United States History: Mormon Polygamists in Mexico Part 1

About the Mormon Church in United States history and the polygamists who fled to Mexico to retain their rights to plural marraiges.

Mormon Polygamists in Mexico

The Mormons-members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints-had either fled or been violently expelled from New York State, Missouri, Ohio and Illinois. But once they had made the incredibly difficult traverse from eastern Nebraska to the Great Salt Lake, they thought themselves safe. Not so. Congress passed 3 laws forbidding polygamy, a practice which was sacred to the Mormons, though only a small percentage of them could afford to indulge in it.

The 1st 2 laws, the Morrill Act of 1862 and the Poland Bill of 1874 were not very strong; in general, they left enforcement and punishment to local officers and juries, which meant, in effect, that Mormons judged other Mormons for being good Mormons. But the 1882 Edmunds Act had gnawing, tearing teeth. For every day that a Mormon man cohabited with more than one wife, he could be imprisoned for 5 years and fined $500.

The Edmunds Act was probably unconstitutional, interfering as it did with the right to worship guaranteed by the 1st Amendment, but the times were Victorian, and Utah-the Mormons called it Deseret-was not a State. Nor were the other western territories as yet except for Nevada, where the Mormon population was also large enough to merit political consideration. Every State has 2 senators, and the loss of 2 votes in the Senate is important to politicians today. When the Senate was 3/4 its present size, those 2 votes mattered even more.

Since 1875, Mormon missionaries had been considering the possibility of seeking freedom from persecution by moving to Mexico. As harassment grew worse, Church leaders studied the reports on Mexico with mounting interest, and finally in March, 1885, 25 families headed south for the Border. The following months the number swelled, until 350 Saints were camped south of the Border while their leaders negotiated to buy Mexican land. Finally about 150,000 acres in the Piedras Verdes Valley, a little more than 100 mi. south of Columbus, N. Mex., were turned over to the Mormons and they had their new home.

Many of the Mexican-based Saints thought that some day their colonias would become the true center of the whole Church, and toward this end they began to work their valley with vigor. And how they worked! They not only tilled and tended fields, built dams for irrigation, tanned leather for shoes, but they produced kiln-hardened brick so they could have the sort of houses they were used to-narrow 2-story-plus-attic affairs like the ones that gave the Mormon towns in Arizona and New Mexico a New England look. Not for them the simple, single-story adobe structures of northern Mexico and the southwestern U.S.; there was something immoral, perhaps, in living in a house whose bricks were merely sunbaked.

An error in surveying forced the Mormons to abandon their 1st towns and move to rockier and steeper country. They went through the whole process all over again, this time adding a flour mill. Now they shipped flour and lumber and saddles and boots to the Border for cash sale.

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