Skull Talk: The Birth of Las Vegas at the Old Mormon Fort

Guard shackDo you know what the name “Las Vegas” means? It’s Spanish for the meadows—not normally what comes to mind when you think of this part of the Mojave. Las Vegas sits in a bowl-shaped valley surrounded by mountains. At the center of the bowl, the bottom of the valley, is The Strip.

But long before The Strip, the mob, and the rat pack, people came to the Vegas valley for another reasonwater. Deep artesian wells spouted up into a small stream, drawing Native American tribes as well as explorers mapping the Spanish Trail from Santa Fe to Los Angeles. These first explorers gave the area its name in 1829.

In the 1850s Brigham Young sent Mormon missionaries west and the Vegas valley seemed a natural waypoint. The missionaries constructed a small adobe fort to provide safety to travelers and a central point for what they hoped would be a settlement. But the harsh climate and problems between leaders took their toll; the Mormons returned to Utah two years later.

Adobe houseThe fort’s land was purchased by a rancher who was killed in a personal dispute. Rather than leave the area, the rancher’s wife grew the operation into the area’s first settlement. Today, that woman, Helen Stewart, is known as the “first lady of Las Vegas.” Her land on the creek was later sold for use as a resort and for cement testing during the construction of the Hoover Dam.

Only a small portion of the fort remains, but it includes the small adobe house that was the official first building in Las Vegas. The house and site have all been carefully restored and preserved as the Old Mormon Fort Museum, a cornerstone of the city. Fittingly, it is surrounded by modern lifegas stations, stores, and officesa small oasis to fill us with the forgotten history of Las Vegas.

Karen Veazey
Associate Editor