Scenic Las Vegas, New Mexico has strong historic roots in the Santa Fe Trail. The city was founded in 1838 as part of a land grant approved by Governor Francisco Sarracino; Vegas Grandes, as it was called, quickly became an essential stop for the pioneers, explorers, and traders that traversed the Santa Fe Trail.1 As a result of the Mexican American War, the American Southwest switched from Mexican to American ownership. Las Vegas remained an important stop along the trail, allowing the city to grow economically despite its newfound political affiliation.
By 1846 the town’s stock of adobe structures had grown considerably, especially around the plaza–the focal point of commerce and government in many Hispano settlements. The population of Las Vegas had gone through a small boom, with somewhere between two and three hundred people living in the village. During this transition to American rule, members of the United States Army began to circulate through the town taking note of unremarkable yet functioning it was.
Between its founding and the beginning of the Civil War, Las Vegas thrived as frontier town operating on the Santa Fe Trail. Traveler, trader, and military accounts describe a small but important town dependent on the commerce brought by the trail:
“As we drew near Las Vegas we noted that the “bottoms” of the little creek running near the town were cultivated in corn, with occasional patches of vegetables, the land enclosed by fences, but flanked by irrigation ditches supplying the necessary water and the crops were looking remarkably well, although the weather had been dry for some weeks…Las Vegas was a compactly-built town of probably two or three hundred inhabitants, the houses are for the most part built of adobe bricks or tufts of sod, with a corral in the rear. The herds…were driven in about sunset.”2
On July 4, 1879 the railroad came to Las Vegas. With it came new American architectural styles utilizing stone-cut bricks–most notably the Victorian style, visible today in many of the buildings surrounding the plaza. The Plaza Hotel, a fixture on the plaza since the mid-nineteenth century, remains one of the most important examples of Victorian architecture in Las Vegas.3
The Confederate Army occupied Santa Fe in 1862, leading Territorial Governor Henry L. Connelly to move the capital temporarily to Las Vegas; he kept an office in the Exchange Hotel on the plaza. After the Battle of Glorieta Pass dashed Confederate hopes of capturing Fort Union, Connelly moved back to Santa Fe.4
In 1877 Las Vegas suffered from an outbreak of smallpox, leading to a ban on livestock on the plaza itself. Cattle were only allowed on the plaza for loading and unloading only and were to move immediately after.5
Until the arrival of the railroad, Las Vegas sustained itself from Santa Fe Trail-related business. The railroad brought with it an assortment of problems, but most prevalent were outlaws of the west. Jesse James arrived in December 1880. Around that same time, Sheriff Pat Garrett caught Billy the Kid and his associates at nearby Stinking Springs; he jailed them just off of the Las Vegas Plaza. ‘Doc’ Holliday shot a man named Charles White in a saloon on the plaza’s south side. Because of these disturbances, citizens formed a vigilante committee in the 1880s; they often took prisoners from the jail and hung them on a defunct windmill. The area’s lawlessness continued into the 1890s, when Vicente Silva’s gang controlled the western part of Las Vegas from a saloon on the plaza.6
Las Vegas was one of first towns in New Mexico to experience a boom in railroad tourism, causing a major decline in wagon traffic. It was difficult to lay tracks near the plaza, as it was located west of the Gallinas River–a natural impediment to travel through town. Thus, the train station was constructed in a new part of town, East Las Vegas, forming a heated rivalry between the area’s two commercial centers. Despite the plaza, West Las Vegas steadily declined. One of the primary cultural consequences was a rise of racial stereotypes associated with each side of town.7 East and West Las Vegas were eventually combined into one singular town during the 1970s but still faced a depressed economy rooted firmly in historic tourism and the New Mexico Highlands University. Tourist promotion, in particular, focuses on its history as a frontier town, outlaw haven, and railroad legacy. The town is currently intent on preserving its architectural history, especially around the plaza.
230 Plaza Park, Las Vegas, NM 87701
Lynn, Sandra. Windows on the Past: Historic Lodgings of New Mexico. Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.
McCachren, Michael P. “Las Vegas Plaza.” National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination Form. Santa Fe, N. Mex.: State Records Center and Archives, 1974.
Traube, Alex, and E. A Mares. Las Vegas, New Mexico: A Portrait. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984.
McCachren, The Great Meadows ↩
William B. Napton, a traveler along the Santa Fe Trail (quoted in McCachren) ↩
The Plaza Hotel still operates today equipped with modern conveniences ↩
The smallpox outbreak was almost certainly due to the excessive amount of travelers moving through the city in massive wagon trains said to be in the hundreds. McCachren ↩
McCachren, Significance of the Plaza ↩
This information comes from the author’s family, many of whom still live in Las Vegas. ↩