Las Vegas Sun

September 25, 2021

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Mormon missionaries first to settle Las Vegas

* IN 1979, the Las Vegas SUN published a 12-part series by historian Leonard J. Arrington on Mormon settlements in Nevada. Later that year, the series was published as a book. Here are excerpts from a chapter focusing on the first Mormon settlement of Las Vegas.

AT the April 1855 general conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 300 "missionaries" were called to settle various portions of the American West. The largest proportion of these went to Carson and adjacent valleys in what was then western Utah, now western Nevada. But 30 were appointed to establish an Indian mission at Las Vegas, a large spring in what is now Southern Nevada.

This location was along the route from the Salt Lake Valley to Southern California, and would have the added advantage of furnishing a way station for travelers between those two places. But the primary purpose was to establish friendly relations with the Indians of the region and to teach them some of the arts of agriculture. The choice of personnel and their work can best be understood by giving particular attention to one of them: George Washington Bean.

George Washington Bean was born in 1831 in Adams County, Ill. In 1841, when George was 10 years old, his parents were converted to Mormonism, and George was baptized shortly after. Four years later, when he was only 14, George was ordained a Seventy, an office which involved both administrative and preaching assignments. This ordination of one so young suggests that George Bean was very mature for his age; Seventies were not usually ordained until in their 20s and 30s. His maturity is also suggested by the fact that George carried a man's load in the ordinary business of life: He managed the family farm while his father was ill, and he drove "an outfit" during the Mormon Exodus from Nauvoo, Ill., in February 1846.

When the trek to the Great Basin was made in 1847, George now 16, joined the Jedediah M. Grant company of 100 wagons and was given full responsibility for a family and team of four oxen. ...

In the April conference call of 1855, George Bean was included among the 30 who were assigned to establish an Indian Mission at Las Vegas. Since Bean was both Indian interpreter and clerk, his diary is the basic source on the mission. ...

Returning to Provo ... Bean reported his mission call to his wife, who, according to his journal, "assured me she would take good care of things in my absence and had faith all would be well with us." At the time they had a girl who was 8 months old.

Bean had 10 days in which to prepare for his mission. He bought a bin full of wheat, some land, some cows, and left sufficient cash with his wife so that she would be provided for during his absence. ...

Designated president and leader of the missionary unit was William Bringhurst. The 30 men reached their destination on June 15, 1855, after a journey of 450 miles. As they neared their objective they became thoroughly acquainted with the Muddy River, a river 28 miles in length which was fed by the Meadow Valley River originating in Lincoln County, and which flowed south into the Virgin River, which in turn emptied into the Colorado.

Indian encounters

On the Muddy, Bean wrote, "many hundreds of Indians were then living in a savage state." By this he meant that there had been frequent killings of straggling white travelers. "It was almost a daily occurrence that some depredation was committed."

The principal group of Indians in the area were called Moapats or Muddys. According to the record, the missionaries held several meetings with the natives, "teaching them good principles and to some extent repentance and baptism." Later, several Mormon settlements were built on the Muddy where cotton, sugar cane, corn, and grapes were grown.

After this interlude the party drove the valley, 55 miles long by 30 miles wide. The springs were about 25 yards long and about 10 wide, "boiling up most beautifully." The stream coming from the springs was about three feet wide and about 15 inches deep, with "a tolerable swift current." The water, according to John Steele, another missionary, was "a refreshing beverage for those who may travel with slow ox trains for the space of 36 hours." "None can realize how good a thing a blessing is," he wrote, "except those who are deprived of it."

Farming and building

The missionaries started immediately to clear off the land and to plant crops, "but the heat was terrible." "The Indians were very shy at first," Bean reported, "but good kind treatment won them over." Many of them worked with the colonists, helping to clear off willows and brush. "We planted corn about the first week in July, and had a good crop," Bean wrote; "also some fine squashes and melons and garden truck." The Indians also helped the missionaries to make adobes, carry bricks to the mason, and especially to herd the stock. Many of them joined the church. "They herded emigrants' teams as they stopped on their way to California. They irrigated our land and assisted in making adobes and in construction of a 14-foot wall around a space of 150 feet square, which constituted our Mission Fort."

In addition to building the adobe fort and planting crops, the missionaries sent teams out to explore the country. They discovered transparent ledges of crystal salt, found a lead mine in the mountain range 30 miles southwest of Las Vegas and extracted 60 tons of lead, and made the acquaintance of all the Indian tribes and bands. Bean was assigned to visit each of the Indian tribes or bands in the region. These included the Pahgahts or Colorado Piedes, the Moapats or Muddys, the Pahruchats or Rio Virgins, the Panominch or western Piedes, the Quoeech or Diggers, and the Iats or Mojaves. Bean regarded the latter as the superior group. Located about eight miles south of Las Vegas, the Iats raised cotton, grain and other agricultural products. Bean estimated that there were 1,000 Indians within a radius of 60 miles of Las Vegas. ...

In September 1855, after they had been at Las Vegas three months, a cadre of missionaries went across the desert to San Bernardino, Calif., to take oxen and cows to sell. The group returned in six weeks with a large number of "wild mares and mules." The next few weeks the colonists were preoccupied with breaking them to rise and pull.

Every evening Bean conducted a "school for Indians language" with the remainder of his fellow missionaries. Mail from home -- Provo and Salt Lake Valley -- came once a month via tithing office messenger. Bean reports how strange it was that he and some of his colleagues took a bath in the springs, four miles above the fort, on Jan. 1, 1856, showing the mildness of the climate and warmth of the water. Not a flake of snow fell during the winter of 1855-1856, he reported.

On a rotation basis, the missionaries were permitted to spend three months of each year with their wives and families. Bean's term came near the end of February 1856 and his instructions were to "report (to Brigham Young) the good country we were in and ask for more settlers." After a few days of travel they reached Parowan, Utah. There, the snow was two feet deep. Bean reached home March 25, and returned to Las Vegas Mission on June 1.

Miners arrive

Upon returning to Las Vegas, Bean learned that Brigham Young had sent another group of about 30, under the supervision of Nathaniel V. Jones, to mine lead. The lead miners, it appears, were not imbued with the same idealistic missionary rules and goals as the Indian missionaries had been, and there was friction between the two groups. This friction unfortunately brought about a deterioration in their relationships with the natives and led President Bringhurst, unable to function in an atmosphere of discontent, to form a small group which included Bean to visit Brigham Young and ask his counsel.

Leaving in September 1856, each member of the group drove a wagon loaded with a ton of lead pulled by four mule teams. ...

Successfully reaching the Salt Lake Valley, they explained fully the problems of the colony to Brigham Young. "The president asked many questions," wrote Bean, and was disappointed that "the spirit of the Mission was broken." After much deliberation and thought, the Solomonic leader finally decided to release all the brethren from the mission.

By the end of 1856 most of the Indian missionaries had left Las Vegas. (The lead missionaries remained another year, returning, most of them, with the approach of the Utah Expedition in 1857-1858.) They left two legacies -- a legacy of basic friendship with the Indians of the region, and huge piles of silver slag, left over from their attempts to extract lead. The 60 tons of lead they had delivered in Salt Lake City were used to make paint, tools and bullets. ...

The mine was occupied three years later by a group which developed it into the famous Potosi silver mine. Some persons have estimated that as much as $50 million in silver was extracted from that location.

Bean returned to his Provo home late in 1856, continued to serve his church and community, served as a judge and legislator, was a member of an LDS stake presidency and patriarch, and died in 1897. He left a large family of intelligent and industrious children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, some of whom contribute today to the civic and economic betterment of Nevada. Above all, Bean was proudest of having taken the message of "Peace and Brotherhood" to the Native Americans of southeastern Nevada.