The Mormons Build a Fort
On April 6, 1855, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held a general conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. Missionaries were called upon to make settlements along the wilderness between Utah and the Pacific coast.Under the leadership of William Bringhurst, thirty men, “forty wagons with ox teams, fifteen cows, and several riding horses” slowly made their way to the creek at Las Vegas, which was part of the Territory of Mexico at the time.
The party arrived on Thursday, June 14, after traveling for thirty-five days from Salt Lake City. They chose to “establish a camp near a creek running through some meadow land.”
The men got to work right away and built a bowery.They had their first religious service on the very first Sunday after thier arrival and by the following day were at work laying out the areas for the Fort and farming lots.
Among the first orders of business was the clearing of the land to be planted and the fencing of corrals to house the animals.
“The fort was 150 feet square and built of large sun-dried adobes on a foundation of stone. The walls were fourteen feet high, two feet thick at the base, and one foot thick at the top. About six feet from the ground were peepholes, to be used for observation in case of trouble. Residences were built inside the fort, and by November the families who were to stay for the winter had been moved into more comfortable quarters.” (An Enduring Legacy, Fort Las Vegas, 2)
Journal of Missionary George Washington Bean
In the spring of 1855, on returning from an exploring trip with Colonel Steptoe’s scouts, I found my name among the thirty missionaries called to Las Vegas, Nevada, with William Bring-hurst as our president. I acted as guide and interpreter to Colonel Steptoe’s detachment under Lieutenant Mowrey for a month en route until the other missionaries came along. Among them were my brother James A. Bean, J. W. Turner, Ben Cluff, and W. A. Follett. We had mostly ox teams, reaching our destination June 15, 1855, and started to clear off land and put in crops. The weather was hot and the natives were very shy at first, but good treatment won them over in time, so that we used them for much of our labor. We taught them to be honest, truthful, and industrious, and also to be peaceful, and to some extent we taught them gospel principles. During the summer most of the adults were baptized and in many ways showed great improvement. They herded our cows and the stock belonging to the emigrants passing through to California. They took care of our land and irrigated our crops. They also assisted in making adobes to construct a fourteen-foot wall around a space of one hundred and fifty feet square, which constituted our Mission Fort.”
The settlement was able to grow enough food to get them through the year and they managed a crop of cotton the first November. Fruit trees and seeds were brought from California and soon the colony was nearly self-sustaining.
The first school was organized in the fall of 1856 and attended by both white and Indian children. In January of the same year William Bringhurst became the first post master when Las Vegas established the first post office.
Soon lead was discovered at the Potosi Mine less than 35 miles away. More than 4 tons was mined and exchanged for goods in Cedar City, Utah. However, many problems existed for the miners, the smelting process required large amounts of fuel and timber was hard to come by in the valley. They had to travel about twenty miles for timber, making their own roads along the way. The heat of the desert made it especially difficult in the summer and much of their labor had to be done at night.
The Fort became a favorite stop-over for travelers, explorers, federal military officers, and other missionaries returning from the Pacific islands.
By February of 1857 the Mormons were having difficulties with federal authorities and Brigham Young had to give up financial support for many of the settlements that had been established throughout the west.
The soil around the Fort proved to be too alkaline to grow enough food to sustain the residents. Finally, the Fort was abandoned and most of the missionaries returned to Utah.