In 1829, most of the western United States
belonged to Spain. The West was scarcely traveled by European settlers.
Traveling the desert without knowing of a secured source of water was
too risky. Though many travelers headed West to places like California,
the settlers used routes to travel around the desert. The
Spanish sought a new trail between New Mexico and California. Routes existed
through Arizona, but were difficult to travel.
Antonio Armijo exploration
Antonio Armijo, a merchant, gathered a group of 60 men to explore parts
of the West to find a new route from New Mexico to California. The explorers
left New Mexico on November 7, 1829. They followed the trail they usually
took to California, attempting to deviate from their path here and there
to find a new trail. The group made it near the northwest corner of Arizona
by Christmas Day. They set up camp and sent out scouts to find water and
camp sites for the next part of the journey. One of these scouts was a
teenage boy named Rafael Rivera.
Rivera finds the valley
The scouts traversed the area while the rest of the party rode into Nevada
down the Virgin River. The scouts rode to the Colorado River junction
and rejoined the rest of the Armijo party. Everyone returned, except Rivera.
Rivera wandered away from the rest of the group in search
of a short cut. Rivera's diversion lasted two weeks. Heading west of the
Colorado, he merged into Black Canyon and was led into the Las
Vegas Wash. Rivera camped on top of a mesa that overlooked a valley.
From the mesa, Rivera could see springs
and meadows that thrived in the midst of the desert.
The Old Spanish Trail
Rivera returned to the Colorado River
and rode up the Virgin River to rejoin the group. Rivera told the others
what he had found and then led them into the Las Vegas Valley, where he
had seen the streams of fresh water and vegetation. This desert area became
known as "Las Vegas," which means "the meadows."
Leaving the area, the group followed the Las Vegas Wash
through a low pass into California. This route was later named the "Old
Spanish Trail." Rafael Rivera may have been the first non-Native
American in the Las Vegas Valley. A statue of Rivera at the Rafael Rivera
Community Center reminds us of his courage.