Land based casinos in the United States have a history older than the country itself. From Wild West saloons to casinos owned by gun-toting gangsters, the history of casinos in the United States has quite a long, colorful story.

las vegas casinos

Casinos in the United States existed way before the days of extravagant resorts on the Las Vegas Strip.

Gambling Arrives in the United States

Gambling in the United States existed before the country itself, dating back to the establishment of the first British American colonies in the late 1500s. In many colonies, lax British attitudes toward gambling persisted, and settlers considered it a well-liked and accepted activity to place bets at local casinos or gambling houses. In fact, many early British American colonies used lotteries to raise money to fund universities and schools. While some Puritan colonies frowned upon betting, no large scale restrictions existed.

The Mississippi Reigns with Riverboat Casinos

Gambling establishments began to boom throughout the country with New Orleans becoming a hotbed of casino activity. However, anti-gambling movements later pushed land based casinos onto riverboats along the Mississippi River and into territories in the West.

riverboat casino

In the 1820s, riverboat casinos became popular along the Mississippi River.

In the 1820s, riverboat casinos along the Mississippi attracted gamblers who played popular card games or placed bets on boat races. It didn’t take long for these vessels to attract professional card cheats onto the unregulated waters of the Mississippi. However, the law soon caught on, and in 1835 five casino gamblers were hanged for cheating in a card game. Eventually, the riverboat casino industry died out after the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. It wasn’t until the 1990s that states like Illinois and Louisiana again legalized riverboat casinos.

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Casinos Strike Gold Out West

The territories of the Wild West offered an unregulated frontier for casinos. When settlers discovered gold in California, a flush of aspiring prospectors headed out west looking to strike it rich. During the California Gold Rush in the 1850s, the city of San Francisco triumphed over New Orleans as the country’s largest gambling hub. However, over time laws became stricter and casino activity died down.

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Gambling in Saloons

In the Old West, early land based casinos were called saloons, a place where people gathered to gamble, drink, socialize, and enjoy entertainment.

Frontier towns like Deadwood, Dodge City, Denver, and Kansas City became famous for their lavish gambling houses. With hardly any restrictions, gambling became popular at local saloons where people gathered to talk, drink, gamble, or enjoy the entertainment such as piano players, theater, and dancing girls who routinely doubled as prostitutes. Common games included poker, faro, brag, three card monte, and dice games as well as pool, darts, and bowling.

Wild BIll HickokDid You Know? Wild Bill Hickok became a legendary figure of the Wild West as a professional lawman, gunfighter, and gambler. He died in 1876 after a man shot him in the back of the head at a local saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota while playing cards. He held aces and eights in his hands, which has become known as the “Dead Man’s Hand”.

Another well-known name in the Wild West, Wyatt Earp owned many quite lavish saloons during his lifetime in boom towns across California, Alaska, and Nevada. They offered games such as faro, blackjack, poker, keno, and old Victorian games like pedro and monte.

Join the gunslingers and outlaws of the Wild West at High Noon Casino .

Casinos Take Over Nevada

Even before gambling became officially legal in Nevada, the state attracted early casino developers. The Golden Gate Casino in Las Vegas opened its doors in 1906, becoming the country’s first and longest running gambling establishment. Located on Freemont Street, at the time people considered the hotel and casino very luxurious with its large 10’x10’ rooms. The original building still stands today with well over $12 million spent on renovations and expansion.

golden gate casino

Founded in 1906, The Golden Gate Casino, originally the Hotel Nevada, represents the oldest operating casino in the United States.

Not far from Las Vegas along the shores of Lake Tahoe, a wealthy businessman from San Francisco built the Cal Neva Casino in 1926. It quickly became a big success attracting the likes of Frank Sinatra (who owned the casino from 1960-1963), the Kennedys, Joe DiMaggio, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, and Sammy Davis Jr. Marilyn Monroe also stayed at the Cal Neva Casino just a week before her death in August 1962. Although under renovation, the casino still stands today. Many guests claim seeing ghosts of both Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe still lingering among the casino tables.

marilyn monroe frank sinatra

Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra together at the Cal Neva Casino. Many claim that both still haunt the Cal Neva, one of Nevada's oldest gambling establishments.

In 1931, Nevada became the first state to legalize gambling. Although casino development started out slow, by the end of World War II investors eventually recognized Las Vegas and surrounding cities as an attractive place to build casinos. Las Vegas in particular became a thriving gambling destination, attracting wealthy investors like Howard Hughes and infamous mobsters.

Gambling Gets Gangster

In the early 20th century, gambling in the United States remained illegal in most parts of the country. The restrictions forced casinos underground into the hands of organized criminals. In the 20s, underground gambling establishments thrived, filled with illegal booze and card games.

Flamingo Casino

Notorious gangster, Bugsy Siegel named his Las Vegas Casino, The Flamingo after the long legs of his showgirl girlfriend. On June 20, 1947, three months after the casino hotel and resort was finished, Siegel was gunned down at his girlfriend’s home.

After gambling became legal in Nevada, mobsters that made their fortune bootlegging spirits during the Prohibition Era took their money to Vegas. Some of the most infamous and feared gangsters at the time like Meyer Lansky,  Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, Lucky Luciano, and Frank Costello  played an integral role in the early development of the Las Vegas Strip. The mob’s involvement in Sin City has since died down, and very little organized crime persists in the city today.

Want more history of gambling in the United States? Read VegasMaster’s article, Vegas through the Years.

The American Casino Industry Booms

New Jersey became the second state to legalize gambling. In an effort to revitalize the city, Atlantic City legalized gambling in 1977. Immediately thereafter, The Chalfonte-Haddon Hotel began converting a portion of their grounds into a casino, later becoming the Resorts Casino Hotel. The city grew rapidly into a popular tourist destination for gambling and beach vacations. It has become the country’s second largest gambling destination after Las Vegas.

Did You Know? Atlantic City served as the inspiration for the original version of the board game Monopoly.

Chalfonte Haddon Hotel

In 1978, the Chalfonte-Haddon Hotel, now the Resorts Casino Hotel, became the first casino to open in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

The first casino owned by a Native American tribe opened in 1979 when the Seminole tribe premiered their reservation based commercial casino in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Tribal Casinos have since become a large source of income for many Indian reservations in the United States. Today the country has over 460 Tribal Casinos including the country’s second largest, Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut operated by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe.

Foxwoods Casino

Operated by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, Foxwoods Casino represents the second largest casino in the United States and generates $1.5 billion each year.

American Casinos Today

According to law, each state may regulate gambling within its borders. As a result, gambling establishments vary across the country with different forms available depending on state law. Almost every state allows at least some form of gambling especially state lotteries.  Legal forms of gambling in the United States also include card rooms, commercial casinos, bingo halls, Tribal Casinos, legal bookmaking, lotteries, and race tracks. Some states such as Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, and Louisiana feature racinos which combine a race track and casino.

Learn more about Gambling Laws in the United States.

Based on 2007 statistics of the American Gaming Association, gambling in United States breaks down into the following:

American Gaming Industry Grand Total Income - $92.27 billion

  • Card Rooms - Earning $1.18 billion
  • Commercial Casinos - Earning $34.41 billion
  • Charitable Games and Bingo - Earning $2.22 billion
  • Indian Casinos (Tribal Casino) - Earning $26.02 billion
  • Legal bookmaking - Earning $168.8 million
  • Lotteries - Earning $24.78 billion
  • Parimutuel wagering/Race Tracks - Earning $3.50 billion

Did You Know? Delaware became the first state to legalize online gambling back in 2010 followed by Nevada and New Jersey. Many other states including California and Pennsylvania have online gambling proposals in the works through respective legislatures.

Americans have been gambling at casinos even before the United States even existed. Earning close to $100 billion in revenue, the history of land based casinos in the United States has come a long way since the days of Wild West saloons and underground casinos run by gangsters. Currently, the United States has over 1700 land based casinos throughout the country. Over 70 million Americans (nearly 1/3 or 32% of the population) have gambled in a casino in the past year. The American gambling industry continues to thrive, representing one of the largest gaming industries in all the world.