Southern Paiute inhabit the Las Vegas Valley
For over 1,000 years, Southern Nevada served as a waypoint and permanent residence for many Native Peoples. During that time, Southern Nevada's valleys were known as desert oases. Despite hardships inherent in living in desert environs, water was not a significant problem for those living in and visiting the valleys. Shortly after the busts of Southern Nevada's mining boomtowns was when water issues, particularly shortages, became paramount.
Studies of the Springs Preserve have identified a mass of archaeological artifacts. These include prehistoric and historic ceramic shards, stone tool pieces (one Elko-eared projectile point from 100 BC), glass pieces, animal remains (mostly bones), manos (six samples all of an oval form designed for use with one hand), metates, C-14 samples (charcoal from hearths and camp fires with the earliest dated to 700 AD), nails, and metal pieces. Research, including continued archeological digs, has identified artifacts from all tribes that inhabited the area including Ancestral Puebloans, Pythians, and Paiutes.
Inquiry Question: Consider how sustainability philosophies affect water issues.
Teaching Suggestion: (Grades 3 to 8): Visit the Las Vegas Springs Preserve and discuss its significance to early habitation of the region. Focus on the availability of water, flora, and fauna.
Teaching Suggestion: (Grades 8-12): Have students review archeological data from tells in Israel, areas below cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde, and the spring mound at the Las Vegas Springs Preserve. What do these mounds tell about the similarities and differences of the people who lived around them over 1,000 years ago?
Primary Sources and Related Links: View photos of artesian wells and pictures of flowing artesian wells.
John C. Fremont travels though the Las Vegas Valley. The name Vegas appears for the first time on a published map, printed to accompany the account of Fremont’s expedition which includes a description of the Las Vegas springs.
Like Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery, Fremont's expedition followed many other national explorations of the Western United States. His expedition fell amidst Americans' great migration westward and just two years before the Donner Party crossed the salt flats of Nevada's Great Basin. Until the ill-fated Donner Party decision to follow the Hasting's Cut-Off, few pioneers crossed Central and Southern Nevada due to its known inhospitable conditions and lack of available water. Fremont's description of the Las Vegas Springs provides the first hope for westward migrants that a way station might exist between California and Nevada's eastern neighbors.
Teaching Suggestion: (Grades 4-8): Have students read the books Sallie Fox by Dorothy Kupcha Leland (also available for purchase through Amazon) and Patty Reed's Doll by Rachel Laurgaard. Discuss and compare the physical geographical features of the two trails described in the books when the protagonists’ meet the desert.
Primary Sources and Related Links: Southern Nevada: History in Maps; or search for online resources on Oregon Trail and Santa Fe Trail.
Brigham Young, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) from 1847 to 1877 and governor of the Utah Territory from 1851 to 1858, commissioned a scouting expedition to the Las Vegas Springs to determine if the region might serve as a waypoint for travelers and missionaries between Utah and Southern California.
Teaching Suggestion: (Grades 7-12): Learn about the migration of those of the LDS faith from its inception to the 1900s and their mission efforts since that time. Using mapping software, illustrate the growth of the Church. Using the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as a case study, what can we deduce about the geographic movement of ideas.
Primary Sources and Related Links: Map showing geographic distribution of population of LDS members.
The tenure of Mormon missionaries in the Las Vegas Valley was short-lived but very productive and, hence, very important to the history of the region. They built the Mormon Fort, a structure that stands today as a reminder of the beginnings of the town of Las Vegas. Although the Mormons abandoned the fort in 1858 partially due to disputes with Paiutes, Octavius Gass reoccupied it in 1865 and eventually the Stewart family purchased it in 1881. The Stewart Ranch became the impetus for Las Vegas and provided the railroads an anchor as the mining boom and population growth progressed.
Teaching Suggestion: (Grades 3-7): Visit the Mormon Fort. Using separate transparent plastic pieces, draw scaled maps of the Mormon Fort, Stewart Ranch, rail lines, and early Las Vegas Strip. Overlay the transparencies to show the growth of the community. Discuss the affects of each of these infrastructural additions to the growth of Southern Nevada.
Primary Sources and Related Links: National Park Service teaching activity for the Mormon Fort.
Former miner, Octavius D. Gass acquires the land of the old Mormon Fort and settlement, which becomes known as the Las Vegas Ranch.
O.D. Gass records in his day book that the Colorado River had fallen 4 feet
Teaching Suggestion: (Grades 9-12): Using precipitation and heat index data from the late 1870s in Southern Nevada, Northern Arizona, and Colorado, have students postulate factors that may have contributed to this phenomenon. In small groups, have them brainstorm what this decrease meant in terms of available water resources in the Las Vegas Valley in 1878 and the years immediately following? After sharing their responses, have the class consider how the answers might differ if considering the same phenomenon in the mid-1900s and early 2000s? If possible, combine this activity with a reading of Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner and have students research evaporation levels of Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
Archibald Stewart loaned money to O.D. Gass so he could keep the Las Vegas Ranch despite financial woes. Stewart foreclosed on the loan when Gass defaulted. The 1,000-acre property then became home to the Stewart family. When murdered in 1884, Archibald's wife, Helen, took his place running the Ranch. She eventually accrued 1,800 acres of land and the majority of water rights in the valley. Helen Stewart sold most of her land to the railroad, but continued living on the remaining acreage with her five children until her death in 1926.
Teaching Suggestion: (Grades 3-8): Engage in mathematical analysis to determine current housing costs and monthly mortgage payments given a variety of interest rates. Also, determine average monthly incomes of Las Vegas residents. Next, invite a member of the financial community (e.g., bank official, Certified Financial Planner®) to define what it means to default on a loan. Have the guest speaker discuss this in terms of contemporary home foreclosures and local employment rate changes.
Primary Sources and Related Links: Picture of Stewart Family at the ranch. Link to any paperwork relating to the purchase and default of the ranch.
Inquiry Question: What was the significance of these two events to population growth in Southern Nevada?
Teaching Suggestions: (Grades 4-9): Have students learn about the process of mining using activities such as “Birdseed Mining” and “Cookie Mining.” Then, have students view videos on the process of silver and gold mining (e.g., “How Silver is Mined,” Part 1 and Part 2) and take a field trip to a local silver or gold mine. Upon returning, have students write a brief descriptive essay about the role of water in silver and gold mining and water resources available for the purpose. As a class, write a reader’s theater from the perspective of miners at the turn of the 20th century. Deliver the play during a “Western Days” celebration at the school.
McCartney, chief engineer for the Railroad writes to Senator Clark’s brother in Los Angeles, that the Stewart Ranch is the best land in the Las Vegas Valley with its springs which would give the railroad control of all the water it required.
To own "water rights" means to have legal permission to use water from a given water source. The source can be above ground, such as from a river or lake, or below ground, such as water accessible via artesian wells or drilling. The Stewart family acquired rights to all water existing on their 1,000 acres. The railroad had two options for accessing the water: buy the Stewart land (then operated by Helen Stewart) or purchasing rights to water existing on Stewart land. Helen Stewart was willing to sell the land with several conditions. She wanted to keep enough land on which her family could live, and she wanted to retain enough of her water rights to ensure the Ranch's orchards (the location of Archibald Stewart's grave) would remain green. The latter stipulation eventually became an issue of contention between the railroad and Stewart family.
Teaching Suggestions: (Grades 7-12): Have students carefully analyze this letter. Research the financial and political worth of the water rights and, after discussing diplomacy and political persuasion, write a letter to the Stewart family requesting purchase of their land and water rights.
Primary Sources and Related Links: Look for pictures of water in the valley that were above ground, a drilling rig, and an artesian well. Link them directly to the terms above.to the letter and any artifacts addressing water availability in the Las Vegas and surrounding valleys, particularly in terms of financial worth.
Inquiry Question: Was $55,000 a fair price for the Stewart's water rights?
Primary Sources and Related Links: Ranch survey
While surveying Helen Stewart's then 1,800 acre plot of land so she could sell it to the railroad, McWilliams found an 80 acre parcel owned by the U.S. government. He filed claim for the land, received it, and sought buyers for the land by advertising in Los Angeles newspapers. At a cost of $200 per lot, he sold all of his land to a wide variety of people—investors, business owners, residents, miners, cowboys, and thieves. Due to a scarcity of materials, he built his self-named town (called the "Original Townsite of Las Vegas") with timber and tent canvas. The result was a community plagued by heat, winds, and foul odors, eventually earning it the name "Ragtown."
In 1905, William Clark (Senator from Montana and mogul of the railroad) auctioned off another parcel of land on the opposite side of the Stewart property. There was an exodus from the McWilliams townsite to the Clark community that was further exacerbated by a fire that destroyed most the McWilliams township in September of 1905. The Clark township eventually became the area of the Las Vegas Strip and the McWilliams land became what is called the "Westside."
Primary Sources and Related Links: Link to report on Las Vegas Valley water resources. Pictures of McWilliams and Clark, a picture of the "Ragtown," a picture of each of the auctions, and newspaper articles telling of the auctions and fire.
Teaching Suggestion: (Grades 3-7): Have students map the railroad lines in and out of Las Vegas and determine the populations and major industries of each townsite through or to which the rails travelled. Next, have students develop a set of train schedules that would maximize use of rail resources (e.g., human capital, energy sources, travel times, average number of passengers). Compare the fictitious train schedules with actual train schedules and postulate and research reasons for any differences.
Primary Sources and Related Links: Look for maps showing the completed rail lines and the destinations along the way for each line. Research train schedules from the era.
1905 February 7
Deseret News in Salt Lake City quotes J. Ross Clark, speaking on behalf of the railroad, who points out that McWilliams townsite has no water and no access to the railroad. Similar stories appear in the Los Angeles newspapers.
Inquiry Question: Were the criticisms of the McWilliams township: a.) well-founded, b.) a method of marketing for railroad properties, or c.) both? Was the Deseret News being objective in its reporting?
Inquiry Question: Might the post-2000 water situation in the Las Vegas Valley be different if the McWilliams township had persevered with or without the success of the Clark township?
Inquiry Question: The railroad, instead of the public, established the Las Vegas Land & Water Company. Could the public have created and managed the company, or was the railroad the only entity capable of doing so at the time?
W.R. Thomas served as the first president of the Vegas Artesian Water Syndicate and Walter Bracken was its vice president. Their first drilling, between H and K Streets and Owen, occurred in 1907 and was a means of testing whether the aquifer could provide substantive resources for an agricultural center of Las Vegas. The well was successful in that it provided years of water for a dairy business owned by Rimmer Oppedyk. By 1908, the Syndicate had drilled an additional two wells that became the motivation for drilling wells throughout the Las Vegas Valley. These wells, not sanctioned by the Las Vegas Land & Water Company, resulted in what J.T. McWilliams surveyed to be 100 flowing wells in the valley including two owned by the Syndicate, nineteen to private owners, and thirteen owned by the Clark County Land Company.
Inquiry Question: What were the costs and benefits of this public separation from the Las Vegas Land & Water Company?
Teaching Suggestion: (Grades 1-5): During Constitution Day, a unit on the American Revolution, or a unit on Civil Rights, read and analyze the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. Relate the importance of self-responsibility while following rules in school to the right of the people to self-govern while working within a set of community-accepted rules and laws. Next, read the books George vs. George by Rosalyn Schanzer and I Am Rosa Parks by Rosa Parks and Jim Haskins. Discuss how the founders of the Constitution in the 1700s and the African-Americans of the 1960s chose to diplomatically, then forcefully, create change when they witnessed wrong-doing. Have students work in small groups to show how they would go about changing something at their school that they thought was wrong (e.g., bullying, healthfulness of the lunch menu, amount of recess time). Relate this back to the Vegas Artesian Water Syndicate by showing that a small group of people can bring change.
Walter Bracken (1870-1950) came to Las Vegas as a team of San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake Railroad employees seeking to find a new route for the railroad. They recommended purchase of the Stewart Ranch, and, upon its purchase, Bracken moved onto the ranch where he lived in a canvas tent and served as the new community's first postmaster. Bracken left the postmasters’ office, but continued to work for the railroad, primarily as an agent between the distant railroad leaders and the local and thriving Las Vegas community. In this capacity, he was the figurehead for the Las Vegas Land & Water Company. Bracken is considered a forefather of the Las Vegas Valley and a key person in the history of its water story.
Teaching Suggestions: (Grades 3-7): Have students research the life of Walter Bracken and create a timeline of his life. In the timeline, include local, state, and national events. For example, include Las Vegas population figures, major water conflicts in the Las Vegas Valley, the building of Hoover Dam, and the role of World War II on Las Vegas and its water issues.
(Grades 6-8): Procure a copy of the play “Unsung Heroes of Nevada’s Past” by Karen McKenney-Dyer of the Las Vegas Rainbow Company. Have students perform the play for a feeder elementary school.
This timeline is only partially complete! Contact UNLV Digital Collections if you are an educator and would like to contribute content or help extend its functionality!