The first inhabitants of what is now Nevada arrived about 12,000 years ago. They were fishermen, as well as hunters and food gatherers, for the glacial lakes of the ancient Great Basin were then only beginning to recede. Numerous sites of early human habitation have been found, the most famous being Pueblo Grande de Nevada (also known as Lost City). In modern times, four principal Indian groups have inhabited Nevada: Southern Paiute, Northern Paiute, Shoshoni, and Washo.

Probably the first white explorer to enter the state was the Spanish priest Francisco Garces, who apparently penetrated extreme southern Nevada in 1776. The year 1826 saw Peter Skene Ogden of the British Hudson's Bay Company enter the northeast in a prelude to his later exploration of the Humboldt River; the rival American trapper Jedediah Smith traversed the state in 1826–27. During 1843–44, John C. Frémont led the first of his several expeditions into Nevada.

Nevada's first permanent white settlement, Mormon Station (later Genoa), was founded in 1850 in what is now western Nevada, a region that became part of Utah Territory the same

year. (The southeastern tip of Nevada was assigned to the Territory of New Mexico.) Soon other Mormon settlements were started there and in Las Vegas Valley. The Las Vegas mission failed, but the farming communities to the northwest succeeded, even though friction between Mormons and placer miners in that area caused political unrest. Most of the Mormons in western Nevada departed in 1857, when Salt Lake City was threatened by an invasion of federal troops.

A separate Nevada Territory was established in 1861; only three years later, on 31 October 1864, Nevada achieved statehood, although the present boundaries were not established until 18 January 1867. Two factors accelerated the creation of Nevada: the secession of the southern states, whose congressmen had been blocking the creation of new free states, and the discovery, in 1859, of the Comstock Lode, an immense concentration of silver and gold which attracted thousands of fortune seekers and established the region as a thriving mining center.

Nevada's development during the rest of the century was determined by the economic fortunes of the Comstock, whose affairs were dominated, first, by the Bank of California (in alliance with the Central Pacific Railroad) and then by the "Bonanza Firm" of John W. Mackay and his partners. The lode's rich ores were exhausted in the late 1870s, and Nevada slipped into a 20-year depression. A number of efforts were made to revive the economy, one being an attempt to encourage mining by increasing the value of silver. To this end, Nevadans wholeheartedly supported the movement for free silver coinage during the 1890s, and the Silver Party reigned supreme in state politics for most of the decade.

Nevada's economy revived following new discoveries of silver at Tonopah and gold at Goldfield early in the 20th century. A second great mining boom ensued, bolstered and extended by major copper discoveries in eastern Nevada. Progressive political ferment in this pre-World War I period added recall, referendum, and initiative amendments to the state constitution and brought about the adoption of women's suffrage (1914).

The 1920s was a time of subdued economic activity; mining fell off, and not even the celebrated divorce trade, centered in Reno, was able to compensate for its decline. Politically, the decade was conservative and Republican, with millionaire George Wingfield dominating state politics through a so-called bipartisan machine. Nevada went Democratic during the 1930s, when the hard times of the Depression were alleviated by federal public-works projects, most notably the construction of the Hoover (Boulder) Dam, and by state laws aiding the divorce business and legalizing gambling.

Gaming grew rapidly after World War II, becoming by the mid-1950s not only the mainstay of Nevada tourism but also the state's leading industry. Revelations during the 1950s and 1960s that organized crime had infiltrated the casino industry and that casino income was being used to finance narcotics and other rackets in major East Coast cities led to a state and federal crackdown and the imposition of new state controls.

From 1960 to 1980, Nevada was the fastest-growing of the 50 states, increasing its population by 70% in the 1960s and 64% in the 1970s. In the mid-1980s the state's population growth continued to outpace that of the nation, reaching 14% in the first half of the 1980s in contrast to the national average of 4%. Much of this growth was associated with expansion of the gambling industry—centered in the casinos of Las Vegas and Reno—and of the military. In the 1980s, Nevada began to try to reduce its dependence on gambling by diversifying its economy. In an attempt to attract new businesses, particularly in the high-tech industry, the state promoted such features as its absence of state, corporate, or personal income taxes, inexpensive real estate, low wages, and its ready access by air or land to California.

In the first half of the 1990s, Nevada was once again the nation's fastest growing state, increasing its population by nearly 25%; by 2001 the state's population exceeded 2.1 million. Efforts to diversify the state's economy yielded results as its industrial base expanded. In the early 1990s, Nevada was the only state reporting an increase in manufacturing jobs. Meanwhile Las Vegas continued to prosper, expanding its offerings to attract new visitors. During the decade, several extravagant new hotel and casino complexes opened, many of them featuring amusement parks and other family-oriented entertainment. The booming Las Vegas economy helped push Nevada unemployment to an all-time low of 3.1% in December 1999, one-half a percentage point below the prior record of 3.6% set in 1962. Due in large measure to the 2001 US recession and its aftermath, however, Nevada faced a $704 million budget deficit in 2003, and the unemployment rate stood at 5.4% in July 2003, albeit below the national average of 6.2%.

Nevadans' opposition to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal site, first proposed by Congress in 1987, continued into 2003. In 2002, US Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham recommended the Yucca Mountain site to President George W. Bush as a nuclear waste repository, which Bush approved. Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn vetoed the project, but the US Congress overrode his veto. President Bush signed Congress's joint resolution into law, and Yucca Mountain became the nation's nuclear waste repository site. Nevada filed major lawsuits against the US Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, President Bush, and Secretary Abraham. Nevada's lawsuits were set for oral argument before the District of Columbia's Court of Appeals in September 2003.