Vegas is a storied place.
That’s because Vegas’ modern reputation as an entertainment mecca belies a long and rich cultural history: our roots reach way back, long before the glitter and glamour of the bright lights shining in the middle of the desert.
Native Americans like the Paiutes and Anasazi. Anglo explorers along the Spanish Trail. Missionaries and gold-diggers. Civil War battles. Organized crime.
We can’t cover all of that in a single post, but we can introduce you to the fascinating origins of our modern city.
Protohistoric versus Historic Periods
Historian Elizabeth von Till Warren writes, “In southern Nevada, the cusp of the prehistoric and the historic periods is marked by the 20-year span of the Old Spanish Trail, an active channel for commerce between Santa Fe and Los Angeles between 1829 and 1848.”
Information about the protohistoric period prior to 1829 has proven difficult to unearth. Due to a “dearth of solid sources to examine,” our knowledge of this region and its inhabitants is lacking. Even during the era of the Old Spanish Trail, most records come from people who encountered native peoples like the Las Vegas Paiutes, and whose reports reflect their own biases or lack of cultural understanding.
However, as the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe notes, we know that “the Paiutes developed a culture suited to the diverse land and its resources.”
And though the Paiutes, and their ancestors the Tudino (Desert People), significantly predate the Euro-Americans, the birth of Las Vegas as a railroad town “virtually ended [their] way of life.”
Las Vegas: Railroad Town
Perhaps unsurprising for a city in the middle of vast desert terrain, it’s water that fueled Vegas’ early rise. The discovery of artesian spring water shortened the Spanish Trail, making it easier and faster for traders, missionaries, gold-diggers and others to travel out west and back again.
Indeed, it’s the water that drew the Union-Pacific Railroad through Vegas as it built a line from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City and then on to major trading hub Chicago. By the early 20th Century, well water was being piped into town, which enabled Las Vegas to become a water stop for wagon trains and railroads.
Senator William Andrews Clark (hence “Clark County”), a partner with the Union-Pacific Railroad, bought some local land and water rights. And once established as a railroad town, Vegas began to grow rapidly.
Vegas: No Gambling Allowed
And here’s an interesting fact: gambling was illegal for over two decades in Vegas’ early history. On October 1, 1910, Nevada became the last Western state to outlaw gaming.
And so people stopped gambling here, right? Guess again! By the time gambling was legalized again in 1931, Vegas had a small but well-established and thriving illegal gambling scene.
Of course, it’s the re-legalization of gambling is what enabled Vegas to turn into the powerhouse tourist destination it is today, and what enabled casinos like the Riviera to thrive.
(Want to learn more about the Riviera’s own storied past? We have our own fascinating history, you know. )
The Las Vegas Sun: History of Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada
Local newspaper The Las Vegas Sun has assembled an amazing resource library for anyone interested in local history. It includes an 11-part video series, “Boomtown,” exploring the origins of our fair town. Recommended for aficionados of Vegas history!
The University of Nevada-Las Vegas Special Collections
UNLV hosts an extensive and fascinating collection of historical documents and photographs on their website. It’s the perfect place to take a visual tour of Las Vegas’ history, both recent and long past.
- Paiutes. National Archives and Records Administration
- 1905 Fremont Street University of Nevada-Las Vegas Special Collections Collection #0003, Photo #0020.
- Downtown Vegas University of Nevada-Las Vegas Special Collections Collection #0171, Photo #0317.