When Brigham Young, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) was assigned by U.S. President Millard Fillmore to be territorial governor of Utah, Young saw the need to plan a string of settlements between Salt Lake City and San Bernadino, California, according to Barbara and Myrick Land, authors of A Short History of Las Vegas.
It wasn’t long before Las Vegas “became a regular stop on the winter mail route between Salt Lake City and California,” the Lands wrote.
During the April 1855 General Conference of the LDS Church, 30 men “were called as missionaries to go to Las Vegas, according to the International Society of Daughters of Utah Pioneers who wrote the booklet, The Las Vegas Fort. “The purpose of the mission was to establish a halfway station for travelers between the Pacific Coast and Utah, maintain good rapport with the Indians and attempt to instruct them in the ways of farming and hygiene.”
“Because the trip to Los Angeles was dangerous and difficult, the leaders of the Mormon Church decided to build a fort…at the Las Vegas Springs. This fort would provide protection for travelers, water, food and other supplies,” wrote Jonathan Peters, author of Springs in the Desert; A Kid’s History of Las Vegas.
Writer A.D. Hopkins, a co-author of the book, The First 100; Portraits of the Men and Women Who Shaped Las Vegas, noted that by 1855 most travelers along the Mormon Road or what some called the Old Spanish Trail knew that the 52-mile journey across the Mojave Desert was commonly crossed during the winter.
But the Mormon missionaries didn’t leave Salt Lake City until May 10, 1855, and didn’t arrive at the Las Vegas Springs until June 15 during the hottest time of the year, according to Peters.
“What drove men into the desert summer was not a matter of life and death but of eternal life,” Hopkins wrote. “Once assigned to teach their Mormon faith to the Indians of the Las Vegas, they did not wait on a better season, but left almost at once.”
The day after their arrival at Las Vegas Springs, “they began building their new fort, which would become known as the Mormon Fort,” Peters stated.
Barbara and Myrick Land state that the fort was built “there to protect immigrants and the United States mail from the Indians, and to teach the latter how to raise corn, wheat, potatoes, squash and melons.”
“We started to clear off the land to plant the crops forthwith, but the heat was terrible,” wrote George Washington Bean, one of the missionaries called to the Las Vegas Mission. Bean, who was called as an Indian interpreter and clerk, stated in The Las Vegas Fort (DUP book) that “The Indians were very shy at first, but good kind treatment won them over in time so that we used them for much of our labor.”
Bean also mentioned that “After they learned our intentions, they made good promises and we made some and then set to work to clear off some willows and brush. We taught them to be honest, truthful,, industrious and peaceful, and to keep good feelings among the Indians and with our people.”
The Indians also helped the missionaries erect an adobe fort, which consisted of a 14-foot wall around a 150-foot square, according to Leonard Arrington, author of The Mormons in Nevada, which included a segment he wrote entitled “The LDS Las Vegas Fort, 1855-1857.”
The missionaries also sent out exploration teams to determine what other resources were in the area. “They discovered transparent ledges of crystal salt, found a lead mine in the mountain range 30 miles southwest of Las Vegas and extracted 60 tons of lead and made the acquaintance of all the Indian tribes and bands,” Arrington states.
The Mormon colonists estimated there were approximately 1,000 Indians living in or near the Las Vegas Valley at the time. The problem was that during the fall of 1856, Hopkins states that the mission came up short of food.
“That same year, some missionaries reported, a drought also hurt the Paiutes’ traditional supplies of wild foods. Thefts became a problem,” Hopkins states in The First 100 book.
To acquire more food and supplies, a number of the missionaries traveled to San Bernadino, California, to take oxen and cows to sell. The group returned with a number of “wild mares and mules,” Arrington writes.
“In 1856, a lead discovery at nearby Mount Potosi (near today’s Blue Diamond) divided the missionaries between those, like Bringhurst, who saw mining as secondary, and those who supported Nathanial Jones, whom Young sent from Salt Lake to run the mining operations,” according to Eugene P. Moehring and Michael S. Green, authors of Las Vegas; A Centennial History.
“When Bringhurst challenged Jones’ authority, Young replaced the mission leader with the more agreeable Samuel Thompson. But the lead contained too much silver and unwanted compounds to be valuable. After Jones gave up, the Paiutes stole the 1858 harvest from the fields, and Young soon allowed the mission to disband,” Moehring and Green stated.
While many would view the Las Vegas Mission a failure, Hopkins notes that the Mormons’ buildings and irrigation trenches were later taken over by ranchers.
Hopkins also stated “The Mormon Fort was the seed of European-style civilization in Las Vegas.”
In addition, Bringhurst, who had not only been “dropped from the mission and disfellowshipped from the church,” would shortly thereafter become a member in good standing in the church.
Hopkins states that Bringhurst would later serve as bishop of the Springville, Utah LDS Ward and he became one of six founding trustees of Brigham Young Academy, now known as Brigham Young University.
Meanwhile, Arrington notes that “Bean was proudest of having taken the message of ‘Peace and Brotherhood’ to the Native Americans of southeastern Nevada.”
The Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort, now part of the Nevada State Parks system, is located at 500 E. Washington Ave., in Las Vegas, and it is a nice place to visit, especially during the early fall and spring, during day-light savings time when the outside temperatures are moderate and daylight hours are longer.