alled “the Matriarch of the Las Vegas Valley,” Helen J. Stewart proved to be a brave and capable rancher, businesswoman and matron of social and cultural affairs.
At the age of nine, Helen Jane Wiser crossed the Plains with her family in a wagon train traveling from Illinois to Sacramento, California. Stewart came of age there, finished her education, and married Archibald Stewart in 1873.
A successful freighting business operator in Pioche, Nevada, Stewart gained title to a 960-acre ranch in Las Vegas in 1879 and began similar operations for mines in the area.
Archibald was murdered at the neighboring Kiel Ranch in a dispute of undocumented origins in 1884. Stewart, pregnant with her fifth child, recovered her husband’s body, buried him, negotiated for her husband’s estate, and presided over the ranch operations. Over the next several years, Stewart managed the ranch with the help of local Paiute Indians, migratory ranch workers, and a foreman whom she later married. Travelers stopped at the ranch to rest and water their animals, hear the latest news, and receive mail from the area’s first post office located at the ranch.
When talk began to circulate about a railroad coming through the area, Stewart purchased more land, expanding her holdings to more than 1800 acres with water rights. In 1902, she sold most of it to Senator W. A. Clark of Montana. This land, when auctioned to the public in 1905, formed the basis for downtown Las Vegas.
As the town developed, Stewart’s contributions expanded. She donated land for the first school building and became the first woman elected to the Clark County School Board in November 1916. She worked with the Nevada Federation of Women’s Clubs, raised funds for the library, and helped found two women’s clubs, the Mesquite Club and the U-Wah-Un Club. She supported woman suffrage, became the first woman to serve on a jury in Clark County, and helped to start the state historical society. Having spent many years in the company of Paiute Indians who worked on the ranch, Stewart lobbied federal agents for education funds for local indigenous people. In January 1912, the Las Vegas Age reported that Stewart sold ten acres of land to the federal government to be used as “an Indian school and semi-reservation.” The property remains tribal land today.
Helen Stewart died from cancer at the age of 72.
Source: Helen J. Stewart. Nevada Women’s Archive. Special Collections, UNLV. Collection number T-087; “Helen J. Stewart.” 1999; The First 100: Portraits of the Men and Women who Shaped Las Vegas. Edited by A.D. Hopkins and K.J. Evans. Huntington Press. Pp. 15-18.
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