Thursday, August 30, 2007
Bunkerville's Mormon Roots
The development of Southern Nevada is intertwined with the history of the Church of Latter Day Saints. In 1855, Mormon settlers were the first to colonize Southern Nevada with the construction of a small adobe fort in a place known as Las Vegas (Spanish for “the meadows”).
Church leaders had mapped a trail between Salt Lake City and California, and believed Las Vegas served as a good rest stop along the way. However, because of its remoteness and other factors, the Las Vegas mission failed after only three years.
Around that same time, Mormon colonists also settled in Callville on the Colorado River as well as along the Muddy and Virgin Rivers, in areas, which seemed to have agricultural promise.
For the most part, these farming colonies were unsuccessful and, by 1870, most had been abandoned. In the late 1870s and 1880s, a second wave of Mormon settlers journeyed to Nevada to establish communities in Mesquite, Logandale and Bunkerville.
The latter, located about 90 miles east of Las Vegas via Interstate 15 and State Route 170, was one of the most unusual and unique of the colonies. Founded in January 1877, Bunkerville was originally settled by followers of the United Order of Enoch, an offshoot of the main Mormon church that espoused a communal lifestyle.
Town founder and namesake, Edward Bunker, settled on the south bank of the Virgin River with 27 relatives and friends, and set about to create a community in which residents would share equipment, property and work.
The colonists immediately set out to tame the Virgin River, attempting to build an earthen dam and irrigation canal. Within a few months, alfalfa, corn, cotton, grapes and vegetables had been planted.
A flash flood destroyed the dam in August 1877 but it was rebuilt in time to save that year's crops.
Life in early Bunkerville was difficult. The river refused to stay controlled, the soil was alkaline, the water was awful and there was dissension among the colonists over the division of labor and crops.
By 1881, the United Order was abandoned and the land was parceled to individual families. Farming proved viable, despite the hardships, and the area developed into a reasonably productive agricultural district, which it remains to this day.
In addition to the difficulties in developing an agricultural base, other problems cropped up because many of Bunkerville's founders were polygamists, which was acceptable in the Mormon religion but illegal.
During the early years, town fathers were frequently forced to hide from federal marshals, who would periodically raid the town looking for offenders. Things finally quieted down after 1890, when church president Wilford Woodruff banned the practice of multiple wives.
Over the years, more substantial homes were built in Bunkerville. Perhaps the most impressive is the two-story red brick Edward Bunker house. Still standing, the home boasts a two large porches, a pair of fireplaces and fine classic frontier architectural lines.
Driving through Bunkerville, you can find other glimpses into the hamlet's past. Just south of the Bunker home (the largest house in the historic district) is an abandoned (but apparently maintained) one-story brick Victorian home.
Adjacent, you can find the remains of a smaller stone house, while down the street are other historic homes. A pioneer cemetery at the edge of town contains monuments to the town's founders, including Edward Bunker.
State Route 170 is a loop road that runs parallel to I-15 for about 12 miles, between Mesquite and Exit #112. This is a pleasant short drive that runs next to the Virgin River (which still looks pretty brackish) and neat rows of crops. Additionally, the area is home to a number of small dairy farms.
For more information about Bunkerville, contact the Virgin Valley Heritage Museum in nearby Mesquite, 702-346-5705.