Spanish explorations into this region have never been documented clearly enough to establish any European party constituting the earliest expedition into Nevada. If in fact there was some penetration, it must have been by the Spanish in the southernmost portion of our state, possibly as early as 1776. Trappers and traders, including Jedediah Smith and Peter Skene Ogden, entered the Nevada area in the 1820s.
In 1821 Mexico won its war of independence from Spain and gained control over all the former Spanish territory in the area of what is now our "Southwest." Spain had done nothing to occupy or control what is now Nevada, a vast region virtually "terra incognita," having no permanent non-Indian population and considered barren, arid, and inhospitable. Mexico's control over that interior portion of Alta California, eventually to become Nevada, was hardly more than a recognized claim in the absence of occupation or counterclaim by other powers.
Before the discovery of gold in the West, the vast region between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, including what is now Nevada, was designated on many maps as "Great American Desert." The "Great Basin," an area of interior drainage by definition, named by John C. Frémont following his expeditions of the 1840s, does not cover all of the present area of the State of Nevada, since tributaries of the Snake River in the north and those of the Colorado in the south drain waters to the Pacific Ocean.
Jedediah S. Smith, an American frontiersman, and Peter Skeen Ogden, an employee of the British Hudson's Bay Company, were among the first, with lesser-known persons also reporting their adventures. Smith and Ogden explored the area in the 1820s. In the 1830s and '40s American and Mexican parties came through the southern part, with Antonio Armijo, Joseph Walker, Louis Bonneville, Kit Carson, John C. Frémont, and others contributing more knowledge of this vast, arid, intermontane area. The emigrant parties followed the trappers and explorers, with the first one crossing in 1841, the Bidwell-Bartleson group. Several others followed, including the tragic Donner Party and those unfortunates who crossed farther south and into Death Valley. However, mass migration did not start across Nevada until after gold was discovered in California in 1848. Extensive surveys for wagon roads through the central part of what is now Nevada were made in the 1850s. The Pony Express traversed Nevada between April, 1860, and October, 1861, ending shortly after the completion of the transcontinental telegraph.
The great trek of the Mormon people to the fertile Salt Lake Valley in 1847 was the beginning of non-Indian settlement in the Great Basin of North America, most of which was then a part of the department of Alta California, Republic of Mexico. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, concluded February 2, 1848; and ratifications exchanged at Queretaro May 30, 1848, and proclaimed on July 4, 1848, resulted in formal acquisition by the United States of a vast tract of land from Mexico. It included what is now California, Nevada, Utah, and most of Arizona, and parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming, and corresponded by general agreement to the Mexican administrative divisions of Alta California and New Mexico. In 1853 the Gadsden Purchase resulted in the final acquisition of Mexican territory and eliminated a dispute over the latitude line cited in the Mexican Cession of 1848, running west from the Rio Grande. This latter territory was obtained from the Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua.
When in 1850 the federal government set up the Utah Territory, almost all of Nevada was included except the southern tip, which was then part of New Mexico. Non-Mormons had been averse to settling in Mormon-dominated territory, but after gold was found in 1859 non-Mormons did come into the area. A rush from California began and multiplied manyfold as news of the Comstock Lode silver strike spread. Most of the newcomers preferred to consider themselves as still being within California, and a political question was added to the general upheaval. Meanwhile, miners came helter-skelter, raising camps that grew overnight into such booming and raucous places as Virginia City.
Some non-Mormons came to Carson Valley. They did not want to be part of the Utah Territory that was ruled by a Mormon leader. Without Congressional approval they established their own territorial government. In 1859, ore was discovered near what is now Virginia City and thousands came in search of gold and silver. With sufficient population in 1861, Congress could now create the Nevada Territory.
Nevada did not have a large enough population to become a state during the Civil War (1861-1865). Partly to impose order on the lawless, wide-open mining towns, Congress made Nevada into a territory in 1861 as migrant prospectors and settlers poured in. The territory was then enlarged by increasing its eastern boundary by one degree of longitude in 1862. It was rushed into statehood in 1864, with Carson City as its capital. President Lincoln (in order to get more votes to pass the Thirteenth Amendment) had signed the proclamation even though the territory did not actually meet the population requirement for statehood. On Oct. 31, 1864, Nevada became the 36th state of the Union with Carson City as its capital.
In 1866 Nevada acquired its present-day boundaries when the southern tip was added and more eastern land was gained from Utah.
The state continued to be dependent on its precious ores, and its fate was affected so. During the late 1860s, several miners settled the northwestern counties of Nevada. The following decade, mines closed as the value of silver dropped. Thousands of miners left Nevada looking for work, others turned to ranching. The 1880s brought even harder years on the economy. Unusually cold winters killed much of the livestock and mines near Virginia City stopped producing gold and silver.
During the early 1900s, new mines near Tonopah discovered silver. Gold was found in Goldfield and copper near Ruth and Mountain City. These discoveries provided new jobs and strengthened Nevada's economy. Railroad expansion opened new markets and the Newlands Irrigation Project made farming possible through irrigation.
After World War I had ended in 1918, attempts to suppress what others called immorality gave way to the values of a commercially oriented, wide-open frontier society that permitted such behavior. Illegal gambling, legalized prostitution, easy divorces, and the sale of alcoholic beverages in violation of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States became features of life in Reno and the small railroad town of Las Vegas. These businesses grew after 1931 when construction work began on Hoover Dam. In 1931, early in the Great Depression, gambling was again made legal, bringing jobs and tourists to the state, and state residency required to obtain a divorce was reduced to six weeks.
Social reform did not much interest Nevadans in the post World War I period. The death of Newlands in 1917 dealt a severe blow to progressive reform in the state. Leaders who had begun their careers in mining towns dominated the state for the next 40 years, when Nevada approved businesses (gambling and prostitution) that other states called immoral.
World War II (1939-1945) brought military air bases to Reno and Las Vegas. The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service managed much of the 86 percent of the state still owned by the federal government. After World War II, , the value of copper and lead dropped dramatically, causing many mines to close and the gambling and entertainment industries in Reno and Las Vegas expanded. The opening of the huge Flamingo Hotel in 1947 changed the character of gambling near Las Vegas. By 1951 there were five large hotel-resort casinos operating in Clark County, just outside of Las Vegas city jurisdiction and away from higher city taxes. During the late 1950s and 1960s low county tax rates encouraged a thriving resort economy based on the lure of legal gambling casinos that were open 24 hours a day, big-name entertainers, lavish food buffets, and bargain room rates. Although organized crime had initially funded much of the gaming industry, Congress pressured the state to tighten gaming-license regulations in the mid-1950s
In 1950, during the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission chose a Nevada site to test nuclear weapons in the 1950s, bringing additional jobs and prosperity to southern Nevada.
During the late 1900s, tourism remained the largest industry in Nevada. Las Vegas alone attracted more than 15 million tourists a year. Reno also built large casinos and ski resorts were built at Lake Tahoe. Nevada's population grew immensely and water became a major concern. In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled on a water dispute of the Colorado River between Nevada and neighboring states. Later in 1983, the Water Project was created to provide increased water for expected growth within Las Vegas.
In 2000 Nevada had 60,920 km (37,854 mi) of highways, including 901 km (560 mi) of the federal interstate highway system. U.S. Highway 50, which follows the route of the Pony Express of the 1860s, has been called “The Loneliest Road in America” because of its passage through some of the state's most unpopulated landscapes.
The successes of the Nevada economy and the consequent increase in population have created environmental problems. Air pollution has appeared in Reno and Las Vegas. Gold processing techniques that employ cyanide leaching ponds threaten underground water supplies.
The gaming economy has also caused an increase in social problems. Crime has increased, and people who live in a 24-hour economy serviced by minimum-wage jobs have problems with high teenage-pregnancy rates, divorce, alcoholism, drugs, gangs, and suicide.
The gaming industry, however, has occasionally argued that the mining industry should pay more in state taxes to lift some of its own tax burden. Nevada gaming has consistently paid over 40 percent of the cost of state government. Its revenues have enabled the state to spend more on education and to support two major state universities and a community college system, but experts warn that the state's tax base is too narrow to support major increases in education.