The Long, Strange Journey of Nevada’s State Flag

wikimedia commons // public domain
wikimedia commons // public domain / wikimedia commons // public domain

Some states nail the perfect, iconic flag design on their first try. And then there’s Nevada, which needed the better part of a century to get things just right.

Nevada first got a state flag in 1905, more than four decades after it was first granted statehood in 1864. Governor John Sparks created the straightforward design with a member of his staff, Colonel Henry Day. The flag included the words “Nevada,” “Silver,” and “Gold” along with 36 gold and silver stars, a nod to Nevada’s mining industry and its status as the 36th state. 

Celebrating Nevada’s mining industry was a savvy political move for Sparks, who made his fortune in the Texas cattle business before making his way to Nevada in 1881. As a politician he ran on the Democrat-Silver ticket and became heavily involved in the mining operations of Nevada. The Democrat-Silver ticket was a loose coalition of Republicans and Democrats that, due to the abundance of silver mining in the West, supported silver over the gold standard. In the minds of both politicians and adventurers, silver represented Manifest Destiny and new hope for a new frontier. Sparks wanted the rest of the Union to know that Nevada had hope and riches in abundance.

Changing of the Guard 

Ironically, it was a mining strike that led to Sparks’ ultimate downfall in 1907. During a strike in the town of Goldfield, Sparks sided with the mine owners rather than the union, leading to a revolt that eventually required President Theodore Roosevelt to dispatch federal troops to defuse the situation. The uproar took a toll on Sparks’ health and when he died in 1908, his tending physician said “worry incidental to the Goldfield strikes and the subsequent special session of the legislature are what broke him down.” 

Sparks’ flag design suffered from a similar fall from grace. In 1915 it was cast aside in favor of a new flag featuring 36 gold and silver stars, the motto “All For Our Country,” and the Nevada state seal. This busy new design was ambitious, but the inclusion of the state seal meant it had too many colors and was hard to replicate.

Trying Again 

Just 10 years later, Nevadans were clamoring for yet another new state flag. The state’s lieutenant governor kicked off a contest to design a new one for a $25 prize. State highway department artist Louis Shellback won for a design that featured a field of “Old Glory blue” with a wreath of sagebrush, a five-pointed star, and the words “Battle Born.” This phrase was first uttered by Nevada Congressman Thomas Fitch, who proclaimed  “Our state will be battle-born,” in reference to Nevada gaining statehood during the Civil War.  

But in 1989, researcher Dana Bennett discovered something. The strange placement of the letters was the result of an assemblyman who wanted to have the state’s name somewhere on the flag. At the time, the Senate refused to accept this touch, leading to fierce debate. On the last day of the legislative session (technically the morning after) the two sides agreed on a compromise that said: "the word 'Nevada' shall appear immediately below the sprays in silver Roman letters.” But in their rush to finish, it was the Assembly’s bill, and not the compromise bill, that went to the Governor. Technically, then, this was not the official flag of Nevada.

In order to rectify this (and other problems of the 1929 legislature), in 1991, the state legislature passed a new bill that moved the state’s name to a position under the star. Finally—after 86 years of tweaking and nearly 130 years after it became a state—Nevada finally had its finished state flag. The final product incorporates a little bit of everything—the sagebrush state flower, the nod to Nevada’s birth during war, and a single star as a nod to the state’s beginnings as a silver beacon of hope in the West.