Hamilton Homestead (site)

Two of Nevada's earliest Black residents established a home and an enduring legacy here in 1900.

The story of the Hamilton homestead not only reveals one pioneering Nevada family’s incredible story, but explains a critical aspect of Reno’s history—the location of the Bethel AME Church, a spiritual and social center for Reno’s Black community since its construction in 1910. The property on Bell Street, on the north side of the Powning Addition, was purchased by William Hamilton for $488.75 at an auction in 1900 and declared a homestead in 1904.

William and his wife Sarah were two of the earliest Black residents of Nevada. William was born in Washington, DC around 1832, while Sarah was born into slavery in Louisiana in 1840. While little is known of William’s early years, Sarah and her mother and brother were said to have been sold in Louisiana to a Quaker family who brought them to the Pacific Coast where they were freed. William and Sarah reportedly married in Sonora, California in 1858 and moved to Virginia City soon after the momentous discovery of the Comstock Lode in 1859. There, William became one of the first members of Virginia City’s Black Masonic Ashlar Lodge No. 9.

In 1876, William purchased lots 25, 26, and 27 on the original Reno townsite from Charles Crocker. The lots were located between the north bank of the Truckee River and West Front (now First) Street, just to the east of its intersection with Sierra Street (the current location of the Palladio condominiums). William also bought other real estate on the north side of the river, which he sold for a profit. In the meantime, he worked as a caretaker/janitor for the Investment Hall.

In 1900, he bought this plot of land in the Powning Addition at an auction for $488.75 and in 1904 had it officially declared as a homestead. Bell Street had very few homes at the time. His property ran along the north side of the Auburn, or English Mill irrigation ditch. William died less than a month after filing the homestead papers, and was buried in Hillside Cemetery. An obituary referred to "Uncle Billy" as one of the oldest residents of the state, “known to all the pioneers," who left behind an estate of $3300, a sizable amount for the time. Now a widow, Sarah Hamilton sold the southernmost forty feet of their Bell Street property to the congregation of the Bethel AME Church in 1910. The Hamiltons’ wood frame house was moved to the north end of the lot in order to make way for the church to face the street. That left two houses and a cabin on the Hamilton property, where Sarah continued to live.

The Hamiltons’ daughter, Sarah (who went by Dollie), married Oscar H. Hammonds in 1912. Hammonds was an observer for the Reno weather bureau office and an active member of the Bethel AME congregation. The couple lived in one of the Hamiltons’ houses and Sarah conveyed the entire property to them in 1922. Sadly, Dollie died in 1929, after which Oscar sold the property to Dollie's daughter, Edna Holley, and her husband, James M. Holley, who were also active members of the Bethel AME Church.

Sarah Hamilton died in her home in 1931 at the age of 90. Her obituary called her “one of the real pioneers of Nevada and Reno…who saw the rise and decline of the Comstock and watched Reno grow from a small village to a busy city.” Both James and Edna Holley died soon after, in 1934. The land that once comprised the Hamilton's homestead became the site of a warehouse in the 1970s, but the Bethel AME Church the family helped make possible continues to stand at 220 Bell Street. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.

Images

Declaration of Homestead, 1904
Declaration of Homestead, 1904 In September of 1904, William Hamilton filed a Declaration of Homestead for Lots 11 and the section of Lot 10 lying north of the Auburn Mill Ditch in Block F of the Powning Addition. Source: Washoe County Recorder's Office Date: 1904
The death of William Hamilton, 1904
The death of William Hamilton, 1904 Several articles about William Hamilton were published in newspapers after his death, referring to his role as one of Nevada's early pioneers. Source: Reno Evening Gazette Date: October 6, 1904
The Hamilton Homestead in 1904
The Hamilton Homestead in 1904 A Sanborn fire insurance map shows the Hamilton property in 1904, the year that William Hamilton declared the land a homestead less than a month before his death. The property is on the left side of the north-south alley, on the north side of the Auburn Mill Ditch. The color yellow denotes wood frame buildings, which on the Hamilton property consisted of a main house (situated diagonally), an outhouse to its north, and a cabin on the parcel's east side. The street running north-south on the left of the property is Bell Street. Source: U.S. Library of Congress Creator: Sanborn Fire Insurance Company Date: 1904
Hamilton Homestead, 1906
Hamilton Homestead, 1906 By 1906, the Hamiltons had constructed a new house on their property, which can be seen at the bottom left of this map section, north of the irrigation ditch. Numbered 226 Bell Street, the new house was larger than the original home and fronted the street. Like their other house and outbuildings, the house was wood frame (denoted by the color yellow). Source: U.S. Library of Congress Creator: Sanborn Fire Insurance Company Date: 1906
Hamilton Homestead, 1918
Hamilton Homestead, 1918 By 1918, the Hamilton Homestead, located left of the north-south alley, had gained a new addition. The Hamiltons sold part of their property to the congregation of the Bethel AME Church in 1910 and moved their own house several yards north to make way for construction of the small wood frame church. Source: U.S. Library of Congress Creator: Sanborn Fire Insurance Company Date: 1918
Sarah Hamilton dies, 1931
Sarah Hamilton dies, 1931 Sarah Hamilton was described as "one of the real pioneers of Nevada and Reno" upon her death in 1931 at age 90. Born into slavery in Louisiana in 1840, she lived most of her life in Nevada, where she and her husband William had prospered and left an enduring legacy behind them. Source: Reno Evening Gazette Date: May 2, 1931
Hamilton Homestead site, 1949
Hamilton Homestead site, 1949 By the time that this 1949 Sanborn Fire Insurance map was created, both William and Sarah Hamilton had died, but their legacy continued in the persistence of the Bethel AME Church. The 1941 addition to the church building can be seen in this map, which also shows its new stone cladding (denoted by the color blue) surrounding the original wood frame structure (yellow). Source: U.S. Library of Congress Creator: Sanborn Fire Insurance Company Date: 1949
The Hamilton Homestead site in 2024
The Hamilton Homestead site in 2024 A view of the former site of the Hamilton Homestead in 2024 looks northeast along Bell Street. To the right is the Bethel AME Church, constructed in 1910. To its left, on the former site of the Hamilton family home, an old warehouse was constructed and later converted into modern offices. Creator: Alicia Barber Date: February 23, 2024

Location

226 Bell Street, Reno, NV

Metadata

Alicia Barber , “Hamilton Homestead (site),” Reno Historical, accessed May 19, 2024, https://renohistorical.org/items/show/260.