Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort

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Photo by Kenneth Mays

Not long after the Saints’ arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young began sending groups of settlers to establish communities beyond Salt Lake. Settlements grew between Bear Lake Valley in the north and St. George in the south, all within 300 miles (480 kilometers) of Salt Lake City. Several settlements were established in the 1850s between Salt Lake City and California along what is sometimes called the Mormon Corridor. The Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort is one such settlement.

In general conference of April 1855, several men were called on a mission to settle Las Vegas. Brigham Young selected William Bringhurst to serve as the president of the mission.

John C. Frémont traveled into the Las Vegas Valley on May 3, 1844, while it was still part of Mexico. His group secretly built a fort that was used in later years by travelers, mountain men, hunters, and traders seeking shelter, but was never inhabited permanently.

The 29 Latter-day Saint missionaries arrived in present-day Las Vegas on June 14, 1855. Under Bringhurst’s direction, and with the assistance of the local Paiute population, they built a 150-foot square adobe fort near a creek and used flood irrigation to water their crops.

The fort acted as a way station for individuals traveling between California and Salt Lake City.

The missionaries’ work among the Native Americans included aiding them in farming and teaching them the gospel. Many were baptized and some Native Americans were called to serve as missionaries among their own tribes to preach the gospel.

The discovery of lead ore in the vicinity led to Brigham Young sending Nathaniel V. Jones to set up a lead mining mission for the Church. However, lead mining efforts produced disappointing yields. In early 1857, due to problems with the natives and conflict between Bringhurst and Jones, President Young made the decision to close the two missions. In his words he described that “this station becomes an expense to the kingdom, and as at prisent seems, not to add any honey to the hive.”[1]

Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort, the first permanent, non-native settlement in the Las Vegas Valley, features the historic remains of an adobe fort built by Latter-day Saint missionaries along a spring-fed creek in 1855. The creek, the only free-flowing water for miles around, provided irrigation for fields and orchards and the 150-square-foot outpost served as a way station for travelers.

The fort was made of adobe bricks and, when completed, consisted of four walls 150 feet long, two bastions and a row of two-story interior buildings.  Parts of the original eastern wall and the southeast bastion remain preserved on the site today.  The settlers diverted water from the creek to irrigate farmland and constructed an adobe corral directly north of the fort. 

After the fort was abandoned, it was used as a store and later expanded into a ranch. The ranch was sold to the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad in 1902.  From 1929 to 1931 the site played a part in the construction of Hoover Dam when the Bureau of Reclamation leased the adobe building and used it as a concrete testing laboratory.  For a time the remaining fort buildings served as residences for several families until being acquired by the Las Vegas Elks, who operated a restaurant on the site.  

Archeological excavations of the fort site revealed pottery shards, stone tools and projectile points of both Anasazi and Paiute origin.  A high concentration of artifacts was uncovered directly north of the northeastern fort bastion, suggesting the presence of a campsite that was intermittently used for centuries prior to the arrival of Euro-Americans.

Efforts to preserve the site, headed by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, proved successful when the City of Las Vegas purchased the property in 1971. The Nevada Division of State Parks acquired the site from the City in 1991 and developed the grounds to include a partial reconstruction of the fort, a modern visitor center and a re-creation of the Las Vegas Creek. The Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort State Historic Park is located in what is now Downtown Las Vegas and is visited by thousands of people each year. In addition to the fort, which contains a multitude of historic artifacts, a Visitor Center contains exhibits and photos that illustrate the history of the site.

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