Polygamy: Throughout its history, Colorado City has been home for those who believe in virtues of plural marriage
Median age of Colorado City residents is 12 1/2, youngest in Arizona. (Ryan Galbraith/The Salt Lake Tribune)
BY TOM ZOELLNER
THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE
COLORADO CITY, Ariz. -- Drenched in prophecy and shrouded in secrecy, this fast-growing theocratic town has been a rock in Utah's shoe for more than six decades.
The LDS Church has excommunicated and scorned its residents. Government officials tried three times to arrest its leaders and wipe it off the map. Internal divisions have torn the town's dominant polygamist church into bitter factions.
Through it all, for more than 63 years, these self-described ``fundamentalist Mormons'' have clung stubbornly to their belief that keeping multiple wives will give them entrance into the highest levels of heaven.
Their faith is deeply rooted in the Mormon experience, and the story of Colorado City goes back to Utah's earliest days.
Less than a decade after the Mormon pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, Brigham Young was traveling by wagon from St. George to Pipe Springs in the far southern territories of Deseret.
Struck by the rugged beauty of the vermillion cliffs, he ordered his driver to stop. What he said next is regarded as prophecy by the latter-day polygamists -- an utterance on the level of ``this is the right place.''
``This will someday be the head and not the tail of the church,'' Young said. ``These will be the granaries of the Saints.''
Someday seemed a long day away. The soil was thin and sterile and the water was salty. The Indians were unfriendly to the hapless settlers, who struggled to raise even sustenance crops.
Church leaders sent John D. Lee to this outback in 1871 to keep him away from federal authorities, who wanted to hang him for his role in inciting the slaughter of an Arkansas wagon train at Mountain Meadow. Lee took two of his wives to the mouth of the Paria River and ran a ferryboat for a few months before moving south to Arizona. He was finally executed by firing squad in 1877, but the tiny settlement of Lee's Ferry survived.
Surrounded as it was by sandstone walls and a far radius of desert, Lee's Ferry and the rest of the Arizona Strip became a hiding place for those who continued to practice polygamy long after the LDS Church -- under tremendous pressure from Congress and the courts -- formally disavowed multiple marriages in 1890 and strengthened the ban in 1904.
The Arizona Strip polygamists believed that church President John Taylor, staying at a house in Centerville in the summer of 1886, had an all-night conversation about plural marriage with God and the martyred prophet Joseph Smith.
``Have I not given my word in great plainness on this subject?'' God supposedly told Taylor, who then set a small group of men apart, charging them with keeping ``The Principle'' alive in secret. They claimed to be a subterranean wing of the church, never publicly acknowledged, but vital to God's plan all the same.
The town of Short Creek -- which would later come to be called Colorado City -- was founded in 1913 by a monogamous cattle rancher named Jacob Lauritzen. It became the home for a group of the Lee's Ferry polygamists who were excommunicated from the LDS Church in 1935 after they refused to sign
a ``loyalty oath'' renouncing polygamy.
Some of the men of Short Creek had to come to Salt Lake City to find work during the Great Depression. A radio manufacturer named Nathanial Baldwin was sympathetic to their belief in plural marriage and hired several polygamists to work in his Salt Lake City assembly plant.
It was in the Baldwin factory that the Short Creek polygamists met several of the members of the future Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headed by John Y. Barlow, and his associate, magazine editor Joseph White Musser.
The FLDS Church decided Short Creek was sufficiently far from civilization to be an ideal homeland for believers of the true gospel. The Grand Canyon and a hundred miles of desert separated it from the Mohave County Sheriff at Kingman.
It was said that the Salt Lake polygamists saw a strategic advantage in Short Creek's stateline setting. Residents trying to avoid lawmen on either side of the border could slip easily out of their jurisdiction.
This would later give rise to apocryphal stories about polygamist houses built on wheels to be rolled back and forth between Utah and Arizona, depending on which county's sheriffs were on the prowl.
A young convert named Leroy Johnson, who would later become prophet of the FLDS Church, remarked about Short Creek: ``The evil powers tried to destroy that which God had set up, but before he allowed this condition to transpire, he provided an escape for this revelation to continue.''
The new church bought a red pickup truck and ferried men and their wives to the desert town, which it called The First City of the Millennium. It also set up a ``charitable philanthropic trust'' called the United Effort Plan to hold all the land in common.
Short Creek became an immediate challenge to its neighbors, not just because of its polygamy, but also because of the burden all the wives and children placed on the welfare system in Mohave County. ``Relief authorities, receiving blanks which listed one father as the head of three or four families, began to scratch their heads,'' wrote historian Wallace Stegner.
The Mohave County attorney and the sheriff pressed charges against two of the leading polygamists, who served two years in the penitentiary. The FBI raided the town again in 1944, and 15 men went to the Sugar House prison in Salt Lake City. Nine later won release by signing a ``manifesto'' pledging to forever renounce the teaching or practice of plural marriage. Most returned to Short Creek and immediately broke their promise to the government.
The welfare problem did not go away. Jesse Faulkner, a superior-court judge in Kingman, complained to officials in Phoenix about the ``taxpayer emergency'' the polygamists were causing by demanding new school facilities without paying property taxes. Cattlemen in the area also were upset at paying grazing fees allegedly used for polygamist schools, according to historian Richard Van Wagoner.
Arizona Gov. Howard Pyle responded by hiring a private detective agency from Los Angeles to snoop around the community, looking for abuses of taxpayer money. The detectives reportedly posed as Hollywood scouts looking for a good location for a Western movie and took photographs of every resident.
Pyle then sneaked a $50,000 appropriation through the legislature under the label of ``grasshopper control,'' to pay for a massive police raid on the town.
At 4 a.m. on July 26, 1953 -- two days after Mormons all over Utah celebrated Pioneer Day -- a caravan of highway patrolmen, social-service workers, deputy sheriffs, photographers and journalists rolled into Short Creek to find most of the town standing in front of the schoolhouse singing hymns. They hoisted the American flag up the flagpole as the raiders drew near, and started into ``God Bless America.''
Pyle, meanwhile, sat in front of a microphone at a Phoenix radio station and brought official news of the raid to the rest of the state. ``Here is a community . . . unalterably dedicated to the wicked theory that every maturing girl child should be forced into the bondage of multiple wifehood with men of all ages for the sole purpose of producing more children to be reared to become mere chattels of this totally lawless enterprise,'' he said.
The husbands of Short Creek were taken almost immediately to the Mohave County Jail at Kingman, while the women and children stayed behind. It took Arizona social workers nearly a week to sort out the interwoven family lines and figure out which children belonged to which parents.
The LDS Church-owned Deseret News was almost alone among newspapers in proclaiming support for the raid. The rest of the nation, meanwhile, saw newsreel images of children being separated from their mothers, and criticism came heaping down on Pyle from almost every quarter. The raid was viewed as a politician's grab for headlines at the expense of innocent families. Pyle would later lament that ``Operation Seagull'' helped finish him in politics.
Twenty-three Short Creek men were sentenced to a year's probation for conspiracy. But the negative publicity generated by the 1953 raid ushered in a new era of peace for Short Creek and a general relaxation of polygamy enforcement across the West. The FLDS Church changed Short Creek's name to Colorado City on the Arizona side and Hildale on the Utah side to avoid unpleasant associations with the raid.