Las Vegas - As Wicked as Dodge City
Without exception there was no town
which harbored a more disreputable gang of desperadoes, and outlaws than
did Las Vegas
- Ralph Emerson Twitchell, historian
Located on the edge of the eastern plains
at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, is Las Vegas,
New Mexico. Though not as well known as other
West towns, such as
Tombstone; Las Vegas,
is said to have been the worst of the worst of the
Las Vegas was established
by a Spanish land grant in 1835. The last Spanish colony
established in North America was originally called Nuestra Senora de los Dolores de Las Vegas Grandes
(our Lady of Sorrows of the Great Meadows) by the Spanish settlers
whose roots went back to the early 1600's. In the beginning, the
settlement doubled as a fort, designed to be battened down for attacks
Indians. One-story adobe houses circled a large, central plaza where stock could be
driven to safety.
One of the colonists’ first large construction projects
was the Acequia Madre (Mother Ditch), which was used to channel water
from the Gallinas River. After more than 150 years, this ancient
Mother Ditch still winds behind the buildings on the Plaza and waters
the gardens of the western portion of the town.
after the United States declared war on Mexico, General Stephen W.
Kearney led his Army of the West to Las Vegas to declare New Mexico
a U.S. possession. When he arrived, he found a thriving community of 1,500
Spanish settlers. Training several very large cannons directly
on the Plaza, the men of Las Vegas
By that time, the
Santa Fe Trail was being
traveled frequently, allowing entrepreneurs to send their wares
westward while enterprising Las Vegans
traded eastward. For the travelers along this rustic path, Las Vegas was a
welcome site, as it was the first town of any size after 600 miles of
Kansas. These many traders, along with other pioneers and prospectors,
demanded whiskey and women, for which the town readily complied.
The army remained in Las Vegas
until moving to Fort Union, about 20 miles north of the city, in 1851. Built to
Santa Fe Trail from
Indian raids, the new fort further encouraged the growth and
development of Las Vegas, as the army
bought supplies for the several hundred soldiers and civilians
stationed at the fort.
Santa Fe Trail offered jobs and
the many town merchants prospered during this time, growing to over 1,000
people by 1860. During the next two decades its population
quadrupled as it established itself as a major trade center.
But the era was also riddled with
disagreements between the Spanish, the new Anglo emigrants, and the local
Apache. When the Atchison, Topeka, and
Railroad reached the settlement in 1879, it was the biggest city between
San Francisco and
Army leaving Las Vegas,
in April, 1846, after conquering the city. Illustration from the book The History of the Military
Occupation of New Mexico published in 1909. Illustration by K.M.
Las Vegas soon had modern utilities such as waterworks and a telephone
The tracks were laid east
of the Gallinas River, a mile from the Plaza. When the iron horse finally
arrived on July 4, 1879, hundreds of citizens gathered around, including
merchants, professionals, desperados, and dance-hall girls.
Overnight, a new town was
born on the east banks of the Gallinas River, a mile east of the Plaza. At first, a settlement of tents, sheds and makeshift shelters were built,
but within just a few short years, many permanent buildings had been
established, as well as a competing commercial district. At that
time, the town became so large that it rivaled Denver, Tucson and El Paso
The six trains that
stopped there daily opened up yet another era of prosperity, bringing with it both legitimate
businesses, but also
introducing even more new
elements into the town's already distrustful environment. Before
outlaws, bunko artists, murderers and thieves were becoming so common
that the eastern part of the settlement had become utterly lawless.
Soon, the rail terminus
policed the new arrivals with a group of "peace officers” called the "Dodge
However, these members were almost as lawless as the rest, including such
members as J.J.
Webb, who was the current marshal; "Mysterious
Dave Mather,” Joe Carson, "Dirty
Dave” Rudebaugh; and "Hoodoo
Brown,” the Justice of the Peace.
It was during these
notorious days of Las Vegas’
history that the town was called home or visited by the likes of
Billy the Kid, Bob Ford,
Rattlesnake Sam, Cock-Eyed Frank, Web-Fingered Billy, Hook Nose Jim,
Stuttering Tom, Durango Kid, Handsome Harry the Dancehall Rustler,
and his gang, and Belle Sidons (alias Monte Verde).
It was in the
summer of 1879 that Doc Holliday
rode into Las Vegas, where he hung out his shingle
for the last time. However, this idea was short lived, and only a few
weeks later he bought a
saloon on Center Street. His partner and financial backer,
John Joshua Webb,
Dodge City lawman, was by then a
part of the notorious
Dodge City Gang.
On July 19, 1879
Doc got into an argument with a local gunman, named Mike Gordon, who
was rather popular with the locals. The two took the argument to the
street where Doc politely invited Gordon to start shooting whenever he felt like
it. Gordon obviously accepted this invitation and wound up dead,
laying in the dusty street with three shots in his belly.
After a lynch mob formed with plans to
lynch Holliday, Doc headed back to Dodge City. However, he arrived only to find that
Wyatt Earp had gone to a new silver strike, in a place called
tired of the escapades of the lawless people of their city and took
matters in their own hands. The Las Vegas Optic on April 8,
1880 posted this notice:
CONFIDENCE MEN, THIEVES:
of Las Vegas have tired of robbery, murder, and other crimes that have
made this town a byword in every civilized community. They have
resolved to put a stop to crime, if in attaining that end they have to
forget the law and resort to a speedier justice than it will afford.
All such characters are therefore, hereby notified, that they must
either leave this town or conform themselves to the requirements of
law, or they will be summarily dealt with. The flow of blood must and
shall be stopped in this community, and the good citizens of both the
old and new towns have determined to stop it, if they have to HANG by
the strong arm of FORCE every violator of the law in this country." - Vigilantes
Soon after this notice, most of the
outlaws headed for new locations with less resistance.
However, the lawlessness wasn’t entirely done. In 1881, after
Billy the Kid
was killed at Fort Sumner,
his index finger was sent in a jar to the Las Vegas
The Las Vegas Optic reported about
finger] is well-preserved in alcohol and has been viewed by many in
our office today. If the rush continues we shall purchase a small tent
and open a side show to which complimentary tickets will be issued to
our personal friends."
continued in Las Vegas,
though it was just not so apparent to the town’s citizens. Distracted by the earlier times of shoot-outs in the streets, they
didn’t notice a marked increase in cattle rustling. By the late 1880's entire herds were disappearing.
Secretly led by a man named by
Vicente Silva, a respected
owner of the Imperial
the group was called the
Silva's White Caps, or Forty Bandits; or sometimes, the Society of
Bandits. Often meeting in
saloon, the gang held the area in a virtual stranglehold until
October, 1892. At this time the Las Vegas
citizens hanged a fellow gang member named Pat Maes. Soon
thereafter the bandit group gradually disintegrated. Silva
was eventually murdered by former members of his gang and was buried
at Camp de lost Cadillos on May 19, 1895.
as tough a bunch of bad men as ever
gathered outside a penal institution.
Otero, Territorial Governor, speaking about the men of
Finally, the town
began to settle down and in 1898, Las Vegas provided 21 Rough Riders to
Teddy Roosevelt, most of whom were at his side during the famed charge up
San Juan Hill. The town hosted the first Rough Riders reunion--attended by
the soon-to-be-president himself.
historic town of some 15,000 souls is one of
lesser-known tourist destinations that provides an extremely rich history
with much to see and do. Over 900 buildings in Las Vegas are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. With the old
Spanish colonists and the European immigrants, the city provides a myriad
of architectural treasures that give Las Vegas its special charm.
be sure to visit the Las Vegas
City Museum and Rough Riders Memorial, as well as several picturesque
historic districts including the Bridge Street and Plaza areas, where
there is a designated
Santa Fe Trail
The La Castenada Hotel is
a "must see" landmark of Las Vegas'
post-Santa Fe Trail era. The 1898 building, once housing one of the famous
Hotels, faces the railroad tracks in the 500 block of Railroad Avenue.
Continuing to display its graceful facade and arched walkways, the old
hotel was the site of Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders Reunion in 1899.
After sitting vacant and abandoned for years, the hotel was purchased in
2014 by Allan Affeldt with plans to renovate the historic property. Affeldt
and his wife helped restore the La Posada hotel in Winslow, Arizona back
in the 1990's.
Across the street looms the Rawlins building, which was once the residence
for the Harvey Girls who staffed the hotel's dining room.
Interested travelers should first stop at the Chamber of
Commerce to pick up free maps and pamphlets that detail six separate
walking tours. Modern Las Vegas
also offers traditional arts and crafts in shops and galleries featuring
everything from antiques to unique original furniture, paintings and art
objects, clothing, weavings and jewelry.
Surrounded by recreation and wilderness
experiences, all within easy driving distance of Las Vegas, are the Las
National Wildlife Refuge and MacAlister Lake.
Fort Union National
Monument is about 20 miles north of Las Vegas, providing a peek at the past through its historic fort buildings that
attract thousands of people each year. Pecos National Monument, about 30
miles southwest of Las Vegas, is a monument museum that pays
Native Americans who lived in the
area in the 1500s.
of America, updated July, 2016.