Nuestra Historia - Las Vegas is born

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By Jesus L. Lopez

Special to the Optic

Even before 1835, farmers and ranchers from San Miguel had raised crops and grazed livestock on the lush meadows along the Rio Gallinas.  And as related in our last column,  Luis María Cabeza de Baca and his family had settled las vegas as early as 1820.

But the official birthday for Las Vegas is April 6, 1835. On that day José de Jesús Ulibarrí y Durán, acting as the constitutional justice of San Miguel del Bado, awarded what would be known as the  Las Vegas Land Grant, for the establishment of a  new frontier settlement which the first colonists named Las Vegas Grandes de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores.

The grant was made to 36 original grantees, most of them from San Miguel del Bado. 

They and their families made the short but dangerous journey from San Miguel to an amazingly beautiful shallow valley cradled between two sloping hillsides, through the center of which flowed a pristine river, running down from the blue-gray mountains to the north.

As already mentioned, this 1835 grant was almost identical to that made to Luis María Cabeza de Baca in 1820, having the same boundaries and also containing almost one-half million acres. However, unlike the private grant made to Don Luis, the Las Vegas Land Grant was a communal grant, made to the original settlers and all who might join them in the future, share and share alike. Each received a small private allotment on which to build their houses, but all could share the common grant lands, for water, farming, grazing their livestock, firewood and timber, and all other rights and privileges to which they were entitled as common owners of a community land grant.

They established their settlement at what we know as the Old Town Plaza, building their  houses  along the four sides of the rectangular site. They were all one-story adobe houses forming an enclosed fortification which served the dual purpose of providing protection from raids by Native Americans, and as a stockyard for  their goats, sheep, cattle, horses, mules and oxen.  (It is believed that at least part of the one-story Henry Beisman building on the south side of the Plaza, remains as the only original structure built by the  first settlers).

It is remarkable that the plaza in old town Las Vegas, as laid out by the original settlers, is the largest in all New Mexico. The older plazas in Taos, Socorro, old Albuquerque (San Felipe de Neri), and even the plaza in Santa Fe,  are all dwarfed by the size of our  plaza. This was the first indication by our forebears that they intended  to outdo and surpass all their vecinos and kinsmen in New Mexico.

As large as our plaza is, a tale has always persisted that the original plaza was even larger, fronting present day Valencia and Moreno Streets on the north and south. But this claim has never been substantiated and most historians agree that the perimeter of the Old Town Plaza exists today as it was first  settled and laid out in 1835.

While building their individual houses and adjoining adobe walls which would form and barricade their plaza, the settlers also undertook two community projects. They began laying out and digging an acequia for irrigation of their crops, and the building of their church, in honor of Nuestra Señora de los Dolores (Our Lady of Sorrows).  

The acequia madre (mother ditch) is used to this day, and runs north to south just east of North and South Gonzales streets, under Valencia, Bridge and Moreno Streets, and through the West Las Vegas school district. Upon the fields running down and east from the plaza, the first Las Vegans would plant corn, beans and a variety of other crops, all irrigated by the Rio Gallinas, as diverted through the acequia madre.  

The first church of Nuestra Señora de los Dolores was built in 1836  on the west side of the plaza, where Plaza Antiques is presently located. Many will remember this building as Tru-Parts Auto Supply, owned and operated for many decades by Junio Lopez and George Arellanes. The original church was made of adobe and was 50 feet long from east to west, and 25 feet wide from north to south, and had small windows high-up on the north and south walls. During raids by Native Americans, the church served as a bunker of sorts, where the early settlers congregated for their protection.

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Next: The 36 original grantees of the Las Vegas Land Grant, and the continued settlement of Las Vegas.

Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.