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In 2014, Nevadans will celebrate our sesquicentennial … the one hundred and fiftieth birthday of our statehood. September 2013 marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of our NEAR statehood. Sort of.
In December 1862, the Nevada territorial legislature passed a bill to, quote, frame a constitution and state government for the state of Washoe. According to the bill, the territory would vote in the following September on whether they wanted statehood and to elect thirty-nine delegates to a constitutional convention. If they said yes, the convention would meet in November.
On September 2, 1863, voters in Nevada territory went to the polls. They made themselves clear. They voted FOR the convention, 6660 to 1502. In November, the delegates met. It was an impressive group. It included a future United States senator, William Morris Stewart; a former governor of California, J. Neely Johnson; a future governor of Nevada, John Kinkead; and a future congressman from Nevada, Thomas Fitch. The convention chairman was the chief justice of the territorial supreme court, John Wesley North.
With the Civil War on, the delegates opposed secession and states’ rights. They debated what to call the proposed new state. They didn’t like Washoe all that much. They talked about Humboldt, as in the river, and Esmeralda, as in the Spanish word for emerald and the heroine of a popular novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The big issue was how to tax mining. North and Stewart led the factions. North wanted proceeds taxed like any other property. Stewart wanted only net proceeds taxed, with depreciation and deductions allowed first. The convention voted two to one for North’s view, so the original Nevada Constitution taxed mining like any other property.
Once the convention adjourned and the constitution went out to the people, that was one controversy. There were two others. One, voters would decide something else besides the constitution. They also would vote on who would hold the first state offices. The problem was that in those days, we didn’t have secret ballots and electronic voting. Voters literally would have to split their tickets, and that didn’t happen all that much. This also meant that there would be political in-fighting over who to support, and that would reduce any unity over the constitution.
The other controversy had to do with Stewart. He claimed that what the constitution said about mining taxes didn’t matter. First, he read the document as saying that the legislature still could tax mining differently. Second, Stewart made clear that he would make sure that happened. Well, Stewart had a lot of power. He was the attorney for most of the major mining companies of the time, many of them based in San Francisco. Nevadans today still claim not to like it when people come in from the outside and tell us what to do. They also felt that way back in the 1860s.
Between all of these factors, in January 1864, Nevadans voted down their constitution, 8851 to 2157. In a four month period, Nevadans switched from supporting statehood by a four to one margin to opposing it by a four to one margin. Now they would have to find a solution so they could have a constitution and statehood. Spoiler alert: eventually, they did.