Filled with colorful characters and larger-than-life personalities—who often led the charge with an anything’s-possible spirit—Nevada history speaks. Uncover the history and heritage of the Silver State, spanning stories from the Great Basin’s first residents and early European exploration, the forging of the California Trail and the Transcontinental Railroad, silver strikes felt ‘round the United States—and world—and more. Get to know Pony Express riders, tour the world’s last great gold and silver camps, go inside an architectural wonder of the modern world, witness the rise of Las Vegas, the Biggest Little City in the World, and dozens of historic Nevada towns and more—and you’re sure to find, Nevada sets itself apart even more than you already thought.
Nevada History & Heritage
The First to Call Nevada’s Great Basin Home
From the Fremont people and the Ancestral Puebloans to the Western Shoshone and Northern Paiutes, Nevada’s Great Basin has been home to American Indians for tens of thousands of years. A seafloor turned high desert, with all waters running inland and no outlet to an ocean, much of northern Nevada was once mostly covered in a prehistoric sea named Glacial Lake Lahontan. Since most valleys were once filled with water, and declining water levels formed marshland habitats, a large portion of Nevada’s first people lived in and around these areas, utilizing them as life sources for water, as well as hunting the plentiful birds and animals that were drawn to them.
The Northern Paiute and Western Shoshone lived in the Carson and Humboldt Sinks—an area east of Fallon and southeast of Lovelock—as well as central Nevada’s Big Smoky Valley. The Fremont peoples lived on the outskirts of modern day Great Basin National Park, while the Ancestral Pueblo took shelter in the Mojave Desert in and around Moapa and the Las Vegas valleys.
By the early 1900s, federal officials had designated dozens of Indian reservations throughout Nevada, including Duck Valley, Pyramid Lake, and Walker River to name a few. During that same time frame the federal government also created hundreds of boarding schools throughout the United States where American Indian children were forcefully relocated to be assimilated into mainstream American culture. One of these schools—the Stewart Indian School’s historic grounds—still stands in Carson City today, and represented 200 tribal nations from all over the west during the 90 years it was open. Its challenging historical trajectory and meaning is now reclaimed, serving has headquarters of the Nevada Indian Commission, housing a beautifully-done museum and cultural center.
From the Washoe to the Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, Goshute nations and beyond, there are 27 Indian Reservations, Bands, and Colonies in Nevada today.
Early European Exploration & Settlement in Nevada
Although several European-descended explorers would eventually travel to the Nevada territory, the first and most famous to map and document the Great Basin and Sierra Nevada regions was John C. Fremont. Following the Humboldt River, Fremont surveyed Nevada’s hundreds of basins and mountain ranges through many expeditions of the West. During his second expedition, he invited Kit Carson as a professional guide to help him navigate; together, they traversed Pyramid Lake and Lake Tahoe.
Their many subsequent treks throughout the West spanned more than a decade, from 1833 through 1844. Soon enough, droves of pioneers began making their way west to start new lives in the places these famous explorers surveyed, following Westward Expansion trails like the California Trail, including the famous Donner Party, who would make their ill-fated trek through Nevada in 1846. Today, many Nevada place names tip their hats to the role John C. Fremont and Kit Carson played in paving the way for the region’s eventual settlement, including Nevada’s capital city, Carson City, Las Vegas’ Fremont Street, and many more.
The Comstock Lode & Becoming the Silver State
The California gold fields called more settlers west by the 1850s, bringing thousands upon thousands more pioneers to the Nevada Territory in hopes of finding fast fortunes. Nevada’s first permanent settlement was established, set against the foothills of the eastern Sierra Nevada in 1851. Under the direction of Utah governor Brigham Young, Nevada’s first non-native settlement was Mormon Station, which later became known as Genoa.
With more and more people in the area hoping to strike it rich in and along the way to California, some pioneers tried their luck prospecting in Nevada’s creeks. Nevada’s first gold discovery happened in 1850 when a gold nugget was found along the Carson River, in what would soon become Dayton. Within a few years, many more placer miners began settling in the areas surrounding Dayton, working their way up Gold Canyon and into the mountains. As one of the biggest turn of events in Nevada history, a mysterious blue clay that kept getting in the way of their gold mining turned out to be silver, a realization that would lead to the largest silver strike in the world—at the time and to this day.
Beneath the slope of Mount Davidson proved to be hundreds of millions of dollars in silver, dubbed the Comstock Lode upon its discovery in 1859, after the American miner Henry Comstock. Several towns formed in the area between Dayton and this massive silver cache, including Gold Hill, Silver City, and Virginia City, beckoning thousands upon thousands of the most qualified miners from around the globe.
This was certainly the biggest bonanza in Nevada history, earning the state its nickname: the “Silver State.” Soon enough, Nevada’s perfect gold, silver, copper, other precious metals, and valuable minerals were soon discovered all over the state, creating hundreds of boomtowns. The bounty of the Comstock Lode helped the Nevada Territory receive official statehood, just before Abraham Lincoln’s presidential election in 1864. And how’s this for some history? The Nevada State Constitution was transmitted by telegraph making the record books as the longest and most expensive telegram in U.S. history. The State of Nevada became official on October 31, 1864, as one of two states to gain statehood during the Civil War—with Nevada’s immense mineral wealth helping foot an outsized portion of the Union’s bills at a crucial time.
Nevada in the 20th Century
The Comstock Lode bonanza’s 300-million-dollar boost not only put Nevada on the map, but also helped fund the development of many western cities, enough to pave the way for some places—we’re looking at you, San Francisco—twice. But, the largest silver strike in the world wasn’t the only flashy event that went down in Nevada’s history books. From building the largest manmade reservoir and the modern marvel of the world that would become known as Hoover Dam, all the way to neon, “quickie” divorce (and, later, marriage), and a brand new standard of nightlife and entertainment, Nevada history boomed—sometimes literally—in just about every decade of the 20th century.
Early 1900s Hundreds of gold and silver camps continue to boom—and then bust—in all corners of Nevada with a few like Tonopah, Goldfield, and Jarbidge so profitable they’re still making Nevada history.
1927 Nevada installs its first neon at the Oasis Restaurant in Las Vegas—the first of millions of buzzing signs to come—setting Nevada on track to become the neon capital of the world.
1931 Gaming is legal once more! Though gaming was first legalized in 1869, it was later banned in 1919 and legalized once more in 1931. The first casino—Pair-O-Dice Club—opens on what will later become the Las Vegas Strip that same year.
1935 & 1936 Lake Mead is finished in 1935, and one year later (and, amazingly, ahead of schedule) the mighty Hoover Dam is completed in 1936, creating hydroelectricity to power the Las Vegas Strip and most of the American Southwest.
1937 Nevada’s “Battle Born” state slogan becomes official.
1951 On the brink of the Cold War, Nevada blasts into the record books after the federal government forms the company town of Mercury north of Las Vegas, recruiting thousands of workers determined to protect national security at the Nevada Test Site. With hundreds of above- and below-ground explosions, 928 tests occurred in and around Frenchman Flat from 1951 to 1992. Now the Nevada National Security Site, this government land is still used to test national-level experiments to protect national security.
1952 With every resort on the Strip hosting its own distinctive nightlife entertainment, showgirls of all kinds becomes the unofficial icon of Las Vegas.
Mid 1950s Reno becomes the “Divorce Capital of the World.” With already loose divorce laws passed the same time gaming was legalized, the Biggest Little City built lodging and entertainment only steps away from its courthouse, beckoning a type of tourist no state had ever seen. Reno’s courthouse pillars soon transformed from white, into shades of pink, orange and red as newly empowered women got quickie divorces, kissed the courthouse pillars grateful for the speedy split, then ceremoniously tossed their wedding rings in the Truckee River.
State & National Historic Sites in Nevada
Thanks to the Silver State’s low population outside Reno and Vegas and ideal arid climate conditions, many of Nevada’s prehistoric sites, bygone boomtowns, and other historic places were naturally preserved until protected by the National Parks Service as historic landmarks on state and national registers.
Today the Great Basin remains dotted with Pony Express waystations, boomtowns turned ghost towns, dozens of Nevada State Parks, and even a National Historic Landmark designation for the entire town of Virginia City, due to its importance in state, national, and world history. From Hoover Dam, a modern marvel of the world, to the McKeen Motor Car, one of the only National Historic Landmarks that moves, you don’t have to be a diehard history hound to sink your canines into Nevada’s fascinating story.
Travel Nevada Pro Tip
National Historic Sites and Landmarks in Nevada
Hoover Dam Tour this massive, modern marvel of the world, made from 3.25 million cubic yards of concrete—plus an additional 1.1 million cubic yards for the power plant and other facilities—to learn about Lake Mead’s formation; then geek out on the masterful Art Deco style throughout the hydroelectric power plant.
Virginia City Historic Landmark Yep, the whole damn town. Not just historic district, or historic location—the history that happened here is so important that the entire, 1860s-era town is designated a landmark. Stroll the wooden boardwalks through living history playing out among a red light district, immaculate churches, a towering four-story one-of-a-kind schoolhouse, beautifully preserved homes and miner cabins, tourable mines, an opera house, and plenty of authentic saloons—still rowdy after all these years.
The East Ely Depot & Nevada Northern Railway See what 1907 looked like (and still does!) at this frozen-in-time museum; then catch a ride—or even be the engineer—on a working steam locomotive. The NNR railyard is also home to still-steamin’ Engine 40, the official Nevada state locomotive.
The McKeen Motorcar #70 Got more trains on the brain? Head for the Nevada State Railroad Museum—Carson City to see the McKeen Motorcar #70, an immaculately restored gasoline-powered railcar and one of the only historical landmarks that moves.
Fort Churchill State Historic Park Learn how soldiers at this army fort guarded the Pony Express and tangled with Nevada’s original settlers, the American Indians; then explore its ghost town-like ruins.
Sites on the Nevada State Register of Historic Places
Bowers Mansion All those people who made out like a bandit from the Comstock Lode? See it in action at Bowers Mansion, built by a couple who reaped the profits of Virginia City’s massive silver strike, then built an elaborate mansion in the valley below.
David Walley’s Hot Springs Fortune did lie in Nevada’s gold and silver fields, and also in the therapeutic mineral waters found at this pre-statehood hot spring resort that used to be some of Mark Twain’s old splashin’ grounds.
Goldfield Hotel As one of Nevada’s most historic hotels—and reportedly most haunted—the once elaborate Goldfield Hotel is a must-see for history and paranormal lovers alike.
Tom Kelly Bottle House What happens when you use up all the (already not that many) trees around to build a railroad, but still wanna build a house? You use the only other building materials around—and in a boomtown with more than 50 saloons, that means empty beer and liquor bottles. Scope out the largest “bottle house”—made from thousands of soda, medicine, beer and whiskey bottles—in Rhyolite Ghost Town.
The City of Churches When you hit Austin on your Loneliest Road adventure, keep an eye out for three historic churches. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003, the 1856 St. Augustine’s Catholic Church underwent an impressive facelift and now serves as Austin’s Cultural Center.
True Tales & Travel Tips
Larger Than Life Personalities That Defined Nevada’s Own
From October 31, 1864, onward, Nevada’s been blazing a trail of history and heritage, full of people and stories you won’t find anywhere else. Battle Born with Wild West roots, our state is jam-packed with fascinating people, tales, and unbelievable achievements that’ll add a little sparkle to every topic that interests you.