Octavius D. Gass: The Father of Las Vegas

Pioneering and a sense of adventure run in the Gass family.  Octavius Decatur Gass, a grandson of Troy Township, Richland County, Ohio pioneer William Gass, is known by some as the “father of Las Vegas, Nevada.”[1]  William Gass arrived In Troy Township in 1812 and built a small, fourteen square foot cabin on 80 acres of land he had purchased from the government at $2 an acre.[2]  Octavius’s father, John Gass, was an “industrious, sober, honest man, and much respected by his acquaintances.”[3]  John married Ann McClure on March 22, 1821,[4] built his own cabin and began farming.  The couple had 8 children: 5 sons and three daughters.  Octavius was born in 1827 or 1828 and was educated in the local schools.  It is rumored he attended Oberlin College, though there is no documentation to prove this, he did have knowledge of Spanish and civil engineering, which would prove useful in his later endeavors.

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Octavius D Gass

Octavius, like many men his age, went west seeking fortune during the Gold Rush.  He arrived in San Francisco in early 1850.  He immediately began working unloading two-room, pre-fab houses from the ship, earning $10 a day for his work.  He took his wages and made his way to El Dorado County, California to begin seeking his fortune.  It was while placer mining here that he would meet some of the people who would shape his life, including Nathaniel Lewis, Lewis Cole and lifelong friend, Fenton M. Slaughter.  A few years later, Gass and Slaughter moved to the small town of Los Angeles where Gass would get the position of Zanjero, or water steward.   Gass was responsible for patrolling the irrigation ditches and ensuring landowners only took their fair share.

Gass continued to stake claims, which would prove to be only moderately successful and, around 1862, decided to head east to El Dorado Canyon in the newly created Arizona Territory.  Gass had learned of the Mormon fort, Las Vegas, constructed in 1855 and abandoned in 1857 due to “crop failures, disappointing yields in nearby lead mining efforts and dissension among the group’s leaders”[5].  He purchased the fort with Nathaniel Lewis and Lewis Cole in 1865 calling it the Las Vegas Rancho.  Gass originally owed 160 acres, but soon bought out Lewis and Cole and owned the entire 640 acres.  He would later add the 320 acre Spring ranch to the property.  The fort would serve as a way station for travelers on the Mormon trail between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, Utah.  Gass also became involved in politics in the Arizona Territory, representing Mohave and Pah-Ute counties in the Arizona Territory Legislature.

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Gass at Las Vegas Rancho, ca. 1873.  Photo from The Otis Marston Colorado River Collection, Huntington Library

On February 24, 1872, Gass married Virginia Simpson, a niece of Ulysses S. Grant, in Pioche, Nevada.  The couple would have six children.  It appeared Gass had a successful ranch with 960 acres and 30 employees, but the ranch was in a heavy amount to debt and Gass had been looking to sell since 1868.  In 1874 Gass mortgaged the property to neighbor William Knapp for $3,000[6] and, in 1879, Archibald Stewart, “a successful businessman, loaned $5,000 in gold to Octavius D. Gass, taking the isolated Las Vegas Ranch as collateral. By 1881, Gass had defaulted on the loan, and Stewart foreclosed.”[7]

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Octavius Gass, Photo from The Otis Marston Colorado River Collection, Huntington Library

In 1881 Gass moved his family to Pomona, California where he sold 1,500 head of cattle to Richard Gird who was stocking the Chico Ranch.  A short time later, he moved to Yucaipa Valley where he tried to raise grapes, but a poor water supply and winds ended another dream.  Gass would return to mining in Baja California and San Bernardino County until moving to Bryn Mawr, California with his son, Fenton, to help tend to orange groves.  Octavius Gass would live into his nineties, dying on December 10, 1924, after a fall.  The man who had owned almost all of the Las Vegas Valley is today only remember by a street named in his honor in Las Vegas and by the 6,943-foot Gass Peak in the Las Vegas Range.[8]

Sources:

[1] https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/12834304/octavius-decatur-gass
[2] Looking Back at Lexington, pp. 15
[3] Graham, A. A., History of Richland County, Ohio. pp. 900
[4] Richland County Marriages, 1813-1871. pp. 142
[5] http://parks.nv.gov/learn/park-histories/old-las-vegas-mormon-fort-history
[6] https://www.reviewjournal.com/news/o-d-gass/
[7] https://www.nevadawomen.org/research-center/biographies-alphabetical/helen-j-stewart/
[8] The Journal of Arizona History, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Winter, 1988), pp. 371-390.

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