Nevada’s always been a place where people take their chances, whether prospecting for mineral wealth a century ago or feeding the slot machines today. Genealogists looking for Nevada roots also might find their research a bit of a crapshoot: Throughout its history, die Silver State has seen successive waves of migrant groups blow through like sagebrush — sometimes leaving scant record trails. But if you follow our advice, you can up your odds of a big genealogical payout.
American Indians inhabited what’s now Nevada for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. (A fair number still do, and contacts within the tribes of the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada <www.itcn.org> can be helpful to genealogists.) Exploration of Nevada began in earnest in the 1820s, ’30s and ’40s, when some of the biggest names in Western exploration — including Jedediah S. Smith and John C. Fremont — trekked through what would later become the Silver State.
In those early decades, Nevada was primarily part of the journey, not the destination. Trails to California passed through Nevada, but travelers had little incentive to stop there until gold and silver were discovered in the mid-1800s. The discovery of silver in Virginia City’s Comstock Lode in 1859 sent miners rushing to the area, and led to the formation of Nevada Territory in 1861 (nearly all of present-day Nevada had been part of the huge Utah Territory since 1850). Only three years later, Nevada became a state — just in time to cast its electoral votes for President Abraham Lincoln’s re-election, timing some sources say wasn’t coincidental.
As the Comstock Lode dwindled during the 1880s, Nevada entered a depression that lasted until new mineral deposits were found in 1900. Sheep and cattle farming also figured into the economic mix in the early 20th century. Then, in 1931, Nevada legalized gambling — giving birth to die state’s best-known industry. Today, Nevada is the fastest-growing state in the country.
Straight to the vitals
The Silver State has no state-level vital records from the 19th century — birth and death certificates begin in 1911, and marriages and divorces don’t start until 1969. Luckily, county registration of these events began far earlier.
Many counties have marriage and divorce records back as far as 1862; nearly all began birth and death registration in 1887. These records are available from county recorders’ offices. It’s also worth noting that because of Nevada’s long-standing liberal marriage and divorce laws, many shotgun brides and grooms from other states appear in Silver State records.
County coroners also issued burial certificates; some records exist from the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s for incorporated cities, including Virginia City, Carson City and Gold Hill, The Nevada State Library and Archives (NSLA) <dmla.clan.lib.nv.us/docs/nsla> has a limited number of coroner’s records — including transcriptions of Storey County burial permits — on microfilm.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has microfilmed few of Nevada’s county-level birth, marriage and death records. To identify which ones are available through the Family History Library system, do a place search of the online catalog <www.familysearch.org/eng/library/fhlc/frameset_fhlc.asp> for Nevada, then click on the heading for vital records. You can rent relevant films to view at your local Family History Center (use the directory at <www.familytreemagazine.com/fhcs> to find one near you).
Betting on the census
First, some bad news: Because Nevada’s early history was a boom-and-bust affair, you can’t always count on church records from early days to take up the slack as vital-records substitutes. But there are some bright spots — Episcopal records from 1862, for instance, are at the Nevada Historical Society <dmla.clan.lib.nv.us/docs/museums/reno/his-soc.htm>. Consult Early Nevada Churches (Nevada Daughters of the American Revolution) in major libraries to learn more about 19th-century churches.
A better bet for tracking early Nevadans is the state historic preservation office’s online census database <dmla.clan.lib.nv.us/docs/shpo/nvcensus>. Funded jointly by the preservation office and state legislature, this project has indexed about 310,000 entries from the 1860 through 1920 federal censuses (excluding the destroyed 1890 head count).
Besides this database, NSLA has partial censuses of Nevada Territory from 1862 and 1863, as well as an 1875 state census on microfilm. The state census was published in Appendix to Journals of the Senate and Assembly of the Eighth Session of the Legislature of the State of Nevada, 1877, volumes 2 and 3, or you can search it online at Ancestry.com <Ancestry.com > ($155.40 a year).
Tax assessments are good census research supplements, and you can find Nevada’s in several places, including county courthouses. Local newspapers published the lists annually (visit Chronicling America <loc gov/chroniclingamerica> to identify Nevada newspapers, their publication dates and libraries that have them). NSLA’s Division of Archives and Records has duplicate assessment rolls for all counties from 1891 to 1892.
Censuses aren’t the only Silver State genealogical records online. Within the state and county pages at Nevada Gen Web <rootsweb.com/~nvgenweb>, you’l find cemetery records, an obituary project and an 1863 tax list transcription — along with people who are willing to do lookups.
In addition, the site has an active marriage transcription project to post county registers (many beginning in the 1880s); about half the counties have at least some transcriptions to date. A death records project is gleaning death information from church records, obituaries and other credible sources to help researchers get around the fact that Nevada’s state-level death records are considered closed.
Other records worth a gamble:
If your early Nevada ancestors came to work the mines, you’l find records from that industry helpful. NSLA holds mining corporation papers from 1861 to 1926; those after 1926 are in the Secretary of State’s office <sos.state.nv.us>. The Nevada Historical Society has mining company records including payrolls, customer lists and an “accident file” of miners killed in work-related mishaps before 1900.
Because Nevada is a public-land state, initial land purchases came through the federal government, which established land offices in Carson City (the first one; it opened in 1864), Elko, Eureka and Reno. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) maintains the records. Patents issued after 1908 are searchable online at <www.glorecords.blm.gov>; get records of earlier transactions from the BLM’s Nevada office <www.nv.blm.gov>.
Many Silver State settlers arrived after passage of the Homestead Act in 1862. If your kin tried to obtain free land through its provisions, you can get the resulting records from the National Archives and Records Administration <archives.gov>. County recorders keep deeds (from land transactions after the initial purchase). Look for contact information on the appropriate Nevada GenWeb county site.
Guardianships, estate files and other probate records are in county clerks’ offices (also listed on GenWeb county sites). Probate files from the territorial period — including ones from the time when Nevada was in Utah Territory — are at NSLA.
Don’t forget newspapers: Nevada’s earliest, the Territorial Gazette, began publication in 1858. The Nevada Historical Society, NSLA and University of Nevada libraries have the largest collections of the Silver State’s historical newspapers. NSLA lists its indexed papers at <dmla.clan.lib.nv.us/docs/nsla/services/newsind.htm>. Check local libraries, too.
Although Nevada might not be as flush with genealogical resources as older states, you can still cash in. With these records and a little luck, you’ll start filling the empty slots on your family tree.
From the January 2008 Family Tree Magazine.
• Statehood: 1864
• Territory: Part of Utah Territory in 1850, became Nevada Territory in 1861
• First available federal census: 1850
• Available territorial and state censuses: 1862, 1863, 1875
• Statewide birth and death records begin: 1911
• Statewide marriage records begin: 1969
• Counties: 16 plus an independent city (Carson City)
• Public-land state
• Contact for vital records:
• Cyndi’s List Nevada
<www.familysearch.org/eng/search/rg/research/type/research_outline.asp>: Scroll to Nevada.
• Early Nevada Churches by Marjorie A. Hanes (Nevada Daughters of the American Revolution)
• Nevada Place Names: A Geographical Dictionary by Helen S. Carlson (University of Nevada Press)
• The Nevada Tombstone Record Book: Southern Nevada by Richard B. Taylor (Nevada Families Project,)
• Newspapers of Nevada: A History and Bibliography 1854-1979 by Richard E. Lingenfelter and Karen Rix Cash (University of Nevada Press)
• Prime Sources of California and Nevada Local History: 151 Rare and Important City, County and State Directories, 1850-1906 by Richard Quebedeaux (A.H. Clark)
• The Silver State by James W. Hulse (University of Nevada Press)
• Women in Nevada History: An Annotated Bibliography of Published Sources edited by Jean Ford, Betty J. Class and Martha B. Gould (Nevada Women’s History Project)
Organizations and Archives
<www.pipersoperahouse.com>: Nevada’s silver barons frequented this 1880s opera house to be entertained by traveling players, and the stage is still set to that era: Take in the original 19th-century scenery, posters, playbills, photos, and the unique auditorium floor — it’s built on ore-car springs.