Sparks Family Papers

Identifier: 2015-24

Scope and Contents

Though materials from John Sparks, the family’s patriarch, make up a large portion of this collection, there are also materials from other family members including documentation from the Knight Family, of which both of Sparks’ wives were members, and from the children of John and Nancy Elnora Sparks. The latter includes materials from Benton Hackett Sparks, Charles Meigs Sparks, Leland John Sparks, Maud Mackenzie, and their significant others. Also included are materials from the grandchildren of John Sparks including correspondence and writings from Leland John Sparks Jr., the late father of the executors of the collection.

The materials in this collection offer information and insight into the background and the lives of John Sparks and the members of his immediate family including his children and grandchildren. Materials consist of correspondence, business transaction records from the various landholdings, cattle enterprises, and banking endeavors of John Sparks and the Knight family in Illinois, Texas, Wyoming Territory and Nevada, bibliographical records on both the Sparks and Knight families, scrapbooks, news clips especially highlighting the tenure of John Sparks as Governor of Nevada, ephemera, memorabilia, the writings of family members, awards, certificates, and personal items and keepsakes. In addition to the aforementioned types of materials, this collection includes a sizeable number of photographs.

Series 1: John Sparks, pertains to the businesses owned and managed by John Sparks in Texas, Wyoming Territory, and Nevada as well as personal materials including correspondence, ephemera, memorabilia, appointment and commission announcements, a wedding license, and membership information on the many fraternal orders of which he was a member. It includes information about his work with cattle ranching and with Diamondfield Jack Davis, and his mining interests in the Goldfield and Bullfrog mining regions. This group has been broken into two subseries: 1) Businesses; and 2) General Correspondence and Personal.

Series 2: Governor John Sparks, deals with items and materials from John Sparks’ one-and-a-half terms as the 10th Governor of Nevada and is divided into two subseries: 1) Gubernatorial First and Second Term; and 2) Newspaper Clippings. The subseries are comprised of posters, handbills, proclamations, invitations and congratulations from supporters, programs for special events, correspondence, and news clips from a variety of newspapers all over the West. The topics covered primarily deal with news on politicians and political action in the state of Nevada and the unrest by miners in Goldfield in 1907-1908.

Series 3: Sparks and Knight Families, includes materials from other members of the Sparks and Knight families. This series is arranged into eight subseries according to individual family members and/or families. They are: 1) Biographical Information; 2) Nancy Elnora Knight (Sparks); 3) Benton Hackett Sparks; 4) Charles Meigs Sparks; 5) Leland John Sparks and Allie Burwitz; 6) Leland John Sparks Jr. and Patricia Clarkin; 7) Other Family Members; and 8) Miscellaneous Ephemera and Memorabilia. The materials include a variety of correspondence, ephemera, memorabilia, keepsakes, biographical information, land titles, and business and employment information from the families of John and Nancy Sparks and their children and grandchildren.

The final series is Series 4: Photographs. It includes a wide variety of images including those of the Sparks family, their land holdings, ranches, and images of northern Nevada.


  • 1835-2011
  • Majority of material found within 1880-1910


Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research. Physical materials, such as those not available through UNR Libraries' Digital Collections or other online portals must be used on-site; advance notice suggested. Access to parts of this collection may be restricted under provisions of state or federal law.

Biographical Note

John Sparks was born on August 30, 1843 in Winston County, Mississippi. He was the seventh of ten children born to Samuel Wyatt Sparks and Sarah Deal. Sparks was raised in Lampasas County, Texas, where he got his start in the cattle business at the age of just 14. In 1861, he joined the Texas Rangers and spent the duration of the Civil War protecting white settlers from sporadic Comanche attacks. Following his service, Sparks participated in several cattle drives north from Texas into areas of Nebraska, Wyoming, Nevada, Idaho, and Montana where cattle were driven to fatten up before being sent to market.

In the spring of 1872, after returning from a three-year stint in Wyoming and Nebraska territories buying and selling a variety of ranches and livestock, Sparks returned to Georgetown, Texas where he invested in a bank and built a mansion. Not long afterward, he married Rachel Knight, the daughter of Dr. David and Susannah Knight and the two moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming. Sparks purchased a ranch in the Chugwater River valley in 1873 and the couple had two daughters, Maud Sparks (1875-1944) and Rachel Sparks (1877-1881).

On February 14, 1879, tragedy struck when Sparks’ wife, Rachel passed away at the age of 26 leaving him with two small daughters, ages two and four. Sparks looked to Rachel’s half-sister, Nancy Elnora Knight for help with the children. The two were married in January of 1880 in Lampasas County, Texas.

A year later, the new couple moved to Elko County, Nevada where they lived for a time and started a family at the Rancho Grande Ranch near Goose Creek in the northeast corner of the county. Sparks and his partner, John Tinnin, began acquiring extensive land holdings that they purchased from Jasper Harrell and solidified their cattle empire in the northeastern corner of Nevada and the southern portions of Idaho. At its peak, Sparks-Tinnin was said to have controlled 6% of the land in Nevada, though very little of that was owned on a fee simple basis.

Deal Sparks was born in September of 1880 but didn’t survive past infancy. Benton Hackett Sparks was born in April of 1882, and the couple’s other two boys, Charles Meigs Sparks and Leland John Sparks, were born in 1885 and 1889 after the family relocated Reno, Nevada. During this time, Sparks continued to maintain banking and land businesses in Texas and Wyoming Territory—despite being absent, Sparks never fully severed his ties with Texas.

In Washoe County, Sparks purchased a 1,640-acre tract of land just outside of Reno near that Virginia and Truckee railroad that he named “the Alamo.” Today the ranch would be roughly located at the intersection of Virginia Street and Peckham Lane. It became a showcase ranch that drew spectators from Reno and the surrounding area who came to see the Hereford cattle-breeding operation and other more “exotic” species like elk and buffalo that Sparks kept on the property. The ranch became the epicenter of the community’s social life as well as where the Sparks family held barbeque parties and entertained notable visitors including Leland Stanford, Edward Harriman, and Theodore Roosevelt.

The "white winter" of 1889-1890 was particularly injurious to Sparks-Tinnin. Temperatures in Elko County plummeted to -42 degrees Fahrenheit and the range remained covered in heavy snow from January to March. Without any precautions taken to provide cattle with supplemental feed, two-thirds of the 45,000 head of cattle perished. After the winter of 1889-1890, Tinnin could no longer make his payments to Jasper Harrell and Harrell took over his portion of the business and it was renamed Sparks-Harrell. By the turn of the 20th century, Sparks was also forced to sell some of his shares to Harrell due to financial troubles incurred at the Alamo Ranch and his shortsighted purchase of the Wedekind Mine just north of Reno in 1902.

The mid-1890s were a contentious and difficult period for cattlemen operating in northeastern Nevada and southern Idaho. Due to a severe, multiyear drought, cattlemen and sheepmen were forced to compete for scarce resources. Cattlemen and their rival sheepmen hired gunmen to patrol the range and protect their holdings. Sparks hired “Diamondfield” Jack Davis. Davis was a notorious cowboy gunman with a prominent reputation in the American West. In 1896, Davis was tried for the murders of two Mormon sheepmen while working for Sparks. He was sentenced to hang, but was later acquitted on the brink of his execution.

Despite some financial setbacks, John Sparks was among the most wealthy and powerful men in Nevada by the end of the 19th century. In 1902, he was persuaded to run in the Nevada gubernatorial race as the Democrat-Silver candidate. Nevadans elected him governor in 1902 and he began serving his first term during one of the most tumultuous times in the state’s history. In 1904, the railroad community just east of Reno was officially named Sparks in honor of the governor. In 1905, Sparks unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the predominately Republican state legislature to select him as U.S. Senator. Instead, the state legislature chose former Republican assemblyman George S. Nixon for the position. Regardless of his failed attempt to become a Senator, Sparks was easily reelected as governor in 1906.

“Honest” John Sparks, as he came to be called by admirers and supporters, reached the height of his popularity during his second term as governor. During his tenure, a state railroad commission was formed, the Nevada State Police was organized, an eight-hour work day bill for miners was passed, and a state engineering office was created. There were also important irrigation policies enacted in Nevada that allowed for the reclamation of water for farming lands in outlying counties.

Also of particular note was the labor strike that occurred in Goldfield in 1907 while John Sparks was governor. This event ultimately lead to the creation of the Nevada State Police as a way of replacing federal troops that had been called out to quell the agitation. Some argue that the events in Goldfield were partially responsible for the death of John Sparks on May 22, 1908 during his second term as governor. The 66-year-old governor, afflicted with a kidney ailment known as Bright’s disease, travelled to Goldfield via train to assess the situation and eventually succumbed to his maladies months later. His death was more likely caused by an open-air automobile ride from Reno to Carson City in December of 1907, but some still attribute it to the tumult in Goldfield.

The body of John Sparks was laid in the Nevada capitol building while hundreds of thousands of people filed by to pay their respects. Sparks was buried in Reno, at the Masonic Memorial Cemetery. His grave marker includes a bronze bust sculpted by his daughter, Maud Sparks Mackenzie. Immediately following his death, the Alamo Ranch was sold to settle some of his debts.

The ranch house, which was relocated in the latter half of the 20th century to Washoe Valley survives and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The legacy of Honest John Sparks lives on in Northern Nevada most notably in his namesake given to the town just east of Reno. Though most people probably don’t know the history of the man or his family, they undoubtedly recognize the name. Sparks is also noteworthy for his efforts to improve relationships between the state and federal government with respect to the cattle industry and public domain--subjects that are still relevant in the Far West today.

Little information on Sparks’ wives and children is available beyond what appears in this collection. Some of the biographical details can be pieced together but not with any degree of certainty beyond their possible professions, city of residence, and birth and death dates.


11.687 Linear Feet (18 boxes, 4 oversize folders, 1 shared box)

Language of Materials



John Sparks was a native of Mississippi that made his fortune in the cattle business and banking in Texas and Wyoming Territory after the Civil War. He married Nancy Elnora Knight in 1880 and moved to Elko County, Nevada where he continued cattle ranching operations. In 1902, Sparks became the 10th governor of Nevada, but passed away while in office during his second term in May 1908. Sparks was survived by his wife and four children: Maud Sparks McKenzie, Benton Hackett Sparks, Charles M. Sparks, and Leland John Sparks. Materials are comprised of 6.5 cubic feet, date from 1835 to 2009, and cover portions of the lives of John Sparks and members of his immediate family including his wife, daughters, sons, and grandson. Collection includes correspondence, business documents, newspaper clippings, gubernatorial ephemera, and memorabilia.


Arranged into the following series with further divisions into subseries: 1) John Sparks; 2) Governor John Sparks; 3) Sparks and Knight Families; 4) Photographs

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Donated by Thomas L. Sparks and Anthony C. Sparks on behalf of the Sparks Family Estate in 2015. Additional materials donated in June 2020.

Related Materials

Related materials held by the UNR Special Collections Department:

Young, James A. and Sparks, B. Abbott. Cattle in the Cold Desert by James A. Young and B. Abbott Sparks (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2002) [SF196.U5 Y68 2002]

Guide to the Sparks Family Papers
Edan Strekal
October 2017
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the University of Nevada, Reno. Special Collections Department Repository

Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center
1664 N. Virginia St.
Reno Nevada 89557-0322 USA
775-682-5724 (Fax)