With many promising properties lying idle and bringing no returns to the owners it should be possible for miners to obtain favorable terms for tribute work. "

The Department of Mines never did figure out a way to achieve tributing’s advantages while eliminating its disadvantages, but it eventually became moot.

Some tributers continued to work in Nova Scotia’s gold mines well into the 1900s but tributing started to decline in the 1890s, around the time that Nova Scotia’s second gold rush started. Technological advancements, such as the adoption of dynamite and better milling techniques, brought mining companies back to the mines, decreasing the need and opportunity for tributers.

Given their lack of scientific knowledge, it is hardly surprising that our early gold miners did not take proper care of the environment. Fortunately, modern gold mining is completely different. It is a sophisticated, science-based activity that is committed to environmental protection. Learn more about differences between historical and modern gold mining at

The Plough Lead shaft in Wine Harbour in 1937.

Belt of quartz veins in the Plough Lead shaft, 1937.