Wilbur S. Shepperson Series in Nevada History
Series Editor, Michael Green (UNLV)
Nevada is known politically as a swing state and culturally as a swinging state. Politically, its electoral votes have gone to the winning presidential candidate in all but two elections since 1912 (it missed in 1976 and 2016). Its geographic location in the Sun Belt; an ethnically diverse, heavily urban, and fast-growing population; and an economy based on tourism and mining make it a laboratory for understanding the growth and development of postwar America and postindustrial society. Culturally, Nevada has been associated with legal gambling, easy divorce, and social permissiveness. Yet the state also exemplifies conflicts between image and reality: It is a conservative state yet depends heavily on the federal government. Its gaming regulatory system is the envy of the world but resulted from long and difficult experience with organized crime. And its bright lights often obscure the role of organized religion in Nevada affairs. To some who have emphasized the impact of globalization and celebrated or deplored changing moral standards, Nevada reflects America and the world; to others, it affects them.
This series is named in honor of one of the state’s most distinguished historians, author of numerous books on the state’s immigrants and cultural development, a longtime educator, and an advocate for history and the humanities. The series welcomes manuscripts on any and all aspects of Nevada that offer insight into how the state has developed and how its development has been connected to the region, the nation, and the world.
Charcoal and Blood: Italian Immigrants in Eureka, Nevada and the Fish Creek Massacre
A Great Basin Mosaic: The Cultures of Rural Nevada James W. Hulse
The Baneberry Disaster: A Generation of Atomic Fallout Larry C. Johns and Alan R. Johns
THE SAGEBRUSH STATE NEVADA’S HISTORY, GOVERNMENT, AND
MICHAEL W. BOWERS
UNIVERSITY OF NEVADA PRESS Reno & Las Vegas
University of Nevada Press | Reno, Nevada 89557 USA www.unpress.nevada.edu Copyright © 2018 by University of Nevada Press All rights reserved Cover photographs: (background) iStock/FierceAbin and iStock/btgbtg; (inset)
iStock/DenisTangneyJr; (bottom) Allen Leo Svec
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA Names: Bowers, Michael Wayne, author. Title: The Sagebrush State : Nevada’s history, government, and politics / Michael Wayne
Bowers. Other titles: Nevada’s history, government, and politics Description: Fifth edition. | Reno, NV : University of Nevada Press,  | Series: Wilbur S.
Shepperson series in Nevada history | Includes bibliographical references and index. | Identifiers: ISBN 978-1-943859-74-0 (pbk. : alk. paper) | ISBN 978-1-943859-75-7 (e-book) |
LCCN 2018004689 (print) | LCCN 2018005551 (e-book) Subjects: LCSH: Nevada—History. | Nevada—Politics and government. Classification: LCC F841 .B593 2018 (print) | LCC F841 (e-book) | DDC 979.3—dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2018004689
Manufactured in the United States of America
Preface to the Fifth Edition
Chapter 1. Nevada—Origins and Early History
Chapter 2. Nevada Territory and Statehood
Chapter 3. Civil Rights and Liberties in Nevada
Chapter 4. Political Parties and Elections
Chapter 5. Interest Groups and Lobbying
Chapter 6. The Nevada Legislature
Chapter 7. The Nevada Executive
Chapter 8. The Nevada Judiciary
Chapter 9. City and County Governments
Chapter 10. State and Local Finance
Chapter 11. Nevada—Past, Present, and Future
Appendix. The Constitution of the State of Nevada
Illustrations and Tables
Figures 2.1. Territory and State of Nevada
3.1. Racial Diversity in Nevada, 2010 Census
3.2. Asian Population of Nevada, 2010 Census
3.3. Hispanic and Latino Population of Nevada, 2010 Census
8.1. Structure of the Nevada State Judicial System
10.3. Nevada General Fund Revenue, Adjusted Economic Forum Forecast, 2015– 2017 Biennium
10.4. Nevada General Fund, Legislature-Approved Appropriations, 2015–2017 Biennium
Tables 4.1. Voter Registration in Nevada by Party in Presidential Election Years, 1960–
5.1. Lobbyist Growth in the Nevada Legislature, 1975–2017
6.1. Party Control of the Nevada Legislature, 1961–2017
6.2. Standing Committees in the Nevada Legislature, 2017
6.3. The Nevada Legislature, Famous Firsts
7.1. Governors of Nevada, 1864–2018
7.2. Party Control of the Executive Branch, State of Nevada, 1864–2017
7.3. The Nevada Executive, Famous Firsts
8.1. Judicial Districts in Nevada, 2018
8.2. The Nevada Judiciary, Famous Firsts
9.1. Nevada Counties
9.2. Nevada’s Incorporated Cities
10.1. Nevada General Fund Revenues by Source, 1977–2017
10.2. Nevada General Fund Appropriations by Type, 1977–2017
11.1. Population of Nevada, 1860–2016
Preface to the Fifth Edition
Since the publication of the fourth edition of The Sagebrush State in 2013, the state of Nevada has undergone an incredible recovery from what were in some cases debilitating changes politically and economically. At the same time, many other good changes have occurred as well. In addition to the elections that have taken place since the fourth edition and the new officeholders who have taken their seats, there have been two regular and four special sessions of the legislature.
In the preface to the third edition, I noted that “the Democrats appear to be quickly losing ground in the Sagebrush State,” given electoral successes by the Republicans in the 1990s and early 2000s. But in the fourth edition, I remarked that “it is the case that the Republicans seem to be on the ropes, with Tea Party, Libertarian, and more traditional factions battling for the soul of the party.” Although the latter part of that statement remains true in 2018, it is the case that the Republicans made stunning victories in the 2014 elections, capturing both houses of the legislature and all six constitutional offices. And although the Democratic Party organization put together by now-retired Harry Reid continues to dominate that party’s politics, it is arguably not as strong as it was now that Reid is no longer majority leader of the U.S. Senate. In 2016, the Democrats won back both houses of the state legislature and Hillary Clinton won the state’s six electoral votes. All of that says that (1) the author is perhaps not the seer he believed himself to be and that (2) both major parties remain competitive in the state with election outcomes very much dependent upon individual candidates and voter turnout. The state senate remains closely divided, as it has for several years (with Democrats holding a two-seat majority), but the state assembly appears to be almost permanently in Democratic hands with the loss in 2014 a rare anomaly likely resulting from low turnout.
As most observers know, the state of Nevada was among the hardest hit by the Great Recession of 2007–2011. Unemployment rates and home foreclosures were the highest of any state. When the housing bubble burst, the bottom fell out of the construction industry, and many of these workers left the state to find jobs elsewhere. With national unemployment high and job security nonexistent in virtually every sector of the economy, tourists either did not have dollars to spend in Nevada or were too cautious to do so. As a result, the economy in the Sagebrush State tanked. Politically, the bad economy led to multiple special sessions of the legislature to balance the budget, conflict over raising taxes and cutting spending, and difficult relations between Governor Jim Gibbons and the
legislature. In 2010 Gibbons became the first governor in Nevada to be denied renomination by his party. Since publication of the fourth edition, the state has come roaring back. Tourism has returned to and even exceeded levels prior to the Great Recession; airport traffic is up; unemployment is at a low five percent compared to over twelve percent in 2011; construction is booming; the economy is diversifying; and major sports leagues have come to the state in the National Football League (Raiders, set for 2020), the National Hockey League (Golden Knights), Major League Soccer (Lights), and the Women’s National Basketball Association (Aces).
On a further positive note, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and, later, the U.S. Supreme Court declared laws banning same-sex marriage (such as the one in the Sagebrush State) unconstitutional in 2015, thus allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, entitling them to all the same rights as straight married couples had always been given. And in 2013, the legislature added transgender Nevadans to the list of hate crimes for which enhanced penalties may be given. In 2017, the legislature added “sexual orientation” and “gender identity or expression” to all of the state’s anti-discrimination laws.
In addition to the economic recovery in the state, perhaps the biggest change since the fourth edition has been the increasing political power of the Sagebrush State’s Hispanic population. As that population continues to grow, register to vote, and participate in various ways in numbers unseen before, Hispanics have become an important political force and one that officeholders cannot ignore.
I am very pleased to provide this updated version of a book that first came out in 1996. I hope the reader will find it to be educational and, if not entertaining, well, then, at least not boring. I am, as always, tremendously grateful to Brian Davie, formerly of the Legislative Counsel Bureau, for his assistance in tracking down even the most elusive and obscure information. This book is certainly the better for his efforts.
And, of course, I must once again thank all of the great folks at the University of Nevada Press for their helpfulness, cheerfulness, and assistance in creating all five editions of this work.
When I first began discussing this book with Nicholas Cady and Thomas R. Radko of the University of Nevada Press some years ago, I had in mind a relatively short work that would provide readers with an overview of Nevada history and government. I thought then, as I do now, that many Nevadans and non-Nevadans would be interested in a concise work that would allow them to understand Nevada’s intriguing past and its effects on the present and future direction of the state. A work of that type could be utilized as a supplementary text in the state’s universities and community colleges and would, perhaps, also find a niche among high school students and members of the general public.
These thoughts and discussions brought about The Sagebrush State. Throughout the writing of this book I have attempted to be true to my original intent to provide a concise work that could be revised on a regular basis to reflect changes in the state and its politics. Certainly this work does not pretend, nor was it ever intended, to be a comprehensive volume on every detail of Nevada history and politics; for that degree of thoroughness, the reader is directed to the bibliography. A great debt is owed by this author and all others in the field to those pioneering historians and political scientists who have taught us what we now know about the state: Hubert Howe Bancroft, Eleanore Bushnell, Don Driggs, Russell Elliott, James Hulse, Effie Mona Mack, William Rowley, Elmer Rusco, and many others too numerous to mention.
In addition, I would like to specifically thank Eugene Moehring of the History Department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Michael Green of the Community College of Southern Nevada for their assistance and counsel during the research and writing process. Were it not for their insights, this book would be the poorer. Brian Davie of the Legislative Counsel Bureau and Sidney Watson of the Government Documents Division of the James L. Dickinson Library at UNLV provided regular assistance in my quest for obscure facts and figures. I would also like to thank Leonard E. “Pat” Goodall for providing me with a draft of his forthcoming omnibus book with Don W. Driggs, Nevada Politics and Government: Conservatism in an Open Society. I am grateful to Trudy McMurrin of the University of Nevada Press for her unflagging devotion to seeing this work in print and her regular phone calls to ask, “So, how’s the book coming?”
I would also like to thank Dean Guy Bailey of the College of Liberal Arts and the staff of the Dean’s office (Joyce Nietling, Leslie Marsh, Judy Ahlstrom, Jeremy Wirtjes, and Mike Comstock) for all they have done to ease my burdens as an administrator. Without them, I would be unable to pursue the joys of
research, writing, and teaching. Any errors to be found within these pages must, of course, remain mine alone.
Nevada Origins and Early History
Early Exploration Although recent archaeological excavations indicate the migration from Asia of prehistoric peoples to the area now known as Nevada as early as 15,000 years ago, the state’s written history can be said to have begun in 1776, the same year the American colonists in the East launched their war for independence against the British Crown. In the spring of that year, a Spanish Franciscan missionary, Father Francisco Garcés, and two Indian guides broke off from the second expedition of Captain Juan Bautista de Anza at the present-day site of Yuma, Arizona, to discover a shorter, more direct route between Santa Fe and the Spanish military presidio at Monterey (on the central coast of what is now California). During the course of his exploration, it is believed, Father Garcés crossed the southernmost tip of what is today the state of Nevada.1 It is also possible that a Spanish expedition of fifty-five soldiers led by Gabriel Morara entered the southern portion of what we now call Nevada in 1819. Morara’s aims, however, were not quite so benevolent as those of Father Garcés. Morara’s party set out to the northeast from the San Gabriel Mission (what is now present-day Los Angeles) in an unsuccessful attempt to wreak revenge against a band of Mojaves who had raided one of the Los Angeles–area missions.2
The Spanish, however, had little interest in exploring and developing the vast, barren region that eventually came to be identified as the Great Basin. In 1822 the area was transferred to Mexican possession when Mexico gained independence from its Spanish conquerors, thus following the earlier course of the American revolutionaries in throwing off the yoke of European imperialism. Within five years, however, British and American commercial interests were routinely violating Mexico’s sovereignty in the furtherance of fur trapping and trading, concomitantly beginning the first serious explorations of the Great Basin. As one noted Nevada historian has observed, “Nevada’s written history [began] with a struggle to exploit the resources of land as rapidly as possible. . . . [It is a] struggle [that] has recurred several times throughout Nevada’s history.”3
In 1826 two fur-trapping expeditions entered the Great Basin, one American and the other British. Although the two parties entered the region from different directions, they both had the same goals: to trap as many fur-bearing animals as they could and lay claim to the area for their own companies. The first English- speaking person known to have crossed into the Great Basin was the leader of the British expedition, Canadian-born Peter Skene Ogden. Ogden and his party, representing the Hudson’s Bay Company, most likely ventured slightly into the northeastern corner of Nevada in the spring of 1826. Ogden’s major explorations of Nevada, primarily in the north, did not occur until his later ventures into the territory in 1828 and 1829. He is generally credited as the first Anglo to discover and explore the Humboldt River.
The first American expedition, which started out in present-day Utah in August 1826, was a fifteen-member team led by twenty-seven-year-old Jedediah Smith, one of three co-owners of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Smith’s party entered the area from the east and traversed present-day Clark County, in the south, reaching San Gabriel Mission in November. Mexican authorities, understandably anxious about new colonial threats so soon after they had gained independence from Spain, requested that Smith leave Mexican territory by the same route on which he had entered. Instead, he turned north, taking his party to an area along the American River in central California. The inhospitable nature of the snow-covered Sierra mountains made Smith decide to leave most of his party in California and attempt the mountain passage with only two other members of his expedition. Smith’s three-person party successfully crossed not only the Sierras but also central Nevada, eventually reaching the Great Salt Lake. Smith’s place in history is secure as the first Anglo to actually cross the hostile Nevada landscape. Although he retraced his original path through southern Nevada in 1827 to meet up with the members of his expedition whom he had left behind in California, Smith did not afterward return to the Great Basin.
The Ogden and Smith expeditions were the first to explore the region now known as Nevada, but they were most assuredly not the last. Other fur-trapping parties, originating in Santa Fe and traversing the southern part of the state, were led by Ewing Young (1829), Antonio Armijo (1829–1830), and William Wolfskill and George C. Yount (1830–1831). The path blazed by these hardy trappers eventually established an overland route known as the Old Spanish Trail.
One of the last fur-trapping expeditions, and one of the most famous and significant, was the Walker-Bonneville party of 1833 to 1834.4 Although the group was putatively on a fur-trapping expedition, some evidence suggests that its leader, U.S. Army Captain Benjamin L. E. Bonneville, sent some members of the party, led by Joseph Walker, on an excursion into California to spy on the Mexicans.5 During their trek through central Nevada, Walker’s party killed thirty to forty Native Americans, establishing an unfortunate precedent that would haunt later relations between the region’s oldest and newest inhabitants. Walker is
perhaps best known for the “discovery” of the Yosemite Valley in California and Walker Pass over the Sierra Nevada, although native inhabitants had clearly known of these for many years.
Explorers and Immigrants Spurred by the desire for land and the American creed of Manifest Destiny (that is, that the United States had a duty and an obligation to inhabit all land lying between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans), emigrants on their way to California began to cross, but not settle in, the Great Basin. Unlike their forebears, who traveled in this region to pursue fur trapping, these individuals were interested in establishing a new life for themselves and their families in the Far West. The first group to do so was the Bidwell-Bartleson party in 1841. As head of the Western Emigration Society, twenty-year-old-schoolteacher John Bidwell organized the six-month journey from Missouri to California’s San Joaquin Valley; John Bartleson served as the group’s captain. In addition to its distinction as the first of the emigrant parties, the Bidwell-Bartleson party is noteworthy for including Nancy Kelsey and her young daughter, the first Anglo woman and child to cross the Great Basin. While the Bidwell-Bartleson party crossed the Nevada frontier in the north, a second emigrant party in 1841, the Rowland-Workman party, traveled through the Las Vegas Valley, following the Old Spanish Trail and the 1826 route of Jedediah Smith from Santa Fe to San Gabriel.
The hardship of the terrain and desert conditions along the Old Spanish Trail, however, led later emigrant parties to cross the Great Basin through the north along what became known as the Humboldt Trail. The discovery of the latter trail is credited to the aforementioned Joseph Walker, who led the 1843 Walker-Chiles party along the northern Nevada route he had discovered during his 1834 journey out of California. Other emigrant parties followed that route through the Great Basin over the next several decades, including one in 1844 led by Elisha Stevens, Martin Murphy, and John Townsend—an expedition famed for its successful crossing of the forbidding and deadly summit that would tragically become known a few years later as Donner Pass.
The Donner party left Missouri in the spring of 1846 to pursue dreams of land ownership in California. Following generally the path of the Humboldt Trail, the party took an ill-advised cutoff in northeastern Nevada that put them woefully behind schedule. Their tardiness caused them to reach the Sierras in October after winter storms had dumped snow on the mountains, which were difficult to cross even under better weather conditions. Trapped at Donner Lake, slightly more than half—forty-seven—of the eighty-seven people who began the trip survived, but only by allegedly cannibalizing the remains of their less fortunate companions. The misfortune of the Donner party caused a temporary slowdown in emigration to California, a hiatus that would end with the discovery of gold in California in January 1848 and the February 1848 cession of what is now the southwestern
United States by Mexico at the end of the Mexican War. In addition to the informal and unofficial explorations of the Great Basin area
by fur trappers and immigrants to California, a number of official expeditions were launched by the U.S. government in the early 1840s into what was then still Mexican territory. The leader of these expeditions was a member of the U.S. Army’s Topographical Engineers, Captain John C. Frémont, whose destiny was most assuredly not harmed by the fact that his wife, Jessie, was the daughter of influential Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton, one of the most fanatical of the Manifest Destiny zealots. Frémont headed two expeditions into present-day Nevada, the first from 1843 to 1844 and the second in 1845. The former traversed the western edge of northern Nevada to central California and back along the Old Spanish Trail in the south. The latter expedition, on which he was accompanied by Joseph Walker and Kit Carson, explored the central portions of the state. The lasting significance of the Frémont expeditions can be seen to this day. Although Frémont “discovered” little that had not already been explored by others, his parties, unlike their predecessors, painstakingly and accurately mapped the area and gave names to its features, names that adhere today: the Humboldt River, the Walker River, the Carson River, Pyramid Lake. Indeed, it is Frémont who first identified this vast area of interior drainage as “the Great Basin.”
Settlement of Nevada The fur trappers, California immigrants, and explorers who visited the Great Basin in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s had no intention of settling in the region now known as Nevada. To them it was merely a place where they hunted or passed through on the way to a new land or to an adventure, respectively. Permanent settlement of Nevada would not come until the latter part of the 1840s. Political scientists Eleanore Bushnell and Don Driggs, among others, have noted that the settlement of Nevada came as a result of three contemporaneous events:
(1) the cession by Mexico of vast territories to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848; (2) the migration of the Mormons into the Salt Lake area and later into much of the region that now comprises Nevada; and (3) the discovery of gold in California.6
None of these momentous events had much to do initially with Nevada. No Mexican War battles were fought here, the Mormons first settled in what is now Utah, and the first discovery of gold came in California. Like the fur trappers, California immigrants, and explorers who had traveled the land before, few among the next groups of travelers through the Great Basin saw it as an area of inherent desirability. Yet these three milestones ultimately conjoined to lead to the permanent settlement and eventual statehood of Nevada.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) was founded in
western New York State in April 1830 by Joseph Smith, who claimed to have received from the angel Moroni a set of golden plates containing scripture and the Urim and Thummim to interpret them. Conflict with and persecution by more traditional Christian groups led Smith to move the Mormons to Ohio, Missouri, and Nauvoo, Illinois. The murder of the Mormon prophet in a Carthage, Illinois, jail led his successor, Brigham Young, to move the group once more. The journey, from 1846 to 1847, of 15,000 men, women, and children eventually came to rest at the Great Salt Lake, an area still within the sovereignty of Mexico. By March 1849 Young had proclaimed the independent State of Deseret, a region encompassing present-day Utah, Nevada, southern California, and parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Idaho, and Colorado.
While the Mormons were on their way to the Great Salt Lake, the United States was engaged in a war with Mexico for control of California and what is today the southwestern United States. Following the doctrine of Manifest Destiny to its logical, if bloody, conclusion, President James K. Polk launched the war in 1846, a war that ended successfully for the Americans in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The treaty gave the United States control over California, Utah, Nevada, and portions of Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Colorado. The Great Basin was now firmly and legally ensconced in the hands of the United States.
Simultaneous to the end of the Mexican War, gold was discovered in California at Sutter’s Mill on the American River near Sacramento. Beginning in 1849, thousands traveled from the east to California in search of riches; some came by sea around South America (the Panama Canal was yet to be built), while others traveled overland along the routes used by earlier California immigrants through the northern Great Basin.
As already noted, none of these three events initially had anything to do with Nevada. However, each in its own way contributed to the region’s development. After 1848 the Great Basin was no longer foreign territory, the Mormons aggressively moved into its northern and southern regions to proselytize and establish settlements, and the influx of California gold seekers through the region created a need for supply stations along the overland route, including the area now known as Nevada.
The cession of California and the southwestern United States in 1848 by Mexico forced the U.S. government to deal with political issues of statehood and territorial boundaries. Rejecting Brigham Young’s massive State of Deseret, Congress approved the Compromise of 1850 to establish some order in its newly acquired territory. That act, debated by Congress for two years over the heated issue of slavery, established California as a free, that is, nonslave, state (even though it had, unlike other states added after the original thirteen colonies, never been a territory) and divided the remainder of the Mexican Cession of 1848 into the territories of New Mexico and Utah, which could, upon statehood, determine for themselves whether to allow slavery. New Mexico Territory included not only
New Mexico but also most of Arizona and the southern 10 percent of present-day Nevada. The newly created Utah Territory included all of present-day Utah, small parts of Colorado and Wyoming, and the northern 90 percent of present-day Nevada. Congress thus not only changed the name of the Mormon territory from Deseret to Utah but also included only half of the area Young and his followers had earlier claimed. It is doubtful that the Mormons would have achieved even that but for the death of President Zachary Taylor in July 1850. Taylor opposed the Mormon cause and was unsympathetic to state or territorial status for them. His successor, Millard Fillmore, however, was favorably impressed by the Mormons and their representative, Dr. John M. Bernhisel, who had been dispatched to Washington, D.C., in 1849 to lobby (unsuccessfully) for congressional recognition of the much larger State of Deseret. Not surprisingly, Fillmore appointed the Mormon leader, Brigham Young, as Utah’s first territorial governor.7
Mormon settlement in the western Utah Territory (now Nevada) began that same year, 1850, when a party led by Joseph DeMont established a temporary trading post in Carson Valley near Utah Territory’s western border with California.8 The post, named Mormon Station, served the needs of emigrants and gold seekers crossing the Great Basin on their way to California. Although abandoned with the onset of winter, the post became a permanent settlement the following year when a party led by John Reese sought to establish a farming and trading community and fort. In 1856 the name of this first permanent settlement in Nevada was changed to Genoa.
Once the Mormons had established the feasibility of survival, agriculture, and commercial enterprise in the Carson Valley, they were joined by non-Mormons (“gentiles”) who also opened trading posts in Carson, Eagle, and Jacks Valley and Truckee Meadows. Gentile population in the area was augmented by the discovery in 1850 of gold in Gold Canyon just east of the California border. Gold miners from California and new gold seekers from the East soon established residence in the region as well, although they generally had no intention of making the place a permanent home. The combination of Mormons and non- Mormons in the Carson Valley was from the beginning a volatile one and was partially responsible for Nevada’s eventual separation from Utah Territory in 1861.
The area that is now southern Nevada was also being settled during this time. Although the development of the south did not have the same profound effects on Nevada’s becoming a territory and, later, a state that the development of the north did, the settlement of both areas exhibited many of the same characteristics. Settlement of the Las Vegas Valley (part of New Mexico Territory since 1851) began in 1855, when Brigham Young sent a group of Mormons led by William Bringhurst to establish the Las Vegas Mission. The mission was to serve a dual purpose: establish supply stations along the Old Spanish Trail (just as Mormon
Station had in the north) and convert the Native Americans, primarily Southern Paiutes, to Mormonism. Their task was, in many ways, a hard and thankless one, performed in a hostile environment. One of the missionaries, John Steele, observed in an 1855 letter that “the country around here looks as if the Lord had forgotten it.”9 Later in that same letter he noted that there was a “general weakness” among the Mormon missionaries because
the weather is very hot; and not having light, suitable clothing fit for the season; and the last and principal reason is, they have nothing (with a very few exceptions) to eat but dry bread, as the cows are mostly dry. But we still are not discouraged, for we hope for better times ahead; and if we don’t live to see it, maybe our children will.10
The Las Vegas Mission eventually was abandoned as a result of a split in the community between Bringhurst and Nathaniel V. Jones, whom Brigham Young had sent to the mission in 1856 to mine lead ore in the area. This division was part of a larger conflict within the Mormon community over whether its primary purpose was to proselytize or mine. By 1858 most of the missionaries had returned to Utah, leaving only a small band under the authority of Benjamin R. Hulse. Hulse’s group soon followed, and the Las Vegas Valley was left to its Native American inhabitants until 1861, when small traces of silver were found in the old Mormon lead mine and a large gold strike was made near the current site of Hoover Dam. A permanent settlement in Las Vegas (named Los Vegas Rancho) did not take root until 1865, when Octavius Decatur Gass took ownership of the Old Mormon Fort and established a station to supply Las Vegas Valley miners and the settlers passing through to California.11
Establishing a Government From the first moments of their arrival in the Carson Valley in 1851, the settlers agitated for separation from the Mormon-dominated Utah territorial government. Separated as they were by five hundred miles from the territorial capital, first in Fillmore City and later in Salt Lake City, and ignored by Brigham Young, who concentrated on organizing that part of the territory that was nearest to him, the western settlers were left with no established government and no protection from bandits and Indian attacks. In response to this lack of law and order and Utah’s de facto policy of benign neglect, settlers held three meetings in Mormon Station on November 12, 19, and 20, 1851, to establish order.
During the course of these meetings, the settlers created a squatter government to establish bylaws and regulations for the community and to create public offices. Ten resolutions were adopted dealing with the survey and recording of land claims, while an eleventh established a committee of seven officers to act as the region’s governing board. In addition, a magistrate’s court, made up of a justice of the peace and four others, was to serve as the area’s judicial body;
appeal could be taken to a court of twelve citizens who had final say on matters brought to them. Notably, the group also adopted a petition to Congress seeking “a distinct Territorial Government” for the western Utah Territory.12
Displeased by the Carson Valley settlers’ petition, Brigham Young intervened and attempted, at last, to establish territorial control over the area. Seven Utah counties were extended to the California border in order to include the western Utah Territory. County seats remained in present-day Utah, however, and with such a distance between them, county officials persisted in their failure to exercise any authority over their newly acquired western lands. The ineffectiveness of the squatter government in achieving law and order, combined with the objections by many non-Mormons to the possibility of control by Salt Lake City, led forty-three settlers in 1853 to sign a petition to the California Legislature requesting annexation by California “for judicial purposes until congress [sic] should provide otherwise.”13
Although the settlers’ petition was ignored by California, Utah took great note of it and attempted once more to bring its western territory into the fold. In January 1854 the territorial legislature created Carson County, an extremely large new county in the western Great Basin. It encompassed what is today Carson City, Washoe, Douglas, Storey, Lyon, and Mineral Counties and parts of Nye, Esmeralda, Churchill, and Humboldt Counties. Once again, however, no immediate attempts were made by the Utah authorities to exercise control over their newest creation.
Utah’s lack of action led the squatters to once more endeavor to establish an organized government in what was now Carson County. In 1854 they hired attorney William A. Cornwall to write a constitution for the Carson Valley. Very little is known about the Cornwall Constitution, and most Nevada history books fail even to mention it. What we do know is that the powers of government were to be exercised by an elected group consisting of a sheriff, a president, a secretary, and a three-member court. The Cornwall Constitution was, apparently, never adopted, and “there seems to be no evidence that it was ever presented for a vote.”14
In January 1855 the Utah Legislature took several actions that indicated a serious desire to maintain territorial control over the Carson Valley. It established Carson County as Utah’s Third U.S. Judicial District, and George P. Styles was assigned as presiding judge. Orson Hyde, a member of the church’s governing board, the Twelve Apostles, was appointed as probate and county judge to organize the county. In response to the settlers’ complaints that they were without representation in the territorial legislature, Carson County was also given one vote in the Utah Territorial Assembly.
In May, Hyde, Styles, and thirty-eight others left Salt Lake City to once and for all establish territorial (and Mormon) control over Carson County. In those terms, Hyde was incredibly successful. Arriving in Carson Valley in June, Hyde
first commissioned a survey to ensure that Mormon Station and Carson County were within the boundaries of Utah. Determining that they were, he called for county elections to be held at Mormon Station on September 20. All but one of the victorious candidates in the 1855 contest were Mormon, thanks to the immigration of Mormons into the area.
Not surprisingly, non-Mormons in the area were displeased with the now- realized Mormon domination of the Carson County government. The gentiles were convinced that the law was not administered fairly to Mormon and non- Mormon alike and were particularly dissatisfied with the practice of polygamy exercised by Hyde and others. They looked “with disgust upon the prospect of raising their daughters among such associates, and they ardently desired that their homes in their pleasant valley shall not be ‘defiled’ by the horrible favoritism and deception of Mormonism.”15
Mormon domination of the Carson County government led non-Mormons in the area to petition once more, in November 1855, for annexation to California. Unlike its February 1853 predecessor, this petition was looked upon favorably by the California Legislature. Unfortunately for those seeking annexation, Congress failed to act on their plea. Hearing of the settlers’ continued attempts at secession, Brigham Young ordered fifty to sixty more Mormon families into the Carson Valley. “By the middle of 1856 Carson County was organized politically, economically, and socially in the firm and able hands of the Mormons.”16
Territorial and Mormon control over the western territory, however, was not destined to last. Probate Judge Hyde left Carson County to return to Salt Lake City in November 1856; whether he was frustrated with his position or recalled by Young is open to dispute. In January 1862 he illustrated his contempt for the people of the Carson Valley when he wrote to seek compensation for the sawmill he had left behind in his hasty departure:
You shall be visited of the Lord of Hosts with thunder and with earthquakes and with floods, with pestilence and with famine until your names are not known amongst men, for you have rejected the authority of God, trampled upon his laws and his ordinances, and given yourselves up to serve the god of this world; to rioting in debauchery, in abominations, drunkenness and corruption. You have chuckled and gloried in taking the property of the Mormons, and withholding from them the benefits thereof. You have despised rule and authority, and put God and man at defiance. If perchance, however, there should be an honest man amongst you, I would advise him to leave; but let him not go to California for safety, for he will not find it there.17
Hyde’s departure from Carson County left the area once more bereft of organized government and law and order. He was followed to Salt Lake City by a large party of Mormons in July 1857, and all of the faithful were officially called back to Salt Lake City by Brigham Young in September of that year to fend off what Young believed was an imminent invasion of Utah by federal troops in what
became known as the Utah War. Although characterized by some historians as a series of misunderstandings and miscommunications,18 there were real causes for the federal government to be concerned with goings-on in the territory, including antagonism between Mormons and gentiles in the Carson Valley and an incident in 1856 in which a federal judge had been “driven from the bench” in eastern Utah by “an armed mob of Mormons.”19
The official beginning of the Utah War came in July 1857 when President James Buchanan removed Brigham Young as territorial governor and appointed a new, non-Mormon government headed by Alfred Cumming. The anticipated arrival of the new territorial government, accompanied as it was by 2,500 federal troops led by General Albert Sidney Johnston, struck fear into the hearts of the Mormons. It was then that Young called upon all Mormons, including approximately 1,000 in the Carson Valley, to return to the capital to fend off the anticipated federal invasion. In addition, Young issued an order prohibiting an armed force from entering the Salt Lake Valley and declared martial law. The Mormons prepared for war, but the federal forces eventually were allowed to enter the valley peacefully after successful negotiations between Young and Buchanan’s representative, Colonel Thomas L. Kane, who had made friends with the Mormons when they had lived in Nauvoo. In April 1858 the Utah War, such as it was, officially ended when Buchanan granted amnesty to all who swore allegiance to the Union. Although the returnees were, thus, not ultimately needed, they did not go back to the Carson Valley, and the land, homes, and businesses they had spent years building into profitable enterprises were often simply taken by the remaining settlers—a situation that led to Hyde’s curse upon them.
In apparent anticipation of the September call by Young for all adherents to return to the Salt Lake Valley, the Utah Legislature in January 1857 repealed the act creating Carson County and put the area under the nominal control of Great Salt Lake County, headquartered in Salt Lake City. Although no doubt happy to see the Mormon exodus, the western settlers were once more left without any organized government, and the Carson Valley was again in the grip of the same lawlessness it had suffered prior to the Mormons’ arrival in large numbers in 1856.
The period between 1857 and 1861 has been described as an “era of anarchy and confusion.” The phrase is an apt one. In 1857, after the Utah Legislature’s dissolution of Carson County and Judge Hyde’s return to Salt Lake City, the settlers held a series of mass meetings in which they once more petitioned Congress for status as a separate territory within the shortest time possible. The settlers’ representative to Washington, D.C., James M. Crane, predicted in a letter to his constituents that Congress would act favorably on the petition in order “to compress the limits of the Mormons and defeat their efforts to corrupt and confederate with the Indian tribes.”20 Crane’s optimistic prediction was wrong. A bill granting territorial status, which included a change of name from Sierra
Nevada to Nevada, passed the House Committee on Territories, but the full Congress adjourned before acting on the petition. The congressional failure to act was based in part on the pre–Civil War sectional strife over slavery that was even then dividing the nation: the territorial bill was held up in the House by Speaker James L. Orr of South Carolina, who feared that the new territory would not support slavery and who had a strong personal dislike for the bill’s sponsor, Representative William “Extra Billy” Smith of Virginia. Of lesser, but still significant, importance, the federal government hoped that the newly appointed non-Mormon government of Alfred Cumming would resolve the antagonism in the western territory between Mormons and gentiles.
In addition to petitioning for separate territorial status, the settlers attempted to establish a more immediate mechanism for protecting law and order in the region. A committee of twenty-eight men was created during the 1857 squatters’ meetings to serve as a provisional government. The committee proved ineffectual, and in March 1858 the settlers met again, this time to establish a vigilante committee to maintain law and order. The vigilantes were equally unsuccessful in holding the criminal element in check, although they did try, and sentence, several people. One of those, the ironically named William “Lucky Bill” Thorrington, was a prominent member of the community who had served on the twenty-eight- member provisional committee of 1857. Thorrington was hanged for being an accessory after the fact to murder, although substantial evidence supports his innocence.21 Thorrington’s hanging had the unfortunate consequence of creating a serious rift in the Carson Valley community between those convinced of his guilt and those who believed him innocent.