Las Vegas (population 14,565) means "meadows." Archeology shows that the fertile valley of Nuestra Senora de los Dolores de las Vegas was inhabited as early as 8,000 B.C. Settled Pueblo Indians were present in the area in the 12th and 13th centuries A.D. until forced out by drought or warfare.
Coronado traveled through the area in 1541. By the late 18th century the population increase in the Rio Grande Valley to the west caused Spanish settlement to expand east to the eastern face of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, near the upper reaches of the Pecos River and its tributaries.
The Santa Fe Trail was opened through the area in 1821, through the efforts of Missouri merchant William Becknell. The community of Las Vegas developed along the trail through a Land Grant in 1835 when New Mexico was still Mexican territory.
Las Vegas was an important commercial center throughout the 19th century due to its location on the Santa Fe Trail and, later, on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad (1879). The city's prosperity dwindled in the wake of the Great Depression, but the period of relative dormancy that followed helped to preserve the City's historic resources.
Las Vegas boasts excellent examples of nearly every important architectural residential style built in the United States between 1840 and 1940, including over 900 buildings in a number of historic districts. Its central plaza, laid out at its founding, is probably the best preserved in New Mexico.
Preservation of these resources and their marketing as heritage tourism assets has been central to recent revitalization efforts. For example, the Las Vegas Depot (1898) has been reopened as an intermodal transportation facility following a $1.2 million facelift, and the Winternitz Building (1892) is now the Santa Fe Trail Interpretive Center.
The city also features other reminders of the railroad's historic role, such as the downtown Plaza Hotel (1882) and the nearby Montezuma Resort and Hot Springs. The main hotel building, Montezuma Castle (1882-1886), designed by noted architects Burnham and Root for the Santa Fe railroad, was the first property west of the Mississippi to be recognized under the Save America's Treasures program in 1997. It was recently renovated and reused as the center of the Armand Hammer United World College of the American West after a major fund-raising effort.
The city has worked in partnership with the non-profit Citizens Committee for Historic Preservation to provide self-guided and guided tours of Las Vegas, and there are numerous annual heritage events. The city also recently hired a marketing firm to promote the community as a tourism destination.
Designated a Preserve America Community in August 2004.