Finding Refuge in El Paso (Chapter 1 Excerpt)

ALTHOUGH THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF Latter-day Saints was established in and grew out of firmly American soil, its branches were destined to reach into countries flung far outside of the United States. These Mormon colonists were a mix of European converts, mostly from the British Isles and Scandinavia, as well as Americans who emigrated from the eastern and southern United States. Each of these groups had experience with immigrating and emigrating prior to their migration south to Mexico.1 Mexico early on felt the influence of the Latter-day Saint religion. The first Mormons to leave footprints on Mexican soil were members of the Mormon Battalion, who passed through Mexican territory on their journey to California. Later, as Church members emigrated en masse from Nauvoo, Illinois, to escape crushing persecution, they established a new home in the Great Salt Lake Valley, which at that time lay within Mexican territory.

This story, however, follows a group of Mormons mainly from Utah and Arizona who entered Mexico in the late nineteenth century in answer to a call from their church leaders. With their celebrated Mormon industry, the Saints tamed the barren wilderness in the northern part of the country. Then, in the midst of military revolution just decades later, the colonists abandoned their beautiful homes and flourishing towns.2 They had come in part to Mexico to seek religious tolerance, being forced from the United States because they were Mormon polygamists. When they were driven from Mexico, however, it was because they were Americans.


Polygamy as a Mormon doctrine was first publicly announced in 1852.3 Four years later, this practice drew heavy national attention when Utah applied for statehood. That same year the Republican Party announced its official stance against what they termed the “twin relics of barbarism”: slavery and polygamy. The Morrill Anti-Bigamy Law, signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, was the first law passed by Congress to punish polygamists; it allowed for transgressors to be fined up to five hundred dollars and imprisoned for up to five years. Fortunately for the Latter-day Saints, the law was not enforced at the time of its passage, thanks to the nation’s preoccupation with the Civil War. President Lincoln viewed Mormonism much as he did the burdensome tree stumps he encountered in fields as a farm boy: “It was too heavy to move, too hard to chop, and too green to burn”; therefore, Lincoln said, “We just plowed around it.”

As the controversy surrounding slavery softened at the conclusion of the war, some politicians renewed their attack on polygamy. Yet the crusade against plural marriage was mostly fruitless until the Edmunds- Tucker Act passed in 1882. As an amendment to strengthen the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Law, the Edmunds Act barred polygamists from voting,


holding public office, and participating in jury duty. The act also declared “unlawful cohabitation” to be a misdemeanor and made it unnecessary for Utah territorial authorities to obtain proof of a plural marriage before prosecuting suspected polygamists. This concession was deemed necessary because records of plural marriages were inaccessible to non-Mormons, and therefore, polygamy previously could not be proved and prosecuted. Under the Edmunds Act, Mormon men found living with, supporting, or caring for more than one woman could be charged with unlawful cohabitation. Five years later, the Edmunds-Tucker Act was signed, further stiffening the penalties and causing both the Church and the Perpetual Emigrating Fund to be disincorporated.

More than thirteen hundred polygamous Mormon men served prison sentences, most for unlawful cohabitation, in pentitentiaries in Utah, Michigan, South Dakota, Arizona, and Idaho. Others were forced to abandon their families and go into hiding on the “underground,” as it was called, and they simply outfoxed or outran the law.


As persecution in the United States intensified, Church leaders began to consider expanding colonization efforts into foreign nations. But relief from persecution was just one of several reasons the Saints began looking to expand outside the nation’s borders. Missionary work was another important motive. Several months before his death, Church President Brigham Young spoke of a need to both strengthen the Mormon stronghold in Utah and expand proselytizing efforts elsewhere: “We intend to hold our own here and also penetrate the north and the south, the east and the west, . . . and to raise the ensign of truth.”

A Latter-day Saint colony in Mexico had been an objective of Young since at least 1874, after his secretary, George Reynolds, was sentenced to prison for unlawful cohabitation. That summer, Young directed that passages of the Book of Mormon be translated into Spanish in anticipation of missionaries entering Mexico.10 In the fall of 1875, the first Mormon missionaries left for Mexico and commenced a ten-month journey that would take them a distance of three thousand miles.11 One of these missionaries, Anthony W. Ivins, would later play a pivotal role in the Saints’ colonization of and eventual evacuation from Mexico. The purpose of the mission was twofold. First, the men were to preach the restored gospel to the natives of Mexico. One of the missionaries, Daniel Jones, reported that President Young had told the elders that “the time had come to prepare for the introduction of the gospel into Mexico; that there were millions of the descendants of Nephi in the land, and that we were under obligations to visit them.”

Second, the missionaries were to scout locations for possible Mormon settlements. Apostle Orson Pratt charged the missionaries to “look out for places where our brethren could go and be safe from harm in the event that persecutions should make it necessary for them to get out of the way for a season.”13 The missionaries were to keep a careful record of their travels and report on any potentially suitable settlement locations.14 These missionaries traveled as far south as Chihuahua, Mexico, and returned to Utah with a report in July 1876. President Young also sent Daniel Jones and later Apostles Moses Thatcher and Erastus Snow to northern Mexico to look for places to colonize,15 though nothing came of either expedition; President Young died before ever seeing the Saints colonize Mexico.

Then, in late 1884, intensifying persecution against the Saints in Arizona for their plural marriage practices caused President John Taylor, Young’s successor, to counsel the Saints there to flee to Mexico if conditions became unbearable.16 At the same time, President Taylor continued to remind Church members of the vision of Church founder Joseph Smith that Zion would occupy all of North and South America.

Thus the Saints’ move across the southern border was motivated in part by a desire to perform missionary work and colonization; however, according to Anthony Ivins, “The condition of marriage existing among the Latter-day Saints was the main factor in bringing the Saints to Mexico.”

Conveniently, the Saints’ desire to move into Mexico fit perfectly with the agenda of many officials in the country. Mexican liberals, particularly, believed that Mexico’s greatest unexploited asset was its vast tracts of land, and they were eager for laborers who could develop and improve it, even if this meant bringing in foreigners to do the work.19 Consequently, the Mexican government actively enticed foreigners to immigrate and colonize.20 One politician, José María Romero, even went so far as to assert that “the current of European immigration is [a] river of gold that brings wealth and power.”

Even Porfirio Díaz, the president of Mexico, personally encouraged the Mormons to settle in his country, although, strictly speaking, polygamy was illegal in Mexico. In Díaz’s opinion, the development of the soil and the much-needed Mormon industry outweighed any legal technicalities. At times Díaz even implied to the Mormons that plural marriage was tolerable: he reportedly told Church leaders, “It does not matter in Mexico whether you drive your horses tandem or four abreast.”23 President John Taylor reported that “President Porfirio Díaz assured the church there were no laws against polygamy” in his country.24


At the dawn of 1885, President Taylor decided that the core of the southern gathering place would be in the Casas Grandes area in the state of Chihuahua.25 And so the gathering began, with Mormon colonists entering Mexico in early 1885. In January 1886, the Church purchased thousands of acres of land in the states of Sonora and Chihuahua.26 Between 1885 and 1906, nine major Mormon colonies were founded in the two northern Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora. In Chihuahua, Colonia Díaz was established along the Piedras Verdes River, just twenty miles from the international border. Farther south but also bordering the river were Colonia Dublán, Colonia Juárez, Colonia Pacheco, and Colonia García. Colonia Chuichupa lay farthest south, about one hundred eighty miles from the border. In the state of Sonora to the west, Colonia Morelos, Colonia Oaxaca, and San Jose were established along the Bavispe River.27 The colonists converged to build up these settlements on wild and untamed land; but the Latterday Saints had caused the Salt Lake Valley and other inhospitable areas to blossom as a rose, and it seemed that if any people could do the same in northern Mexico, it was the Mormons. Many of the settlers were accustomed to moving from place to place. Colonist Isaac Turley, for example, had moved with his family from Canada to the United States, then relocated to Missouri, Illinois, and then to Utah with the Saints. After settling in Utah, Turley helped colonize San Bernardino, California; Washington, Minersville, and Beaver, Utah; and settlements along the Little Colorado River, in Arizona.28

Their first year in Mexico, the colonists faced a sweeping variety of challenges, including water and food shortages, lack of sturdy cloth- ing, and insufficient shelter. A cemetery had to be established quickly in Colonia Juárez as a smallpox epidemic rolled through the population.29 But despite these hardships, the Saints began making headway in the empty desert.

Colonists’ homes were initially rough but were soon replaced by adobe and then brick dwellings, with furnishings mostly imported from the United States. Other buildings sprang up in the colonies— churches, tithing houses, schools, and even a beautiful Relief Society building. At least one building, the Juarez Academy in Colonia Juárez, built in 1897, is still in use today. The Academy was the center not only of education in the region, but also of cultural refinement in the areas of music, drama, and athletic programs.30 Gristmills, sawmills, mercantiles, and even a candy factory helped support the growing population, while saloons were outlawed.31 Canals and irrigation ditches, carved into the vast empty territory,32 soon gave way to orchards, fields, and cattle pastures. The Juarez Cooperative Mercantile Institution, based on the model of Salt Lake City’s Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI), was established in 1889. It was “the only institution in the nation [of Mexico] so organized and said to be the first of its kind attempted by Americans in a foreign country.”33 Patrons traveled to the store from all over Chihuahua and Sonora.

Interestingly, when the Saints had first begun settling in Mexico, their situation took a sudden turn. With seemingly no provocation, the Secretary of the State of Chihuahua issued a letter to the Mormons, stating, “I hereby command you, together with other families which you represent, to leave the state within the period of 16 days from this date, April 9, 1885.” It appeared the colonies would have to be abandoned before they were even fully established. However,

Mormon leaders acted quickly in response to the expulsion order, traveling to Chihuahua City to request an annulment of the declaration.34 The situation had still not been settled a month later, so Latter- day Saint Apostles Brigham Young Jr. and Moses Thatcher traveled to Mexico City to put an end to the matter. There they met with President Porfirio Díaz, who not only overruled the state’s decision but also informed the Apostles “that the Mormons were not only welcome as colonists in Mexico, but that the Government was anxious to have them help in the development of the country.”35 Díaz was quickly becoming the Mormons’ most powerful Mexican ally. He consistently made it clear that he wanted the Mormon colonists in Mexico, even stating, “When the Mormon people first came to Mexico, I felt impressed to receive them. I believed them to be industrious, moral, and progressive, and that they would greatly aid in the development and progress of the country.”36
With the sanction of Mexico’s president, the colonies continued to grow. Each was formed under its own political structure within the Mexican system. The president of each colony acted as town sheriff and administrator. The respective presidents, town councils, and other local officials acted under the authority of the larger Mexican municipalities. Though most did not become Mexican citizens,37 the colonists often celebrated Mexican holidays, including the country’s national holiday on September 16. During one such celebration in Colonia Juárez in 1896, a parade, including several floats— each featuring one of the town’s industries— preceded renditions of the Mexican National hymn and shouts of “Viva la independencia! Viva Mexico!” from the crowd.38

The colonists’ great material prosperity came at the expense of missionary efforts. Proselytizing took a backseat as the colonists worked to establish themselves in Mexico, although full-time missionaries preached elsewhere throughout the country. The Latter- day Saints believed that the Mexican natives were the blood of Israel, but cultural issues, including sensitivities regarding the practice of plural marriage, seem to have divided the colonists from their Mexican neighbors from the beginning. The colonists’ efforts, therefore, seem to have focused more on supporting their American families who had sought refuge in the colonies than on bringing additional sheep into the fold. In fact, historical evidence reveals that although friendly relationships existed with a number of local Mexican citizens, the Mormon colonists, as a general rule, did not go out of their way to socialize with their foreign neighbors. Agnes Scott Bluth of Colonia Juárez recalled, “We didn’t associate with the Mexican people. They didn’t want us to do that because they didn’t want [us] to intermarry. . . . We were not allowed, we didn’t go to their dances and we didn’t allow them at our dances. We didn’t mix with them socially.”39 According to Bishop W. Derby Johnson Jr. of Colonia Díaz, “Those who come to join us must have recommends. Parties in School House Mexicans must not be invited [n]or we go to their dances. . . . [We] keep our mouths shut.”40 That the assimilation was difficult in the colonies can be ascertained from a general conference address given by Elder Anthony W. Ivins after the twentieth century had already dawned: “We are surrounded by a strange people, with a strange language, with customs and manners entirely foreign and distinct from ours.”41

Yet within a few years, Mormon industry in the colonies was in full swing and was recognized by outsiders, with reports such as this from the Mexican Financial Review:

Hundreds of industrious Mormons have purchased lands and they have everywhere built neat and comfortable adobe cottages and windmills for raising water for home use as well as for irrigation. They have built and are building barns, and their vineyards and orchards are rapidly coming into bearing. In fact, they have changed this once wild and almost uninhabited region into comfortable and productive farms.42

By 1896, the Mexican government invited the Mormons to participate in a national fair in Mexico City. The government paid to ship specimens of Mormon industry to the fair, including leather goods, brooms, dairy, clothing, rugs, produce, and photographs of the thriving colonies. So great was the skepticism of fairgoers that the Mormons had accomplished so much in so little time that “an ambassador was therefore dispatched to the colonies to verify the authenticity of the pictures.”43 President Díaz, who personally examined the Mormons’ displays at the fair, reportedly praised the Saints for achieving fifty years’ worth of industry in a single decade.44

Praise for the colonies came from the United States as well. Charles W. Kindrich of the US State Department described Colonia Juárez with admiration in 1899: “The capital colony is a beautiful village comparable to any in New England. There is every evidence of thrift, cleanliness, industry, comfort, and good management. There is an absence of the vices common to modern communities. There are no saloons, tobacco shops, jails, nor houses of ill fame in the colony.”45