Nevada: A Unit Study

On October 31, 1864, Nevada became the 36th state in the United States of America. The state constitution had been telegraphed to Congress just days before the November 8 presidential election.

Nevada Beginnings

The new state had boasted a population of only 6,857 in 1860, a far cry from the 40,000 mark typically required for admittance to the Union. But the Civil War was raging, and President Abraham Lincoln was up for re-election. The Republican party wanted to ensure a few more electoral votes for Lincoln and add to their majorities in Congress.

Small wonder so few people lived in Nevada at the time. It had been the home of the Paiute, the Shoshone, and the Washoe not too long before, and was the last part of the contiguous United States to be explored. A few Franciscan missionaries may have passed through sometime around 1776 while trying to connect Spanish settlements in New Mexico with those in California. Peter Skene Ogden of the Hudson’s Bay Company may also have briefly dipped down into the northern part of the future state in the mid-1820s.

But the honor of being the first white man known for certain to have crossed Nevada, or the Washoe as the area was then called after the Indian tribe, goes to trapper and explorer Jedediah Smith. He traveled through the southern part of the Washoe in 1826 on his way to California, and then returned through the middle the following year.

More trappers followed, gradually expanding the country’s knowledge of the Washoe:

  • In 1828, Peter Skene Ogden returned from beaver trapping further north to explore the Humboldt River.
  • In 1833, Joseph Walker carved out the route that would later become the overland trail to California.
  • In 1843 and 1844, John C. Fremont explored and mapped the future state on his quest for the mythical river Buenaventura, and in the process discovered that much of the Washoe was a vast area of interior drainage, which he named the Great Basin.

The Mexicans, who only nominally controlled Nevada, ceded it to the United States in 1848 as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This was just in time as far as overland emigrants were concerned, for the California Gold Rush was on the next year. Countless prospectors poured through the region, and with the wagon trains came Mormon way stations. A few cattle ranchers also stopped in the Washoe, along with some of the gold-seekers.

The First Government of Nevada

Lacking a government, Mormons and non-Mormons alike drew up the Washoe Code, which mostly dealt with the ever-increasing land disputes, but it was only a stopgap measure at best. Complaints flooded into Washington, D.C. The ranchers and prospectors wanted annexation to California to avoid Mormon control, but in the end the Mormons won out. When New Mexico and Utah were established as territories in 1850, Nevada was included in Utah Territory as a county. However, relations between Mormons and non-Mormons continued to deteriorate, and when Federal troops were sent to quell a supposed rebellion in Utah Territory in 1857, the Mormons left the Washoe.

A new era began in Nevada shortly thereafter. Silver was struck in Virginia City in 1859, and gold created the town of Aurora in 1860. As thousands of people rushed into the Washoe, boom towns sprang up overnight. Territorial status was not far behind. Nevada Territory, named for the Sierra Nevadas, was created on March 2, 1861. Statehood then followed rather prematurely, as has already been mentioned.

The remaining history history of Nevada has been one of dramatic boom and bust. The early mining rushes exhausted themselves in the 1870s, and between 1880 and 1900 the state lost a third of its population. In 1900, silver and copper mining began anew with fresh discoveries at Tonopah and Ely, but bust came again in the 1910s, followed by another significant population decline. In 1931, in response to the Great Depression, Nevada’s government decided to build a new type of economy, one that would lure people in with attractions not available in other states. As a result, Las Vegas gained its present status as the largest city in Nevada. Air bases during World War II and nuclear testing beginning in 1951 heightened the effects of the economic growth, but that boom, too, went bust in the financial crisis in 2008, leaving Nevada with the worst unemployment rate in the nation.


Nevada: A Unit Study
Great Basin National Park

Nevada is bordered on the north by Oregon and Idaho, on the east by Utah, on the southeast by Arizona, and on the southwest and west by California. Principle rivers include the Humboldt, the Walker, the Carson, and the Truckee.

Most of the state falls within the Great Basin, an area of interior drainage, which means that the streams flow into sinks or lakes, rather than the sea. A small area along the border with Idaho is part of the Columbia Plateau, a region of canyons and both level and rolling land. The southern part of Nevada falls within the Mojave Desert and the Colorado River Canyon. The Sierra Nevadas lie along the western edge.


Nevada is the driest of the 50 states, receiving on average 7 inches of precipitation annually. Nearly half of the state can be classified as either desert or semi-arid, owing to the rain shadow created by the Sierra Nevadas. However, moderate and higher elevations in the central and northeast parts of the state receive 7 to 15 inches of precipitation annually, and some of the highest mountains have sub-humid or even humid climates with an average of around 40 inches of precipitation.

The northern half of the state has short, hot summers and long, cold winters, but the southern half is more mild. Temperatures can fluctuate widely in a single day. The hottest temperature recorded was 125ºF at Laughlin on June 29, 1994. The state record for cold is -50ºF at San Jacinto on January 8, 1937.

Flora and Fauna

Not surprisingly, most of Nevada’s natural vegetation is in the form of drought-resistant shrubs and trees. The lowest lake beds are too salty to support plant life at all, but as the elevation increases, a greater diversity of plants appears. Low deserts grow cacti, mesquite, creosote bush, and a low, brushy plant called shad scale. Moderate elevations support a great deal of sagebrush, which increasingly mingles with piñon pine and juniper as one travels up the mountains. The highest, wettest elevations sometimes have aspen, fir, and pine.

Fossils bear witness that Nevada has long been home to a diverse array of animals. The species that still survive include many spectacular large mammals, such as bears, elk, pronghorn antelope, mountain lions, and desert bighorn sheep. Waterfowl, game birds, rodents, and jackrabbits are also well represented. The lakes of Nevada hold additional animal life, including some very unusual species. For example, a strange fish called a cui-ui lives in Pyramid Lake, and a legendary serpent reminiscent of the Loch Ness Monster may have lived in Walker Lake at some point.


Tourism is by far the largest employer in Nevada, though outside of Reno and Las Vegas, mining and cattle ranching are still the major industries. Machinery, food processing, electrical equipment, and printing and publishing also have their place within the state, as do an assortment of manufactures ranging from cosmetics to glass products.

Nevada: A Unit Study
Goldstrike Mine

The state’s agriculture revolves around cattle, hay, potatoes, onions, and dairy products. Farming in Nevada has always been extremely difficult due to low rainfalls, so homesteaders generally chose claims near water and grazed their cattle on public lands. As a result, over 80% of the land in the state is owned by the Federal government.

Currently, Nevada produces more gold than any other state. Copper, gypsum, diatomite, lithium, and construction aggregates are also mined. Even though the days of the famous Comstock Lode are gone, Nevada is still very much a mining state.

Interesting Nevada Facts

  • Nevada means “snow-clad” in Spanish.
  • The first Pony Express ran through Nevada in 1860.
  • The transmission of the state constitution in 1864 was the largest and costliest message ever sent by telegraph.
  • The state’s unofficial nickname, “The Battle-Born State,” refers to admittance to the Union during the Civil war.
  • The Transcontinental Railroad crossed Nevada in 1869.
  • George Ferris invented the Ferris Wheel in Carson City in 1893.
  • The world’s last stagecoach robbery occurred near Jarbidge in 1916.
  • The Hoover Dam was finished in 1935, the world’s highest dam at the time.
  • The last atmospheric nuclear detonation in Nevada was conducted in 1962, while the last underground test was in 1992.

  • Learn more about The Transcontinental Railroad.
  • Label the following on a map of Nevada (see Notebooking Pages below):
    • Carson City (state capital)
    • Las Vegas (largest city)
    • Lake Tahoe
    • Great Basin
    • Hoover Dam
    • Bordering states

Further Investigation

Quick Facts

Elected Officials
Nevada elected officials.


Nevada Map and Quiz Printout
From Enchanted Learning.

Interactive Writing Tool {Free}
Create a state brochure using this interactive printing press.

Interactive Map Maker
Make and label your own map of Nevada.

The U.S.: 50 States Map Quiz
Locate each state at

My State Notebook

My State Notebook
From A Beka. “A basic guide to help students collect and learn the facts that are unique to their state as well as beginning research skills.”

Civics Activity Book

Civics Activity Book
Also from A Beka, but written for a higher level than the above title, this activity book guides state research “in a study of national, state, and local government with a brief overview of the Constitution and a variety of interesting activity sheets. In addition to government, students also study the history, geography, and other characteristics of their state and local areas.” We have enjoyed many of the activities in this book, which include writing letters to state officials, researching the state history and other activities.

State Birds and Flowers Coloring Book

State Birds and Flowers Coloring Book
Inexpensive option from Dover Publishing. Also check out their United States Coloring Book that has a state outline, symbols, and facts on one page.

Unit Studies & Lesson Plans

My State {Free Unit Study}
A recommended state study unit that covers civics, history, geography, language arts, applied math, science, and art, culminating in a personalized state notebook. We have also included additional go-along resources.

State History Outline & Projects
A wealth of original ideas and projects for making any state study a work of art!

Studying the 50 United States
Suggestions for a unit on any state from

Printables & Notebooking Pages

Nevada State Maps for Notebook

Nevada State Facts Coloring Pages for Notebook

Nevada’s  Wildlife Coloring Book
Free 32-page download.

U.S. States and Capitals Map
Color Nevada and write in the capital on this printable at

Nevada Notebooking Pages
Simple pages for copywork, narrations, recording state facts, or wrapping up.

View all of our state unit studies:
Free State Unit Studies
Free State Unit Studies

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