The name of Helen J. Stewart is synonymous with the founding of Las Vegas. A school, a historical society chapter, and other entities are named after this First Lady of Las Vegas.
Helen: A Literary Magazine is named for this pioneer, survivor, leader and role model. The editors agree that she was a good choice for a namesake, with “an indomitable will, a wonderful strength of purpose, and a courageous heart” (as quoted by a friend upon her death).
She started out as Helen Jane Wiser, born at Springfield, Illinois in 1854. The young girl and her family spent some time in Iowa while her father did some prospecting out west. When he returned, the family moved to Stockton, California. It was there that an 18-year-old Helen met and married Archibald Stewart, a 38-year-old businessman in the freighting industry. The early years of their marriage were spent around the Pioche area. Archibald eventually left his venture of freighting ore and lumber, and focused his interest on cattle. The Stewarts were getting accustomed to ranch life, a fact that Helen did not appreciate. Then in 1887, due to the default of a loan that Archie had given to Octavius Gass, they ended up taking possession of the first ranch in Las Vegas. This was to be a temporary arrangement, but when Archie was killed before the end of the two years they had planned on, Helen, now on her own, decided to stay and went about finding a way to sustain the ranch.
With five children to take care of, she learned how to procure and manage resources. She befriended members of the local Paiute tribe, who shared their skills and stories. Selling vegetables, fruit, and cattle from the ranch, and providing boarding for visitors to the community, she was able to make a good living. Helen gathered with other important women of the new town, and accomplished many things, including the acquisition of properties around the ranch.
Though she married another man named Stewart, she remained in control of her holdings. These properties would later be sold to the railroads, which led to the formalization of Las Vegas proper.
When at last Helen’s life was through in 1926, she had served as postmaster for the town, clerk of the school board, and one of the first women jurors in the county. She gained recognition for her independent spirit, affirmed by the use of her own name, rather than “Mrs.” in her documentations. As the little town of Las Vegas grew, it would always remember its humble beginnings, forged by pioneers like her. Helen J. Stewart had not only lived its early history, but recorded it as well, helping to organize the Las Vegas chapter of the Nevada Historical Society.
Many years after her influence, in 1997, she was among the first inductees into the Nevada Women’s History Project Roll of Honor.
Helen makes a great choice for this magazine’s moniker, representing strong-spirited women in Southern Nevada. Not only can you see her likeness at Helen Presents, but a full-size statue graces her remembrance at the Old Mormon Fort State Park, which is situated at the site of the old Stewart Ranch.
Margie B. Klein is a freelance writer, nature lover, and retired environmental educator who’s lived in Las Vegas since the ’90′s. Follow her on Twitter @NatureWriterVgs.