The legacy of an infamous 1953 raid on a polygamous enclave.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
April 16 2008 1:15 PM

Short Creek's Long Legacy

How a failed 1953 raid shaped the relationship between polygamists and the government.

Also in Slate: Read a "Juicy Bits" on Escape, the recent memoir by a sixth-generation polygamist who describes her life at the Yearning for Zion Ranch. An "Explainer" determines how the FLDS maintained a male-female ratio that allowed men to have three wives.

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Because the political backlash to the raid had been so strong—Arizona's governor, who had pushed for the raid, was voted out of office the following year—both Arizona and Utah retreated from their prosecution of the fundamentalists, even though polygamy remained illegal. In the détente, the fundamentalists flourished, and the community at Short Creek doubled its population each decade. By 2000, more than 5,000 fundamentalists resided in the twin towns Short Creek had grown into—Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah. (Observers estimate the FLDS Church has more than 10,000 members scattered throughout the West.)

But as more time passed since the Short Creek raid, the fundamentalists began taking jobs outside their community and interacting more with the world around them. It was this decreasing separatism that Warren Jeffs sought to curb by moving some of the residents of Colorado City and Hildale to the Texas compound. Jeffs, who had succeeded his deceased father as leader and prophet of the FLDS Church in 2002, claimed direct lineage from both Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith, and he took more than 70 women as wives, many of whom had been his father's spouses, too. Jeffs' sense of his own power was immense, and he commanded absolute obedience from his community. In building the ranch compound in Texas, Jeffs hoped to prepare a perfect place where God's chosen could wait for His imminent return—the compound's name is Yearning for Zion—and he gloried in his status as God's leader on earth. "It was almost as if he thought he was invincible," Martha Bradley notes. "It was exactly how Joseph Smith acted in the last year of his life."

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That hubris would eventually spell disaster. As Jeffs began work on the compound in Texas, he also challenged the relatively laissez-faire approach the Utah and Arizona state powers took to the FLDS community with a series of acts that outraged government officials. Jeffs ordered the fundamentalists to remove all their children from the public school system. And charges of sexual abuse among the fundamentalists became public when some of Jeffs' nephews filed a lawsuit claiming he had sodomized them during their childhoods. Other women and men who had left the FLDS Church testified that Jeffs oversaw all marriages in the community and frequently forced underage girls to marry older men. Authorities could no longer turn a blind eye to the community that had grown out of Short Creek.

Jeffs went into hiding after the FBI placed him on its 10 Most Wanted List, but his presence was always felt in Colorado City/Hildale and in Eldorado. Texas officials, free of the legacy that had curtailed Arizona and Utah officials, watched the YFZ ranch closely, probably mindful of their state's own difficult history with a previous separatist sect community—the Branch Davidians, who had established a settlement near Waco more than a decade earlier. When a 16-year-old girl reported sexual abuse at the YFZ ranch via a cell-phone call earlier this month, state troopers rushed into the compound and removed 416 children accompanied by more than 100 women. After most of those women were separated from their children this week, they appeared on Web videos pleading for compassion—perhaps hoping to appeal to the same public sentiment that led to the Short Creek backlash.

State officials in Texas have justified their actions as protecting children from widespread physical and sexual abuse rather than as an interference in nontraditional religious practices. But this separation of polygamy from child abuse confounds some observers, like Martha Bradley. "Why isn't it about polygamy?" Bradley asks. "Because that's the condition that leads to these problems of child abuse. That really is the issue."

Neil J. Young is a writer and historian in New York. He teaches at Princeton.