By Ken Zurski
On June 24, 1899, on the one year anniversary of the Battle of Las Gusaimas, about a hundred soldiers who called themselves the Rough Riders gathered together to celebrate victory in the Spanish-American War. Where they gathered wasn’t as important as why. But when it came time to organize such an event only one Old West town seemed appropriate: Las Vegas.
Yes, Las Vegas.
Only this was not the Las Vegas built in the middle of the Nevada desert. That town’s reputation was still several decades away. No, this was the City of Las Vegas in the New Mexico territory.
Why this Las Vegas? Well, there wasn’t anything particularly glamorous or glitzy about New Mexico’s Las Vegas, but there was a train track and a depot built in 1880. Many of the recruited Rough Riders had boarded the train there to depart on to their destiny with war.
As usual, for a town like Las Vegas, the accessibility of a railroad stop also brought it’s share of shady characters. Some of its more notable visitors are famously known, like Doc Holiday, Billy the Kid and Jesse James. “Murderers, robbers, thieves, gamblers, gunmen, swindlers, vagrants, and tramps poured in, transforming the eastern side of the settlement into a virtually lawless brawl,” was one article’s assessment.
The article goes on claim in it’s title that Las Vegas was “as wicked as Dodge City.” One can argue that. But the point being that before Las Vegas, Nevada, Las Vegas, New Mexico was the place to go for a rip-roaring party, good or bad.
Now in 1889, a handful of Rough Riders came to Las Vegas, New Mexico to celebrate.
Some were returning, others came for the first time. Many were there to to see old friends and honor their leader, a man whose reputation had been cemented by stories of a valiant charge up a hill. Now as Governor of New York and on a pathway to the White House, the corporal, Teddy Roosevelt, came to Las Vegas to accept the rewards and thanks from his soldiers; a band of misfits ranging from good horse riders, lawyers and Ivy League men Roosevelt recruited. Roosevelt had whipped this rag tag bunch into a fighting force and despite some discourse among the ranks, in part to an unexpected drought of imported smoking and chewing tobacco, the Rough Riders defeated the Mexican army and saved the border territories for the U.S.
Roosevelt arrived in Las Vegas to find not only his men waving their hats in unison for him, but nearly ten-thousand adoring spectators too. They greeted the governor – who wore his old military uniform – with hearty cheers and sincere thanks. According to author Mark Gardner Lee, “there were plenty of medals and medal ceremonies.”
Among the most decorated was Roosevelt of course, who received what Lee describes as a lapel made of solid gold. “The elaborate medal featured the New Mexico ‘coat of arms,’ crossed sabers, and, raised in relief, a highly detailed eagle with outstretched wings.”
The festivities were not without its circuses, however. Several displays and depictions recreated the battles including the infamous charge of San Juan Hill. There were speeches, brass bands and in the evening elaborate firework displays. The highlight was a mile-long parade through town. “A Hot Time in Las Vegas,” the papers reported. “Teddy and his terrors renew the bonds of Comradeship.”
Roosevelt’s speeches were grandiose: “I am proud of you because you never flinched. When you went to war you knew you would not have an easy time; you expected to encounter hardships and you took them without a murmur.”
Roosevelt told them that only a reunion with his old regiment could him take him away form his duties in New York City. “For that purpose,” he expounded, “I would have gone to Alaska or anywhere else, for the bond that unites us one to another is as close as any bond of human friendship can be.”
New Mexico, the territory, was the perfect setting for a reunion of soldiers in the Spanish-American War. Even the New Mexico Governor Miguel Antonio Otero got an honorary member award. Although it was only symbolic, this rankled a few of the more hardened veterans who felt one should have served with the others before receiving such a distinction. Nevertheless, Otero humbly accepted the “membership” and as the papers noted, “the society almost closed its role by agreeing that honorary members must hereafter be men who were under fire with the regiment in Cuba.”
By the early 20th century, thanks to the success of the Rough Riders gathering, Las Vegas, New Mexico became known for its cowboy reunions. The brash affairs were sponsored by the Las Vegas Cowboy Reunion Association and complete with a slogan: “Git Fer Vegas Cowboy.” Thousands of ranchers and farm hands attended the events with ran annually from 1910 until 1931.
Ironically, the cowboy reunions ended a year after the Hoover Dam in Nevada was built. Thanks to the new power supply created by the massive man made dam, a small establishment nearby opened its first gambling house.
The town already had a name: Las Vegas
(Sources: Rough Riders: Theodore Roosevelt , his Cowboy Regiment and the Immortal Charge of San Juan Hill by Mark Lee Gardner; “New Mexico Legends – Las Vegas – As Wicked as Dodge City”. Legends of America. Retrieved 2012-07-13; The Los Angeles Times June 25, 1899.)