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.