Glossary of Mining Terms

Battle Mountain Mines in Cripple Creek, Colorado by Detroit Photograhic, 1900

Battle Mountain Mines at Victor, Colorado in 1900, by the Detroit Photographic Co.


Adit at the Lucky Tiger Mine, Humboldt County, Nevada.

Adit at the Lucky Tiger Mine, Humboldt County, Nevada.

Adit – An entrance to a mine, generally a horizontal tunnel.

Alluvial or Bench Deposits – An ancient river-washed rock and gravel bar that may be thousands of feet from the nearest stream, creek, or river. Alluvial or bench deposits contain untapped potential for finding gold because such areas have never been worked before. The hydraulic giants generally worked alluvial deposits.

Alluvium – A deposit of loose gravel between the superficial covering of vegetable mold and subjacent rocks.

Amalgam – Gold or silver combined with quicksilver.

Amalgamation – The technique of using mercury to attract small particles of crushed gold and join with them in an amalgam, or alloy. Gold may be recovered by distilling off the mercury.

Ancient Riverbed Claims – Gold found in beds of rivers that are now extinct.

Arastra – A mill, consisting of one or more large stones dragged around on a circular bed, used to grind the ore.

Argentiferous – Bearing or producing silver.

Assaying – Finding the percentage of a given metal in ore or bullion.

Assessment – Amount levied on capital stock.


Bar Claims – Gold found in low collections of sand, or gravel, in rivers, exposed at low water.

Barren Contract – A contract vein, or a place in the contract vein, which has no mineral.

Base Bullion – Precious metals contained in lead.

Bedrock – The formation underlying pay-dirt.

Bench Claims – Minerals found in a narrow tableland on hill-side, above a river.

Blende – An ore of zinc, consisting of zinc and sulfur.

Blind Lode – A lode having no outcrop.

Blossom Rock – Float ore, found upon the surface or near where lodes or ledges outcrop, and from which they have become detached.

Bonanza – Fairweather; a mine said to en bonanza when it is yielding a profit. It is a Spanish term meaning good luck.

Breasting Ore – Taking ore from the face, breast or end of a tunnel. Bullion. – Precious metals, gold, and silver, etc., not coined.

Bucket Line Dredge – Unlike modern dredges; a bucket line dredge was very large. Instead of sucking up water and gravel through the use of water pressure, the bucket line dredges would scoop it up and run it through a long sluice box.


Cage – The elevator used for hoisting and lowering the ore cars, men, and materials of a mine.

Cap Rock – Formation overlaying the ore or vein stone.

Carbonate – A geological formation that carries silver ore, and from 5 to 70 percent. of lead.

Carboniferous – Containing coal.

Chilean Mill – A machine, somewhat like the arrastra, in which heavy stone wheels turn about a central shaft and crush ore.

Chlorides – A compound of chlorine and silver.

A large chute at the Kennecott Copper Mine in Alaska.

A large chute at the Kennecott Copper Mine in Alaska.

Chute – An inclined channel through which ore slides.

Chopping – The rock that appears on the surface indicating the presence of a lode.

Claim – A piece of land 25 to 300 feet wide and 1,500 feet long, which the government sells to the man who finds minerals within its limits.

Conglomerate – Pudding stones, composed of gravel and pebble cemented together.

Contact – A touching, meeting, or junction of two different kinds of rock, porphyry, and slate.

Contact Vein – A vein along the contact plane of, or between, two dissimilar rock masses.

Cord of Ore – 128 cubic feet of broken ore; about seven tons in quartz rock.

Cornish Pump – A type of pump developed in Cornwall, England, and commonly used in deep mines of the nineteenth century to raise underground water.

Crosscut – A horizontal tunnel driven perpendicular to the main direction of a vein.

Country Rock – Rock on either side of a lode or ledge, usually barren; the permanent rock enclosing a vein.

Copper miners in Michigan, Keystone View Co, 1916.

Copper miners in Michigan, Keystone View Co, 1916.

Coyote – The process of digging in river-borne gravel by tunneling until bedrock is hit. The tunnel is dug in hopes of finding a rich bedrock deposit deep in the gravel bar.

Crevice – A narrow opening, resulting from a crack; a fissure.

Cribbing – A timber or plank lining of a shaft; the confining of a wall-rock.

CrossCut – A level driven across the course of a vein.

Cupriferous – Containing copper.


Debris – Sediment from mines.

Denudation – Rocks laid bare by running water or other agencies.

Deposit – A body of ore distinct from a ledge.

Diggings – Name applied to placers being worked.

Diluvium – A deposit of superficial sand, loam, gravel, pebbles, etc.

Dip – The slope, pitch, or angle which a vein makes with the plane of the horizon.

Dredge – A common piece of mining equipment, the dredge sucks up dirt and gravel from within a stream bed by the use of water pressure.

Drift – A horizontal passage underground that is .excavated along a rich vein of ore. Used in hard rock mining.

Gregory gold diggings, Central City, Colorado, N. Orr Co, 1859

Gregory gold diggings, Central City, Colorado, N. Orr Co, 1859

Dry Diggings – Earth excavated in the summer and held to be washed in winter when water was more plentiful.

Dry Washing – Fine soil blown away, leaving the gold.

Drywasher – A common desert mining tool similar to a highbanker but doesn’t need water. It operates by the use of wind. The light junk material is blown off the top of the sluice in the dry washer and the gold stays on the bottom.

Dump – The pile of ore or debris taken from mines, or tailings from sluicing.


End Lines – The lines bounding the ends of a claim.


Face – End of level or tunnel against the ore or rock.

Fathom – Six feet square on the vein.

Feeder – A small vein joining a larger one.

Feldspar –  A group of crystalline minerals that consist of aluminum silicates with either potassium, sodium, calcium, or barium and that are an essential constituent of nearly all crystalline rocks.

Fissure Vein – A fissure or crack in the earth’s crust filled with mineral matter.

Flat Claims – Minerals found on flats.

Flour Gold/Gold Dust – Gold that is so fine that it looks and feels like flour or dust.

Float – Loose rock or isolated masses of ore, or ore detached from the original formation.

Ten mile long flume, Twin Springs, ID, W.E. Pierce amd Co., real estate dealers, 1898

Ten-mile long flume, Twin Springs, ID, W.E. Pierce and Co., real estate dealers, 1898

Flume – A boxing or piping for carrying water. Similar to sluice boxes, but they do not have riffles and are used solely to transport water in areas where a ditch would be impossible such as cliff sides and rocky hillsides.

Flux – The flow of the ore in the furnace of the smelter.

Footwall – The layer of rock immediately under the vein.

Forfeiture – A failure to comply with the laws prescribing the quantity of work.

Free Gold – Gold easily separated from the quartz or dirt.


Galena – Lead ore; sulfur and lead

Gangue – The worthless rock in a vein which holds valuable metals.

Gash Vein – A vein wide above and narrow below.

Geode – A cavity studded around with crystals or mineral matter, a rounded stone containing such a cavity.

Geology – The science or study of rocks in the earth.

Grizzly – Bars set in a flume to strain out the large stones used in hydraulic mining.

Gulch – A ravine.

Gulch Claims – Minerals found in gullies that are usually dry during part of the year


Hanging Wall – The layer of rock or wall over a lode.

Hard Rock Mine – A tunnel that is dug into solid rock for the sole purpose of finding valuable or precious rocks, minerals, or metals.

Heading – The vein above the drift.

Miner Sluice

Miner Sluice

Headings – In placer mining, the mass or gravel above the head of a sluice.

Highbanker – A mobile sluice box. Instead of being put right in the creek, it uses water to pump to transport the water and minerals to another location. It is also able to run more material in less time than the sluice.

High-Grade Ore – Ore which runs more silver than twenty ounces to the ton, with 50 or more percent of lead.

High Grading – A high-grader was a man who stole any big nuggets which he saw in the sluice boxes.

Hill Claims – Minerals found in or under a hill.

Horse – A mass of rock matter occurring in or between the branches of a vein.

Hydraulic Mining, Twin Springs ID, Horace C. Myers, 1901

Hydraulic Mining, Twin Springs Idaho, Horace C. Myers, 1901

Hydraulic Claims – Claims worked by hydraulic power.

Hydraulic “Giant” or Monitor – The firehose-type nozzles that sprayed huge amounts of water on hillsides to recover gold out of them.


Inch of Water – About two and a half cubic feet per minute; the water that will run out of an opening one-inch square.

Incline – A slanting shaft.


Jumping a Claim – Relocating a claim on which the required work has been done.


Knife Claims – Minerals dug from crevices with a knife or spoon.

Kibble – Iron Cornish bucket used to hoist ore and miners to the surface.


Level – A tunnel cut on the vein from the main tunnel. A drift.

Ledge – A vein or lode.

Little Giant – A movable nozzle attached to hydraulic pipes.

Locate – To establish the possessory right to a mining claim.

Lode – A metallic vein.

Long Tom – Similar to a sluice box, but longer and skinnier.

Low Grade Ore – Ore which runs below twenty ounces of silver to the ton, fifty percent of the ton being lead.


Metamorphism – A pronounced change in the constitution of rock affected by pressure, heat, and water that results in a more compact and more highly crystalline condition.

Mill Run – A test of the quality of ore after reduction.

Mineral – A substance that may, or may not, be of economic value, that occurs naturally in the earth. It is homogenous, has certain chemical makeup, and usually appears in crystal or grain form.

Mother Lode – Where the gold is trapped inside veins of quartz on mountainsides. The erosion of land causes the gold to break away from this source and eventually wash down into the river.


Bisbee, AZ - The Lavender Pit Mine

The Lavender Open Pit Mine in Bisbee, Arizona by Kathy Alexander.

Open Pit Mine – Because of the danger associated with drifts, open-pit mines are dug from the ground down and are never tunneled, and are the most common form of hard-rocking mining today.

Ore – Any natural combination of minerals. Especially one from which a metal or metals can be profitably extracted. Commonly a mixture of one or more of the following: quartz, gold, copper, silver, sulfur, iron, and nickel.

Outcrop – That portion of a vein appearing at the surface.


Pack Train – Pack trains were used to transport the bare necessities to miners and loggers in the 19th century. They usually consisted of 5 or more horses or mules and a few men.

Gold panning in the American West

Gold panning in Pinos Altos, New Mexico by Russell Lee, 1940

Pan or Panning – Usually to wash the dirt from the free gold with a pan, the pan resembles an ordinary milk-pan.

Patch – A small placer claim.

Petering or Peter Out – The ore giving out.

Pitch – The same as a dip.

Piping – Washing gravel in a hydraulic claim by discharging water upon it through a nozzle.

Placer – Gold embedded in clay, sand, gravel; includes all forms of mineral deposits, except veins. These claims were mined through the use of water.

Pocket – A cavity filled with ore, or a rich deposit of precious metal.

Porphyry – A rock consisting of a compact base from which, crystals of feldspar are disseminated.

Primary or Primitive Rocks – Consist of the various kinds of slate, quartz, serpentine, granite, and gneiss; they are the lowest group of rocks, are irregularly crystallized, and contain a few animal relics. Prospecting – Hunting for mineral lodes or placers.

Pulp – Pulverized ore in the lixiviation process.


Quartz – Metal encased in rock.


Reducing – Separating from foreign substances; the reduction of ores consists in extracting from them the metals they contain.

Retort – A vessel in which substances are distilled or decomposed by heat.

Riverbed Claims – Minerals found in river beds accessed by turning the river from its natural course.

Rocker Box or Cradle – Like a sluice box, the rocker box has riffles in it to trap the gold. It was designed to be used in areas with less water than a sluice box. The process involves pouring water out of a small cup and then rocking the small sluice box like a cradle, thus the name rocker box or cradle.


Prospector with burros, Detroit Photographic, turn of the 20th century

Prospector with burros, Detroit Photographic, turn of the 20th century.

Salting a Mine – Placing mineral or ore in barren places to swindle.

Shaft – A vertical or inclined excavation for purpose of prospecting or working mines.

Shaker Table – Like a giant gold pan, an engine drives a belt that vibrates a huge bucket.

Side Lines – The lines which bound the sides of a claim.

Slag – The waste left as a residue by the smelting of metallic ore.

Slimes – The finest of the crushed ore and gangue from mills.

Sluice Box – Boxes or troughs through which gold-bearing gravel is washed. It was the most commonly used tool in mining other than the pan and shovel.

Sluice Claims – A claim worked with sluices.

Smelting – Reducing the ores in furnaces to metals.

Soft Carbonate – Silver-bearing mineral so soft that it can be readily taken out with a pick and shovel. It is usually sand impregnated with minerals, the mineral having been carbonated or oxidized.

Sourdough – A highly experienced miner who has prospected for many years.

Square Set – A set of timbers used for support in underground mining.

Panamint Stamp Mill

Panamint, California Stamp Mill

Stamp or Stamp Mill – Machines for crushing ores.

Stope – A step-like excavation formed by the removal of ore from around a mine shaft.

Stoping – The act of breaking down a stope and excavating it with a pick.

Strata – A series of beds of rock.

Stull – Platforms of timbers between levels for strengthening the mine by supporting the walls, and for storing ore and depositing wall rock and waste material.

Stull Timbers – The large timbers placed across the vein or lode from one wall to another, to support the lagging upon which the ore or waste is placed.

Strike – A find; a valuable mineral development made in an unexpected manner.

Sulphuret – Combination of sulfur with a metallic, earthy, or alkaline base.

Sump or Sumph – A pit sunk at the bottom of a mine to collect the water. It can be the bottom of a shaft.


Miners in the Greenwater Mining District of California

Miners in the Greenwater Mining District of California

Tailings – Gravel, dirt, and rocks that are left behind after extracting the minerals.

Tunnel – A level, driven at right angles to the targeted vein of mineral.

Tunnel Claims – Gold-bearing earth taken out of tunnels and subsequently washed.


Vein – Aggregations of mineral matter in fissures of rocks.


Walls – The sides next to the lode.

Wash – The first geological formation, being composed of earth, sand, gravel, and other minerals “washed” down from the mountains during a long series of ages.

Waste – Rock containing no ore but removed in the course of mining operations.

Whim – A winding machine used for hoisting ore out of a shaft.

Windlass – A device, smaller than a whim, used to raise ore from a shaft.

Winze or Wizen – A shaft sunk from one level to the other.

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser-Alexander/Legends of America, November 2021.

Also See: 

Miners’ Ten Commandments

Mining History in the United States

Mining on the American Frontier

Ghost Towns & Mining Camps Across America

Western Slang, Lingo, and Phrases – A Writer’s Guide to the Old West