The Midnight Raid on Short Creek and My Genealogy. Part I.

In the early part of the 20th century, the Arizona State Attorney staged a midnight raid on a religious community in Short Creek.  They practiced polygamy.  And the state government wanted to end, once and for all, the financial drain on public education and health care for children of these non-tax payers who defied United States Law by having more than one wife.

Short Creek was located in northern Arizona, but the only access by road was through Utah.  The state authorities planned the top-secret raid well:  Soup kitchens to feed the families.  Busses to transport everyone comfortably to Phoenix.  Ambulances, field hospitals, and trained medical personnel for emergencies.  Law enforcement officers with paddy wagons to secure the men who they believed were the real culprits.

Hundreds of vehicles–unannounced–drove from Phoenix north to the AZ-UT border on a clear day–arriving on the silent desert as the moon was rising in the eastern sky.

Miles upon miles of vehicles traveling in single file with their headlights snaking a white, and glistening trail across the moon-lit sands.

By the time this expensive, but wondrous entourage arrived in Short Creek, there was not a man under 65 to be found anywhere.   They had plenty of time to flee.  As dawn broke, only women and children and elderly patriarchs inhabited the town.

Professional and volunteer workers loaded the frightened kids and their mothers into the busses and they began their long ride to Phoenix.  Hundreds of children, elderly grandfathers, and scared mothers rode in style.

By the time they reached Phoenix, several days later, the Attorney General and his government personnel were beginning to wonder if they had lost their reason–how would they feed and care for these wards of the state.  The shelters arranged before they left would be inadequate to house so large a group.  The food purchased with tax dollars was almost gone.  Already demands on the medical supplies had taken a heavy toll.  Would the Governor and the Legislature appropriate additional aid?

After several weeks, the decision was made to load everyone back onto the busses and return them to Short Creek.  The women, under U.S. law did not have to testify against their men.  The patriarchs refused to talk.  The children knew nothing–sometimes not even the names of their own parents.

The really sad element in all of this was the desperate poverty of the community.  Many families lived in old abandoned cars and farm vehicles.  Their food was what they could raise in the desert or purchased in Phoenix and trucked in by relatives.  The money spent on the ambulances, soup kitchens, field hospitals, fuel for all those vehicles from Phoenix and back, and the salaries plus overtime  for the well-meaning government personnel–if it had been given to the Short Creek Community,  could have provided some comfort for those terrified people over a whole year.

How Does this Sad Tale Relate to My Genealogy?

When I first learned about this story, I remember how real sorrow washed over me as I examined the plight of those scared mothers and their children.  Have you ever been on the desert?  Warm during the day time, with the temperature dropping sometimes 60 degrees at night.  So that it takes every piece of clothing in your suitcase just to keep warm.

When I first studied this event in college, I didn’t know that I had cousins who lived and died in Short Creek.  With multiple families to provide for–dependent upon what they could earn in Phoenix and Mesa.

I had no idea some of my own family members inhabited old vehicles. And struggled to get enough food to feed each family member.

How I discovered these facts–is a part of my own family history–that I will relate in Part II.  It’s actually a fascinating and sometimes hilarious tale.  At least it would be if it weren’t so pathetic.

Here, let’s consider the contrast with the story taking place near San Angelo TX.  More prosperous to be sure, than pre-Depression Arizona.  With better housing.  Adequate food.  And wide-spread publicity following a successful raid on a religious community who practice unlawful polygamy.  Bussing 416 terrified children, some with their worried mothers, to the nearby West-Texas town of San Angelo.
Well-meaning state and local authorities, diligently trying to safe-guard the children from abuse.  Volunteers, with compassion and sympathy, working to provide legal aid.  And Justice.  The American Way!

A no-win situation:

But it is a no-win situation for any of them.  When the Utah State Attorney General was questioned by the media, as to the possibility of enforcing the the law in Utah, he was quoted as saying, “Where Texas has hundreds, Utah has thousands of children.  The cost to provide for them and their mothers would be staggering.  There is no way we could sustain it.”

That is one of the factors that defeated the Arizona raid–the staggering cost of custodial care for the mothers and their children at tax-payers’ expense.  The problem then was illegal marriage.  Polygamy is almost impossible to prove–for a man can not be physically caught in two places at once.  And their women could not testify against them.  Most convictions came from perjury–lying under oath.  The men were soon released to relieve the government of the care of their families.

In Texas the charge is child abuse.  With the legal requirement to investigate and question all the parties–even the children.  And the appointment of separate (and currently volunteer) attorneys for each of the 416 children.  What a morass this well-meaning army must confront.

Whatever point of view we personally carry, practical matters, in 21st century Texas as in 20th century Arizona, will determine the outcome of this episode of family history.  Your favorite genealogist, Arlene Eakle.

PS  Tune in–you won’t want to miss a single word!  I used my own tale at a State Genealogical Conference, and received a standing ovation.  Funny thing, I had prepared a different talk for that event.  That evening, as I walked through the Lounge, an attendee stopped me to ask a question.  In the course of our conversation, I mentioned that I would be speaking at dinner and I wasn’t really happy with the topic I had prepared.  He said, “What I would like to hear is the story of how you live in Utah with such a large sub-culture in almost every community.”

I told him a bit of the story–“That’s what we want to hear!  The real story.” And that’s what I shared.  Stay tuned!

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One Response to The Midnight Raid on Short Creek and My Genealogy. Part I.

  1. Oxa says:

    Distorting facts to support your personal opinion may be good for a sensationalist blog or presentation, but doesn’t qualify as good history, or good genealogy, for that matter. The Short Creek Raid occurred in 1953, hardly “the early years of the twentieth century.” Ending “the financial drain on public education and health care” was but one reason for the raid, and a superficial one at that. It was obvious, after all, that placing children in the care of the state would cost more than leaving them where they were. The gain to be made by politicians was probably a greater factor in the decision to execute that raid. At the time, Arizona Governor Howard Pyle had presidential aspirations and thought this would provide positive publicity. Moreover, the Mormon church pressured state authorities to prosecute the polygamists in order to distance themselves from the sect, thus putting themselves in a more favorable light. The fact that the citizenry of Arizona found polygamy repugnant to their basic Judeo-Christian values must also be taken into account. [1]

    “Miles upon miles of vehicles” is just one example of the hyperbole to be found in this piece. Fewer than 400 people were removed from Short Creek, about 10 busloads. Even with the vehicles of law enforcement officials and reporters, that wouldn’t amount to “miles upon miles of vehicles.” Moreover, the assertion that mothers and children “rode in style” on school busses is laughable.

    “After several weeks, the decision was made to load everyone back onto the busses and return them to Short Creek.” You seem to have conveniently forgotten the part where 23 polygamists were prosecuted and found guilty.

    Your knowledge of the law, as demonstrated by this piece, seems limited. “Polygamy is almost impossible to prove–for a man can not be physically caught in two places at once.” That, of course, is not the only, or even the primary, way of demonstrating polygamy. For one thing, the knowledge and analysis of DNA has come a long way since 1953. “And their women could not testify against them.” But, of course, they can, since most are not legally married.

    A major distinction between Short Creek and the Yearning for Zion ranch is that the youngest brides at Short Creek were found to be 19, not 16 and under, and no child at Short Creek begged the authorities to free her from the abusive situation she was in. Secondly, poverty is not an issue at YFZ, as demonstrated by their striking temple and modern, well-furnished homes.

    No one is denying that the removal has been difficult for mothers and children. The removal of children from their families, no matter how abusive the situation is, is *always* hard on the children. No one is denying that this action has been costly to the state. But the cost of action or the legal confusion it may cause are hardly reasons to allow the rampant abuse of both children and their mothers. Yes, the “well-meaning state and local authorities [are] diligently trying to safe-guard the children from abuse,” and rightfully so. Protecting children is never a no-win situation.

    For the record, I don’t care one whit if adults choose to live a polygamous life style, but when children are forced, coerced, or brainwashed into accepting and participating in abusive relationships, that’s totally unacceptable and not to be tolerated by a moral society. No amount of rationalization can justify allowing those children to remain at YFZ.

    [1] Bradley, Martha Sonntag. _Kidnapped From That Land: The Government Raids on the Short Creek Polygamists_. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1993.

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