Nevada History

Nevada History

North America

First European Explorations (1770–1855)

Before the Europeans colonized present-day Nevada, it was sparsely populated by Native American tribes. The area has a rough and dry climate, which means that the population density was (very) low.

Under New Spain

According to watchtutorials, Franciscan Brother Francisco Garcés was probably the first European to visit the area in the 1870s. The Spanish king wanted to explore the unknown areas north of his New Spain, and the Viceroy of New Spain (and local Franciscans) recognized the importance of establishing a land link between Alta California in the northwest and the Gulf of Mexico in the north. southeast. This route led through the Sonoran Desert. Garcés became a key player in the exploration of this route, exploring parts of the Sonoran Desert, as well as parts of the Mojave Desert and the RiverColorado.

Subsequently, the territory of later Nevada was annexed as part of the Spanish Empire as part of New Spain. Administratively, the area fell under the “Commandanca-General” of the Provincias Internas of New Spain. In 1804 California was split and Nevada became part of Alta California.

Under Mexico

In red the journey of Jedediah Smith in 1826-27, searching in vain for the Buenaventura/Humboldt

When Mexico became independent in 1821, Alta California had a limited non-Native American population. The geography of the area was still not well known. Thus the idea was born that there should be a large river on the west side of the continental divide (just like the Mississippi on the east) that should allow easy navigation. The origin for this legendary river, the so-called Buenaventura, was probably the Humboldt, a river that ends in an endorheic basin in Nevada. The American explorer Jedediah Smith went in search of the Buenaventura in 1827, and traveled deep into the Mexican territory of Alta California. He explored the valley of Las Vegas, among other things, but did not discover the Humboldt. Even on his way back, across the arid desert of the Great Basin, where he nearly died of dehydration, he could not find the Humboldt. A year later, Canadian Peter Skeen Ogden explored the vicinity of Utah’s Great Salt Lake and western Great Basin, finding the Humboldt and following it for 530 miles to its dry end.

In 1833-34, Joseph R. Walker, in a John Jacob Astor -funded expedition, explored the desert of the Great Basin, with the goal of finding a route to California. Walker discovered the Humboldt, the hoped-for Buenaventura, which forms a natural east-west link through the arid and mountainous region. The Humboldt was later of crucial importance because fresh water and grass could be found along the Humboldt in the otherwise arid region of the Great Basin. This would form the basis for the California Trail. Walker also discovered that this Humboldt did not reach the Pacific Ocean, but ended in a salt lake. He crossed the hot and dry Forty Mile Desert and reached the Carson River.

From the 1940s, northern Nevada became an important transit area from the United States to the “gold rush” areas of northwestern California. The migrants followed the California Trail. They passed through the north of present-day Nevada and followed the Humboldt downstream to the Sierra Nevada in California.

In 1847, Mormon pioneers settled near the Salt Lake on what was then Mexican territory in present-day Utah. They wanted to declare a territory that would be recognized by the United States as part of the United States.

United States Territory (1848/1850)

Abraham Curry, one of the driving forces behind the foundation of the state and founder of the capital Carson City

After the War of 1848, Mexico had to cede a huge area to the United States, including what is now Nevada. Mexico had never exercised any formal control over the area of ​​present-day Nevada, then known as Washoe. A year later, in 1849, the Mormons begin the process of having their state “Deseret” recognized as a state. They opted for state recognition because California and New Mexico had also applied for it. A large area was claimed, the entire Great Basin and the entire American portion of the Colorado River Basin. In 1850, the Utah Territory was replaced by Deseretrecognized. This occupied the northern half of the proposed Deseret. A year later, in 1851, the first white settlement in present-day Nevada was established: “Mormon Station,” present -day Genoa, about twenty miles south of what would later become Carson City. This was the first of several Mormon travel posts along the route to California. Small Mormon settlements also arose in eastern Nevada, near the border with present-day Utah. The west was left behind until the discovery of silver and gold in 1859.

In 1858, Abraham Curry moved to western Utah after learning that western territory was being abandoned by the Mormons because of the armed conflict between the Mormons and the federal government. He first went to Genoa, but left the city because he thought it was too expensive. Disliked by Mormon influence on the Utah government, he wanted to split off western Utah with a group of like-minded people, and he seized the opportunity because of the Mormons’ absence. In search of a good place for a future capital, he founded Carson City in the same year. A year later, in 1859, the Comstock Lodesilver and gold ore discovered 20 miles northwest of Carson City. This caused tens of thousands of migrants to migrate to the western region of the territory. Virginia City grew into a mining town and nearby Carson City grew as well. The distance between Salt Lake City and the far west turned out to be great. Another problem was the tension between the Mormon inhabitants in the east and the non-Mormons in the west of the territory. On March 2, 1861, the region seceded from Utah as Nevada Territory. The name referred to the Sierra Nevadain the West. However, most of the Sierra Nevada was in California, which was not so clear at the time. The capital became Carson City, as envisioned by Abraham Curry.

Mark Twain would stay in Nevada for a while from 1861 and would work for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper. It would prove to be a formative period for his later writing career. However, Twain was also controversial for regularly writing sensational fake articles. At the same time, the Pony Express was opened, a courier service that ran from Missouri to California, including Carson City.

Nevada State (1864), Tree and Boundary Changes

The International Hotel in Virginia City, photographed here in 1890. The great finds in this mining town created a need for a luxury hotel. Opened in 1877, this hotel had the first elevator in the western US, Oriental rugs and even palm trees in the lobby.

On October 31, 1864, during the American Civil War, Nevada formally became the 36th state of the United States. That is why the nickname Battle Born is also used. This happened just eight days before the presidential election. Possibly Abraham wanted Lincolnsecure his reelection with an additional state to side with but in hindsight he didn’t need the Nevada votes. Normally, a new state was required to have 60,000 inhabitants, but Nevada had only slightly more than 10,000 in 1864. However, the population would grow strongly in the following years: in 1870 the population had already reached 43,000 inhabitants. The mining towns that sprung up in the blink of an eye were notorious for gambling, binge drinking and prostitution.

In 1866, the border between Nevada and the Utah Territory was moved to the east. A year later, Nevada again gained territory, this time at the expense of New Mexico: the Las Vegas area was added to Nevada after gold was discovered.

The first transcontinental railway was built in 1863. It would also run through northern Nevada. Reno was founded in 1868, on the railroad, north of the Comstock Lode. Reno would grow into an important city and was Nevada’s largest city in the first half of the twentieth century, after the decline of Carson City and before the growth of Las Vegas.

Homesteading, an important phenomenon in other western states of the United States, where free land was given by the government, could not happen on a large scale in Nevada due to the arid climate. Arable farming is only possible in a few places, so only extensive ranching was possible in most of Nevada. The maximum dimensions of homestead lands were thus too small to be able to live on these lands alone. Early immigrants therefore chose to settle near water and graze their livestock on the surrounding public land, which was not claimed by others because it was not interesting without water. Today (since 1848) more than 80% of Nevada’s territory is still in the hands of the (federal) government.


Between 1880 and 1900, Nevada’s population declined by 32% as mining yields declined. For the capital Carson City it would take until 1960 before the population of peak year 1880 was reached again. However, in 1900 a rich silver vein was found at Tonopah, followed by gold discoveries at Goldfield and Rhyolite. This again caused an increase in the population (more than 80,000 inhabitants in 1910).

In the early twentieth century, progressives try to implement reforms to curtail capitalism. People dreamed of a bourgeois Nevada with universities, lofty idealism and a socially reformed government. In 1910, the state passed a law banning gambling. The 1910s were marked by disillusionment with social reforms not being implemented and a population decline. By 1920, the image of a Nevada was alive as a “beautiful desert of buried hopes”: a beautiful desert of buried hopes (of a better future).


Las Vegas in the late 1960s.

The ban on games of chance had by no means reduced gambling. Gambling was legalized again in 1931 to allow for taxes, amid strong protest from Washington DC. This started a second economic boom. Initially, Reno became the main gambling city. The Hoover Dam was built from 1931 to 1935. This ensured that the sleepy town of Las Vegas, despite its location in the hot Mojave Desert, quickly grew into a large city. In 1941 the El Rancho Vegas opened here, a resort with a casino, entertainment and hotel in one. This concept would become a trendsetter. The criminal Bugsy Siegelcame to town to set up a second resort and many other criminals followed, creating the Las Vegas Strip step by step. From 1941, Las Vegas experienced an exponential growth that only started to slow down around the year 2000.

Thanks in part to good transportation links with the major metropolitan cities in California, very accessible divorce laws and the idea of ​​​​the get-rich-quick scheme, Nevada had a so-called “boom-and-bust economy” with mainly “boom”. This lasted until 2008 when the financial crisis exposed large-scale speculation in housing and casinos.

Nearly 1,000 nuclear tests were conducted at the Nevada Test Site, northwest of Las Vegas, between 1951 and 1962.

Nevada History