Prelude To The Founding of Las Vegas
There were intermittent and accidental discoveries of the Las Vegas valley by early explorers. Most historians agree that the first non Indian to visit the area was Rafael Rivera, a scout for a Mexican trader, Antonio Armijo.
However, it was quite a while, about 8 decades, later when Las Vegas became a town and had a hope of survival. Here is the story of the events that took place leading up to the actual founding of the city.
After the Mormons left the Vegas area in 1857, the next significant chapter in Vegas history opened in 1865. It was then that Octavius Decatur Gass, an Ohioan, purchased the Mormon fort. He was convinced that this property would be a good stopping point for gold prospectors and others who came through the valley.
With the help of friends, Gass transformed the old fort into a working ranch. His hope was that it would become a good source of income.
Over time, Gass and his partners bought out other properties nearby. When done, he and his partners owned 640 acres. Gas owned 160 acres and others the balance. However, by 1872 he was able to buy out his partners and own the entire 640 acres.
Gass’ ranch did enjoy success. It become a popular way station for travelers, but not with the number of people he had envisioned.
As time went by, Gass was able to acquire more acreage. By 1877 he held 960 acres and had more than 30 men and women working for him.
Gass’ ranch appeared to be a great success. However, he was loaded with debt. Eventually, after mortgaging his ranch, and borrowing $5,000 from another rancher, Archibald Stewart, Gass defaulted. He and his family abandoned his ranch and ownership passed to Stewart and his wife, Helen. They continued to work the ranch and turned it into a successful enterprise.
During one of Archibald Stewart’s trips away, a ranch hand, Schyler Henry, demanded to be paid. Helen didn’t know the books or how much he was owed so she told him he would have to wait until her husband returned home. Henry then threatened and insulted Her .
When Archibald did return, his wife told him what had happened. He immediately determined to find Henry and confront him about the incident.
On July 13, 1884, Archibald Stewart traveled to a rival ranch, the Kiel Ranch, located in North Las Vegas where Henry was at the time. Conrad Kiel was a former associate of Decatur Gass. Conrad and his sons, William and Edwin ran the ranch. This ranch was a regular hangout for outlaws and was known for its spirit of anarchy.
After Stewart arrived, a gunfight ensued and he was killed. Some historians think it was a set up and no one was brought to justice for the shooting.
After her husband’s death, Helen Stewart had the ranch to manage. In the coming years her accomplishments would earn her the title, “First Lady of Las Vegas.” We will share more about this lady in a future installment.
Helen Stewart’s ranch with its water rights were what was necessary to establish the area as a stop for the railroad. We will continue the fascinating story of Las Vegas in a future article.