What Does Las Vegas Mean: History Of Las Vegas’ Name

Las Vegas is a Spanish word that means ‘The Meadows’. The city was named by a Spanish trader in the 1800s who encountered a beautiful natural area of lush meadows of wild desert grasses. This empty meadow is where Las Vegas now stands.

So how did Las Vegas get its name, what else is it known as, and how did it get a meadow-related name when it is such a dry part of North America? We answer all your questions below.

The Origin Of Las Vegas

To understand why Las Vegas is called this, you have to look back to the city we now know for its nightlife, casinos and hotels.

The Viejo Sendero Español (Old Spanish Trail) was a network of paths used by the Spanish from the 16th century. It was originally established and utilized by the Native American people and later Spanish traders. The trails were formed by around 700 miles of path that lead through the canyons, mountains and deserts between California and New Mexico.

In 1829, a trade caravan of 60 men led by the Spanish merchant Antonio Armijo were charged with creating a trade route to Los Angeles. By following the existing routes through a tributary of the Colorado River they discovered the valley now known as Las Vegas.

In 1829, a Spanish trader called Rafael Rivera discovered an oasis in a valley surrounded by mountains as he traveled to Los Angeles. He called the spot of lush grass and spring water, Las Vegas, Spanish for the meadows. It was considered by the Spaniards as the best point to re-supply before going onto California.

Although we think of that area as being dry and infertile, it once had an abundance of springs. This water would keep tribes like the Mojave and the Paiute alive for 13,000 years. It is only due to human interference and unbalancing nature than Las Vegas became the dry, desert area we now think of.

Little changed in the Las Vegas valley following the 1848 transition from Mexican to United States rule. In 1855, Brigham Young sent a group of Mormon settlers to the area. Although their settlement was ultimately unsuccessful, their abandoned fort was taken over by Octavius Gass, who named the area the Los Vegas Rancho. The change in spelling was to avoid confusion with the New Mexico city.

The Development of Las Vegas

Las Vegas 1910
Las Vegas 1910 Source: @vintage_las_vegas

Development of the Las Vegas valley started in 1907 with the installation of the first flowing groundwater well. Prior to that installation, the aquifer system’s natural recharge and discharge became in equilibrium, with an estimated flow of 7,500 acre-feet per year.

Development caused an imbalance to nature in the area. The water started to flow freely onto the desert floor. Uncapped artesian wells became unleashed, resulting in the groundwater table dropping and the springs ultimately drying up.

In 1912, groundwater discharge from these gushing artesian wells was almost 15,000 acre-feet per year. Because of this excessive drain on the aquifer system, the groundwater levels shrunk by an average rate of one foot per year between the years of 1912 to 1944. After than the groundwater table dropped even lower and by 1955 it was 40,000 acres per year.

Las Vegas Downtown 1963
Las Vegas Downtown 1963 Source: @vintage_las_vegas

By the 1960s, the springs had stopped flowing, which meant the once lush, grassy meadows had faded away. It slowly became the arid spot we now know to be Las Vegas. One of the few pieces of evidence left of this was the meadow-related name.

This stress on the aquifer system forced a change as the area couldn’t solely rely on groundwater. By 1990, the groundwater table had dropped more than 300 feet in some locations around the valley.

Las Vegas began importing water from the Colorado River, the Nevada city currently imports 90 percent of its water from the Colorado River via Lake Mead. Groundwater pumped from the local aquifer only supplies the popular Nevada city with 10 percent of the water it requires.

Read More: Old Las Vegas: Places Where Vegas’ History Still Lives

Other Names For Las Vegas

Sin City is the most common nickname for Las Vegas, but this Nevada city has earned a range of names. With its notoriety and history, it has gathered a range of synonyms.

The first reference to Las Vegas being called Sin City or City of Sin was in the title of a 1963 book, which was written by two casino executives, Dick Taylor and Pat Howell. ‘Las Vegas: City of Sin?’ was a popular expose of Las Vegas when it was released in the early 1960s. It told the story about the juxtaposition between the glamor of the surface and the seedy underbelly with crime and murder.

Other people believe this nickname dates back to the early 1900s. After Nevada outlawed gambling in 1910, a range of underground casinos appeared and thrived until gambling became legal once more in 1931. Fremont Street became known across the country for its sex, gambling and booze. The Sin City moniker may stem from this era of American history.

It is also regularly called the Marriage Capital of the World. This isn’t just because it’s a popular and fantastic place to get married, but it was one of the few spots where you some people could. It has been an iconic wedding location since 1931, when the new marriage law in Nevada was passed, allowing couples to marry on the spot with no wait times or requirements.

Nevada marriage licenses were notoriously easy to obtain; there is no blood test or a required waiting period. This was a deliberate choice by lawmakers, who hoped lax rules would promote tourism in the city. It worked, to this day it is still popular with celebrities and people looking for a debauched and eccentric wedding.

Other nicknames for Las Vegas include: the Entertainment Capital of the World, the Gambling Capital of the World, the Neon Capital of the World, the City of Lights (with is also used to describe Paris), the City of Second Chances, and the City of Lost Wages. More recently, it has been known as the Bone Yard, as it is home to many unfinished buildings.

Names for Las Vegas: FAQs

What does Nevada mean?

It’s not just Las Vegas which has a Spanish influenced name. In the early 1800s, the Spanish also gave the state of Nevada its name. The Western state takes its name from the Spanish Nevada, which means snow-clad. It is a reference to the high mountain scenery of the Sierra Nevada, located on the western border with California.

Is Las Vegas New Mexico the same as Las Vegas Nevada?

Confusingly, there are actually two Las Vegas’ in North America. There is the large Las Vegas city in Nevada, but there is also a location in New Mexico called Las Vegas. They both obtained their name from the rich grasslands surrounding the area.

There is also a Las Vegas in Honduras and one in Venezuela. When you say Las Vegas, unless you are in the vicinity of one of the other three locations, people will presume you mean Las Vegas, Nevada.

Final Words

So Las Vegas has a rich history. It was once a beautiful meadow and a source of water. Sadly, humans depleted this natural resource and it slowly transformed into the adult playground we now know and love.