I've been to Las Vegas in Nevada, the Disney for adults, and now I've been to the original. Me, I prefer the original, Las Vegas, New Mexico.
Like an oak aged wine, the unmuted notes of an old western town prominently rested on the palate, playfully mingled with 21st century modernity. The deeper notes presented in Victorian and Queen Ann architecture, that finished with Craftsman, Post-Modern and Contemporary styles of the university that awakened my senses to see more of this unsung, historic town.
Las Vegas. Once, I asked someone was Las Vegas worth taking the trip, and was told, "Don't bother." I didn't. Even though my ignoring this town didn't settle well, a year later, I was fortunate enough to be passing through. I found a gem in the high plains!
Las Vegas is situated east of Santa Fe at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and at the edge of the Great Plains. The town was likely named for its geography and geology. The original Spanish name, Nuestra Señora de los Dolores de las Vegas Grandes, translates to Our Lady of the Sorrows of the Great Meadows. Thus, the region sits in a large meadow. In 1835, the Spanish settlers applied for a land grant from Mexico, and with this land cession, a town was born.
By the time the United States declared war on Mexico in 1846, the town had swelled to 1,500 people (mostly Spanish settlers). The Santa Fe Trail was in regular use, and the town boomed. In 1879, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroads steamed into Las Vegas. By then, Las Vegas had become the largest city between Independence, Missouri, and San Francisco. For a time, between 1888 and 1979 there were two Las Vegases, East and West. West encompassed the Old Town and Plaza, and East Las Vegas was the "New Town," where the railroads landed. East coast influences reflected in attitude, politics, food, and architectural styles. Apparently resistance fomented into the town's division. It's probably fair to say that this was the beginning of the East Coast-West Coast rivalry. Later, the town declined with newer railroad lines, the Great Depression, and the advent of the motorized car.
In its heyday, the late 1800's, Las Vegas was the place to be--if you were an outlaw. Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Doc Holliday and his girl, Big Nose Kate, and Wyatt Earp (some say law man, others say outlaw), and other desperadoes and outcasts either passed through, or called it home for a while. One wonders what was the allure for these rough-shod outlaws? Maybe New Mexico has always been the Land of Enchantment! What's more, I learned that Las Vegas was rougher, tougher and more notorious than Dodge City! This is a history that we never learned in school. Why wasn't this rich history glamorized in Saturday morning Westerns? Or, in the Time-Life western books that my grandfather used to subscribe? Why did Dodge, Tombstone, Amarillo & Deadwood become so famous? (I don't know, but I plan to ask people the next time I visit). Apparently, crime was so bad in Las Vegas that the "Vigilantes" took out an ad in the local newspaper, exhorting outlaws to ride out, or face execution. The outlaws took heed and broke camp, only to be replaced by cattle rustlers, the comparative white collar criminal of day. Finally, in the late 1870s, the people of Las Vegas finally got their wish of taking back their community. It seems to have taken. I haven't checked crime statistics, but I felt safe there.
Well, I gave you a condensed Anglo-Internet history to say this. This town is cool! You can almost close your eyes in that town square and see the way it was when Doc Holliday was challenging men to gunfights in the street. The Victorian and Italianate architecture is beautiful. The Old Town looks recently tuck-pointed, and everything was calm, and just, well done. Granted, I spent about an hour and a half in this town, but I loved it. It was more lively than Silver, and shops and restaurants were open! (That's a plus for any traveler). We stopped at an old drug store and soda shop, that is now the new drug store and ice cream shop. It was very cute, with lots of Coca Cola memorabilia, and an old pharmacy medicine cabinet with old medicine boxes and bottles, some that I recognized from my childhood.
When I return to the area this fall, I really want to take some time to see the town, maybe even stay at the Palace Hotel that was just gorgeous, inside and out. I bought lots o' silver there (not 925, but the silver used by the Diné and the Zuni) in the hotel's lobby. Everything was on sale and the artistry was beautiful.
I want to stroll around some of the neighborhoods of Craftsman homes and see the Highlands University Campus, which looks ultra modern in this throw back town. People seemed friendly enough. There was just enough going on to get a sense of how people live there. So, if you're looking at a guidebook, and wondering if it's worth the trip, it is. I believe a New Mexican told me to skip it, so happy I got there!
Even though the town was in sharp decline, it didn't go bust, like so many other towns after the boom. While I like ghost towns, I'd much rather visit a living, vibrant one. With 13,000 people, I know I only scratched the surface. I love the small town feel and vibe.
So, how much do you know about Las Vegas, New Mexico? If you just Google Las Vegas, you only get that city in the desert. I am amazed that people think I hopped over to Nevada when I say I went to Las Vegas. The next reaction is, "humph." They're probably thinking that it's not like the Vegas I know. Perhaps, the good people of Las Vegas, New Mexico like it that way. Did they coin the phrase, "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas?" Do Vegans (not the vegetarians) want their long and rich history known only to the few who want to know it? I think that what happened here should be told in our children's textbooks, and not left here for a precious few to discover.
These histories seem to be limited to those intrepid New Mexico travelers who go off the beaten path to experience an alternative experience. But now, how many of us can travel so freely to learn our history? So, if you travel to Las Vegas, New Mexico, talk about the history, what you've seen and experienced, and see how long it takes for someone to ask which casino you stayed. Take a poll, ask if anyone knows where the other Las Vegas is.
If anyone can suggest some good historical narratives or books on this area, please share. I would love to read a full history that includes more than just the stereotypical references to the Indian population in the area. I would love to read about Indian contributions to the area, female contributions, and the African-American contribution. I found that much of the Internet history is sort of biased when it refers to Indian bands by tribal their names. When segments of history are dissected and removed to perpetuate certain stereotypes that play on and reinforce ignorance, it is offensive. These names are almost used pejoratively. The names I mean are Comanche and Apache. If we're honest, we might recognize what images are conjured. In some instances, these names and half truths are used to instigate a sense of righteousness that justifies the current power structure. For example, in one history, I read that the Old Town Square had only two entrances for fortification against Apache attacks. What are we left with from that statement? Attacks were so numerous and deadly, that the town had to mobilize and build a fort. What's the flip side of that history? We don't know because it wasn't told. Was this an oversight, or just unimportant? With all of the Buffalo Soldiers who were sent to fight the Indians and protect the towns' settlers, there wasn't one guy who moved in? Luckily, I'm reading a book on the Buffalo Soldiers, and I just ordered a book on African Americans in New Mexico, so I may be updating this post with some information that I glean about their contributions to this area.
I know I'm off on a tangent, and am aware that history is written by the victors, but it's a little off-putting and offensive to still not read the truth. I was at a memorial where someone talked about the decedent's quest and search for the truth. In the 21st century, you would think that these truths can be told now. Apparently not.
So, my deliberate exclusion of the native Indian from the brief history was a choice not to fan the flame of iniquity, especially, and in light of the new Lone Ranger film that so dishonors the Indian on so many levels. Indians were integral to the fabric of the Southwest, especially New Mexico. So, I choose to leave it at that. For now.
The wild west is fun, right? It's fun to imagine this lawless time in America. I suppose it's all relative, right? In a hundred years, people will be reading about the gangs of this century and wonder how people survived such violent surroundings. I wonder what ever happened to those Time-Life Old West books that I so avidly read and re-read? Well, now I can say that I've been to the Old West, and stood in the lobby of Vegas' most famous hotel. I'm sure if those walls could talk.... they would say, "What happens in Vegas..."
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