Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) have had a presence in Nevada for more than 150 years. They were the first people of European descent to establish a settlement in Nevada. Soon after the Mormons located in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, their leader and prophet, Brigham Young, laid claim to a vast section of the interior west. The church designated this region as the “State of Deseret.” However, when Congress created Utah Territory in 1850, it ignored much of the Mormons’ claim. What we now know as Nevada formed most of Utah Territory, with the southern portion near the Colorado River included in New Mexico territory (which would soon become Arizona Territory). Nevada Territory was detached from Utah Territory in 1861.

Utah authorities and Mormon leaders tried to give substance to their claims by establishing forts and trading stations in outlying areas. Traders from Utah built a temporary outpost in Carson Valley on the main emigrant trail to California in 1850. This region was selected because it offered a suitable site from which to bring goods from the Sacramento Valley to the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada for sale.

A second wave of traders established Mormon Station (later Genoa) in 1851, and a fort at Las Vegas (“the Meadows”) in 1855. Mormon settlers also established home sites in Eagle Valley (where Carson City later arose) and the Truckee Meadows (later the venue for Reno and Sparks).

The group at Mormon Station soon found itself in competition with miners arriving from California to search for gold along the tributaries of the Carson River. To resolve legal disputes, Utah territorial government created Carson County in 1854 and sent Orson Hyde, an apostle of the church, to govern as probate judge for Utah Territory. This first confrontation between Mormons and gentiles led to a struggle for jurisdiction. The tense situation changed in 1857, when the approach of federal troops (the so-called “Utah War”) prompted the Utah government and church authorities to recall their members to Salt Lake City. Mormon Station and other outposts fell into the hands of non-Mormons.

The Las Vegas Mission (1855-58) was founded as a church outpost on the Spanish Trail leading to southern California. Mission leader William Bringhurst came with 29 other men to build a fort at the main oasis in Las Vegas Valley. The assignment from church authorities was to serve as a way station between Utah and the Mormon settlement in San Bernadino, California, as well as to convert the local Native Americans to the LDS faith. The desert heat and resistance from the neighboring Indians defeated the industrious Mormons after about two years. They built their fort (recently excavated and partially restored after decades of decay) and reached out to their potential converts. In the settlement’s second year, Brigham Young instructed the missionaries to assist another Mormon group sent to mine and smelt lead at nearby Mt. Potosi. A conflict arose immediately about whether the missionaries or the miners had ultimate authority. The matter was resolved by Young in favor of the mining contingent. The process of smelting the ore was inadequate and the mining venture was abandoned. The leadership conflict, the failed mine, and the impending “Utah War” together moved the authorities to release the settlers from their mission.

During the “Utah War,” when church authorities felt they might need to flee from Salt Lake City, they sought a “place of refuge” in a valley more than 300 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. For a few months they operated an irrigation system and cultivated land in Meadow Valley where Mormon settlers later located the town of Panaca. The “place of refuge” was never needed, because the “Utah War” ended peacefully. The LDS church resumed its southwestern colonization in 1864, when it sent settlers to Meadow Valley (Panaca), St. Joseph and St. Thomas on the Virgin River, and Callville on the Colorado River. Most of these settlements lasted for only a few years. The exception was Panaca. Others were largely abandoned in 1870 after border surveys affirmed they were in Nevada, not Utah Territory. Nevada assessors tried to collect back taxes.

Panaca is the oldest surviving town in Nevada founded by Mormons. After 1870, this small oasis in Meadow Valley became a source of meats and vegetables for the booming mining camp of Pioche ten miles north. When Pioche and its nearby mill town Bullionville prospered, Mormon farmers found a ready market for their products. With the decline of the mining industry, Panaca survived while other LDS communities foundered. The LDS church tried intermittently to establish communities in southeastern Nevada--Bunkerville in 1877, Mesquite in the 1880s, Preston and Lund in the White River Valley (White Pine County) in 1898, and Alamo in the Pahranagat Valley (Lincoln County) in 1905. These communities survived, and continue to serve small rural contingents of Mormons, reflecting the church’s oldest communal purposes in the Great Basin.

Another wave of Mormons entered Eastern Nevada in the 1920s and 1930s, not as communal colonizers but as workers and homemakers. With the return of prosperity to the mining industries in White Pine and Lincoln counties in the 1940s, they established wards (local churches) in Ely, McGill, Pioche, and Caliente, which had not previously seen many members of this church except as summer and autumn peddlers of garden products. A new generation arrived as individuals and families, rather than as communities sponsored and encouraged by the church. By the 1990s, they had attractive meeting houses in many small communities of Northern and Central Nevada.

A growing number of Mormons in Southern Nevada established a ward in 1925, well before construction of Hoover Dam in the 1930s gave the Latter-day Saints another opportunity to establish their families in the valley where their forebears had founded the mission in 1855. The growth of the military-industrial complex following World War II in that region also proved to be a magnet for families from Utah. The Latter-day Saints were long regarded by rustic Nevada miners, cowboys, and professional men as a people apart, disapproving of Nevada’s more permissive lifestyle. The tension that existed for many years between the mining-railroad-cowboy frontier and the people of the Mormon Zion had mostly dissolved by mid-century, and the increased number of wards warranted the establishment of a stake in Las Vegas in 1954.

With the rise of legalized gambling in Nevada, especially in Las Vegas after 1945, Mormons faced an unusual challenge. While church doctrine discouraged gambling by individuals, it condoned employment by church members in management positions and floor level jobs in the resorts and casinos. By 1979, the LDS church claimed 60,000 members and 21 stakes (dioceses) in Nevada, most of them in Clark County.

For many decades in the early twentieth century, the Latter-day Saints had little voice in Nevada politics because their numbers were so small. In the 1970s, the attitudes of the LDS church became more obvious when the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution became a public issue. Church members generally opposed the proposed amendment, assuming it would diminish, rather than improve, the traditional position of women in society. The proposed amendment was decisively defeated in a referendum in 1978.

The first Nevada Mormon to hold federal office was Berkeley Bunker, a two-term Assemblyman from Las Vegas. Appointed to the U.S. Senate upon the death of Senator Key Pittman in 1940, Bunker was a member of a longtime Southern Nevada LDS family. He served briefly in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Subsequently Howard Cannon, also a Las Vegas Mormon, was elected to the Senate four times and Harry Reid, a native of Searchlight, Nevada, was elected four times (as of 2008). Members of the church have held important positions in the legislature, the courts, and business leadership for more than a half century.

According to the 2008 Church Almanac, the Latter-day Saints counted a membership of 170,000 in Nevada, approximately seven percent of the state’s population. There were 33 stakes and 285 wards. They had two temples in Nevada --- one in Las Vegas and the other in Reno.

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