LAS VEGAS (KLAS) – Antonio Armijo’s trading party numbered 60 men and 100 mules. And it needed water. History tells us this quest for water is how Las Vegas got its name.

Travel back to Christmas Day 1829. Armijo’s group was following the Old Spanish Trail southwesterly through what today is Utah and Nevada, in the middle of an 86-day trek.

Their party left the outpost Abiquiu, north of present-day Santa Fe, New Mexico, in late November, with a destination of the San Gabriel Mission, near what now is Los Angeles. The lack of water forced the party to stop about 100 miles northeast of what became metropolitan Las Vegas.

While the main group rested, a few men, including scout Rafael Rivera, left on horseback to seek water.

Eventually – some sources say it took two weeks — Rivera found water in what today is the Las Vegas valley. Rivera is credited with naming the valley “Las Vegas” or the meadows. A 10-acre park and community center in the city bear his name.

A statue of Rafael Rivera that used to welcome visitors to the Old Vegas amusement park in Henderson. (UNLV Archives)

The Nevada State Historic Preservation Office says of the area where Rivera found water:

“The famous Las Vegas Springs rose from the desert floor here, sending two streams of water across the valley to nurture the native grasses, and create lush meadows in the valley near Sunrise Mountain.  The natural oasis of meadow and mesquite forest was the winter homeland of Southern Paiutes, who often spent the summers in the Charleston Mountains. An unknown Spanish-speaking sojourner named this place “Las Vegas” meaning “The Meadows.”

The translation of “The Meadows” seems a bit confusing, because in changing from English to Spanish the word “meadows” returns “prados.” So why then aren’t we living in the Las Prados valley?

Jorge Galindo, a professor in UNLV’s language department, explains: “Vegas and prados can be used as synonyms if you are meaning fertile plain, but vegas also means lower land close to a river,” he said in an email.

Armijo kept a diary of his journey, which pioneered a new trail; the return from California to New Mexico took 40 days. His diary has been included in books, including “”The Old Spanish Trail: From Santa Fe to Los Angeles,” by LeRoy Hafen and Ann Hafen.

How Las Vegas, New Mexico, was named provides a similar reference to meadows and fertile plain. The site was originally founded in 1835 as Señora de Los Dolores de Las Vegas or Our Lady of Sorrows of the Meadows.