Nevada Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Nevada is mostly arid, its desert terrain broken up by a series of mountain ranges. Part of the Great Basin region, it lies between Utah to the east and California to the west.

History of Nevada

Nevada is mostly arid, its desert terrain broken up by a series of mountain ranges. Part of the Great Basin region, it lies between Utah to the east and California to the west. Nevada’s geography has deeply influenced nearly every principal aspect of its economy and society. Nevada’s history would hardly have been the same without its laws, all influenced by geography, governing gambling, personal and corporate taxation, and marriage and divorce–even prostitution, which, unique among American states, it permits in sparsely populated counties.

The role of the state’s geography is most apparent in that, unlike its neighbors, especially California, Nevada has few hospitable natural areas for human settlement. The proximity of populous, wealthy California, however, provides an abundant source of tourism. This fact gave legalized gambling in Nevada an irresistible appeal. Gambling revenues, in turn, allow the state to dispense with state income tax, which now helps to persuade large numbers of retirees, many of them Californians, to settle in the state, especially in the Las Vegas area.

Nevada has had incredible wealth beneath its surface, though virtually all of its mining bonanzas have turned to busts, at least temporarily. Even with the precious metals and other minerals in the state, Nevada’s population did not exceed one million until the 1980’s; at the end of the twentieth century its population was still fewer than two million.

Early History

Human society in Nevada extends as much as ten thousand years into the past. Before the arrival of white settlers, American Indian peoples, including the Shoshone, Northern Paiute, and Washoe tribes, inhabited the region. In the eighteenth century, Spanish explorers were the first Europeans to visit the area. Spanish interest in the territory waned, however, after the report of Father Francisco Silvestre Vélez de Escalante, who accompanied an expedition, commented negatively on the area’s steep, dry character.

By the early nineteenth century, Canadian and American explorers had arrived. Some were seeking animal furs, and others led scientific expeditions, such as John C. Frémont in the 1840’s. Frémont’s systematic research of the area and reports on his findings provided the federal government its first systematic account of the region and stimulated interest in the West among easterners. However, the harsh terrain was inhospitable to settlers, and those who passed through Nevada’s deserts and mountains were usually on their way to kinder environs. One of the immigrant parties that crossed Nevada was the Donner Party, which in 1846-1847 became snowbound while attempting to cross the Sierra Nevada west of Reno, resorting to cannibalism to survive.

There appear to have been fewer conflicts between settlers and American Indians than in neighboring territories. The settler population was sparse and grouped in only a few locations, so that contacts with American Indians were fewer. That did not mean there was no conflict, however. For example, in 1855 when Mormons arrived in Las Vegas (Spanish for “the meadows”) to convert Paiute Indians and supply travelers on their way to Salt Lake City from the Pacific, they found themselves attacked by American Indian raiding parties. Three years later, they abandoned their adobe fort.

In the 1870’s, in accordance with federal American Indian policy, reservations were established, the largest of which were the Pyramid Lake Reservation, north of Reno, and the Walker River Reservation, southeast of Reno. These and a number of other smaller reservations, numbering fewer than a dozen, are scattered around the state.

From Territory to State

The United States acquired the land of modern Nevada, along with other territory in 1848, after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War. In 1850, when New Mexico and Utah were established as territories, Nevada’s land was incorporated into the new Utah Territory, administered from Salt Lake City by the Mormon regime.

Those seeking their fortunes in the gold fields of California undertook the first great trek through Nevada in 1849-1850. Their numbers led to the first white settlement in present Nevada, when Mormons from Salt Lake City established Mormon Station (later called Genoa), southeast of Carson City. The establishment was obliged to close in 1857, when Mormon leader Brigham Young recalled them, fearful of an attack by U.S. Army troops during a dispute with the federal government. Young had proposed a new state to be formed called “Deseret” but was turned down by the government. Non-Mormons who flocked to the area two years later, who generally opposed living under Mormon rule, tried to set up a provisional territorial government, but Washington, D.C., refused to recognize it.

Miners began pouring into Nevada in 1859, when a rich silver lode was discovered, according to one story, by siblings Ethan and Hosea Grosh near Virginia City but credited to Henry T. P. Comstock, who assumed the brothers’ claims after they mysteriously died. This strike, which resulted in the extraction of some $400 million in silver, brought thousands of adventurers into Comstock and the surrounding area. Nearby Virginia City became the site’s de facto capital, scene of fabulous luxury as well as lawless behavior, as fantastic fortunes were extracted from the ground. Among the invaders from California was the young Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known later as Mark Twain, who had become a reporter for Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise. Twain chronicled the raucous life of the era in his book Roughing It (1872). By the 1870’s, however, wasteful mining methods and the demonetization of silver by the U.S. government, which lowered its price, combined to diminish the silver rush, and by 1898, Comstock was all but abandoned.

Although settlers were unsuccessful in their first attempt at establishing a territory, events were moving in their favor. Lawlessness needed to be curbed, but, perhaps more important, the Civil War looming early in 1861 directed Washington, D.C., to ensure the loyalty of the West. Accordingly, Nevada became a territory in 1861. The next step to statehood was the writing of a constitution. After voters rejected a first constitution in 1863, a second version–this time without objectionable mining taxes–was accepted the following year. Although the territory was unqualified for statehood because its population was too small (6,857 in 1860), President Abraham Lincoln needed votes in the Senate to pass constitutional amendments and was anxious to add more. Accordingly, the entire text of the new constitution was sent to Washington, D.C., for approval in the longest telegram up to then ever sent, at the astronomical cost of $3,416.77. The territory was made a state in 1864.

The formal institutions of government followed the lead of other states in splitting executive powers into a number of elective offices. This policy had the effect of keeping power out of the hands of a single chief executive, and it reflected traditional American, especially western, distrust of executives, whether kings or presidents. The legislature is bicameral. Five justices sit on the Supreme Court of Nevada, all elected to six-year staggered terms. Nine district courts, with thirty-five district judges serving six-year terms, and a series of municipal courts, complete the judicial system.

Economy and Society

Life in the new state improved by the arrival in 1868 of a transcontinental railroad, a more satisfactory communications link than the Pony Express. In the 1870’s the economy went sour when the nation turned to the gold standard and silver was no longer used in coins. Cattle and sheep ranching now assumed prominence in the state’s economy. Mining in the state revived after 1900 with new gold, silver, and copper discoveries. Moreover, the mining boom stimulated railroad building. In 1905 the Union Pacific Railroad constructed tracks from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles through Las Vegas. Prosperity had its dark side, too, as early in the century violent strikes took place, pitting workers against mining companies.

Mining boomed again when the nation entered World War I in 1917, but after the war demand fell off and declined in the 1920’s. When the Depression came in 1930, to stimulate the economy the state legalized gambling, which had been outlawed since 1909. To attract more visitors, it also relaxed marriage and divorce laws, in time making a “Nevada divorce” a household term. Mining revived once more in the late 1930’s and 1940’s, as federal spending for war materiel increased.

Postwar Developments

After World War II society and economy in Nevada changed dramatically. Contrary to some expectations, the demand for minerals remained high in the postwar years. First, big-time gambling was inaugurated with the opening in Las Vegas of the Flamingo Hotel, built and financed by organized crime. By the mid-1950’s dozens of large casinos had opened in Las Vegas and Reno, drawing gamblers and vacationers from throughout the nation with headline entertainment and inexpensive food and accommodations.

Second, the federal government dramatically increased spending in the state, opening an Air Force base north of Las Vegas and a bombing range, including a site for testing atomic weapons. In addition, irrigation projects brought water to make the desert bloom. By the 1980’s a controversy had broken out between the state and the federal government, which owns 87 percent of the state’s domain, over use of federal land for storing atomic waste. In the 1990’s the state lost key court decisions over the matter, and the federal government began creating storage facilities for nuclear waste.

Recreational Mecca

In the 1960’s, the threat of organized crime to the state’s gaming industry led Nevada to change its laws, allowing public companies to open casinos in the state. The advent of well-financed commercial gaming in the state was to revolutionize the industry. Gamblers, some of them very rich, began to arrive from all over the world. By the 1980’s and 1990’s casinos had adopted a policy of attracting families, and significant expansion of the tourist industry took place. Reno and neighboring Lake Tahoe prospered, and Las Vegas became an international center of postmodern architecture. Its cavernous casino-hotels, some designed with a touch of whimsy, often made thematic reference to lost civilizations, such as ancient Egypt and Rome, or to contemporary cities, such as New York and Paris.

The state also attracts increasing numbers of retirees. Las Vegas in particular, with its mild winter climate and proximity to Southern California, became a mecca for retirees. Other factors attracting retirees and others was housing made inexpensive by an inexhaustible supply of cheap land, stretching endlessly into the desert and the absence of a state income tax, made unnecessary by gambling revenues.

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