Nevada's big day

Thousands of people in Nevada have the day off today, and I suspect more than a few of them don't really know why.

The reason, of course, is to commemorate the day President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation admitting Nevada to the Union. Nevada actually became a state on Oct. 31 -- 145 years ago -- but the law changed in 2000 to observe the day on the last Friday of October, creating the ever-popular three-day weekend.

Nevada is one of only a handful of states that celebrates its admission day. Why Nevada still makes a big deal out of admission while other states do not is hard to figure, but it might have something to do with the historical significance of Nevada's founding.

One of the most important tasks on Nevada Day is to clear up a common misconception. Contrary to popular belief, Nevada did not become a state so the Union could get its hands on our vast mineral resources and keep them out of Confederate hands. That was a reason Nevada became a territory in 1861, but it was not the motivation for statehood a few years later.

The reason Nevada became a state when it did was political, not financial. Retired state archivist Guy Rocha explains:

"President Lincoln sought re-election and faced a three-way race against Gen. John C. Fremont, the radical Republican candidate, and Gen. George B. McClellan, a Democrat -- he had earlier in the war relieved both generals of their commands. New states, and their popular and electoral vote, were needed to re-elect Lincoln in support of his moderate, reconstruction policies for the South. Among the proposed policies was the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. If Nevada were a state, it could ratify the amendment and help in the passage of the landmark humanitarian legislation."

So, it turns out the true story is a lot more inspiring than the myth: Nevada helped Lincoln abolish slavery.

At the time, Nevada had a very small population, about 25,000, and its economy was based entirely on mining. Under normal circumstances, few in Washington would have taken statehood seriously. State historian James Hulse summed up Nevada in 1864:

"Nevada was born prematurely, with far less preparation for statehood than most of its elder sisters. It consisted of only a few mining towns and ranching centers, most of them inhabited by a few dozen or perhaps a few hundred itinerant frontiersmen, scattered across a region as large as the United Kingdom."

But Lincoln believed statehood for Nevada could go a long way toward winning the war with less bloodshed. The legendary Civil War-era journalist Charles A. Dana described the president's reasoning:

"The administration had decided that the Constitution of the United States should be amended so that slavery should be prohibited. ... It was intended not merely as a means of abolishing slavery forever, but as a means of affecting the judgment and the feelings and the anticipations of those in rebellion. It was believed that such an amendment to the Constitution would be equivalent to new armies in the field, that it would be worth at least a million men, that it would be an intellectual army that would tend to paralyze the enemy and break the continuity of his ideas.

"In order thus to amend the Constitution, it was necessary first to have the proposed amendment approved by three-fourths of the states. When that question came to be considered, the issue was seen to be so close that one state more was necessary. The state of Nevada was organized and admitted into the Union to answer that purpose. I have sometimes heard people complain of Nevada as superfluous and petty, not big enough to be a state; but when I hear that complaint I always hear Abraham Lincoln saying, 'It is easier to admit Nevada than to raise another million of soldiers.' "

There's another intriguing piece to Nevada's statehood story: As Rocha notes, Lincoln wanted Nevada votes to help him win re-election. He faced a worrisome challenge from within his own party from the famed trailblazer John C. Fremont, who explored Nevada during the 1840s and is generally credited with putting Las Vegas on the map. Fremont ended up dropping out of the race, but his early candidacy gave greater impetus to the Nevada statehood movement.

After playing its important role during the Civil War, Nevada experienced a 20-year depression. Mining declined, and many people left. By 1900, Nevada had a population of only 42,000. Some said Nevada should be stripped of statehood.

A new mining boom quickly reversed Nevada's fortunes. The discovery of silver, gold and copper in what would become Tonopah, Goldfield and Ely revived the economy, keeping the state going until 1931, when the legalization of gambling triggered a prosperous new era in state history.

So, Nevada Day is an opportunity to reflect on the state's importance at one of the most critical points in our nation's history. It's also a time to ponder how far we have come as a state -- and how much farther we need to go.

Geoff Schumacher ( is the R-J's director of community publications and author of two books of Las Vegas history. His column appears Friday.