Indians and Mormons in the Gamblers Mecca Part 1

In our first part of a series of articles we look at how Las Vegas has grown from a mere spot in the Nevada desert to the world’s biggest and most famous gambling destination.

Near the end of the last ice age, around 25,000 years ago, the huge valley in which the city of Las Vegas now sits in was partially underwater. The glaciers in the mountains that surrounded the Las Vegas Valley were gradually melting; the run off water feeding a vast lake that was thousands of feet deep and more than 20 miles wide. The lakes’ outlet was a delta now known as the Las Vegas Wash which in turn ran into the massive Colorado river, which had for the past few hundred million years been carving out the Grand Canyon. The Las Vegas strip would eventually be built at a site, which formed the deepest part of that lake.

The earliest settlers on the lake’s shoreline were the Paleo-Indians who would hunt for bison, caribou and woolly mammoth as early as 13,000 BC. Little else is known about these prehistoric Las Vegas pioneers but as we near to 3000 BC, a clearer picture emerges of the Strip’s early inhabitants.

Around 5000 years ago, the area was inhabited by hunter-gatherers known as Archaic Indians. By then the great lake had dried up and the area was a dessert, however clean water was in abundance due to the many fresh water springs that babbled down to the Las Vegas wash. By around 500 AD the Archaic Indians, despite their name became an organised community living in pit houses, making pottery and cultivating crops. They disappeared from the area around the year 1150 AD. Maybe due to drought, disease or war. No one really knows why.

The next recorded Las Vegas inhabitants were another tribe of Indian, the Southern Paiutes, nomadic hunter gatherers who lived in tepees. The Paiutes remained undisturbed for over 700 years when they greeted the very first white men to the area in the form of Mexican traders. In 1830 Antonio Armijo set out from Santa Fe to trade goods along the Old Spanish Trail between monasteries set up by Franciscan friars, where he found a short cut. By following a large spring he became the very first non-native American to step foot in the valley. He named the Area Las Vegas, or ‘the Meadows’.

By 1845, the Old Spanish Trail had become the most travelled route in the Southwest with the valley becoming a popular camping spot due to the fresh running water. Latter Day Saints, who had settled on the shores of the Great Salt Lake a few hundred miles away often passed through the area. By the 1850’s Mormon pioneers as well as wagon trains and mail carriers stopped in the valley so regularly that the Mormon Church elders decided to colonise the area.

A party of Mormon missionaries left Salt Lake City in 1855 to establish a community at Las Vegas to service the various travellers that passed through the area (and hopefully save a few souls along the way). The missionaries built a fort, dug irrigation ditches, cultivated crops and befriended the local Indians. However, the extreme elements of the dessert overwhelmed them and their crops failed. The missionaries tried to hang in and save their mission until deposits of lead were found nearby. The discovery attracted miners from all over the Southwest stretching the mission’s resources to breaking point and the missionaries retreated back to Salt Lake City.

Keep an eye out for our next instalment of this fascinating story.