Short Creek's Long Legacy
How a failed 1953 raid shaped the relationship between polygamists and the government.
Earlier this month, when Texas authorities entered the compound of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints near Eldorado, the men, women, and children of the ranch surely thought of a similar raid conducted on their predecessors more than half a century earlier. In 1953, Arizona law-enforcement officials descended on the Short Creek community on the Arizona-Utah border and took nearly 400 Mormon fundamentalists, including 236 children, into custody. The raid on Short Creek backfired, however, by arousing public sympathy for the polygamists, and it shaped the ensuing relationship between state powers and polygamous communities for the next 50 years. But this legacy also ultimately helped lead to the recent events in Eldorado.
Though the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints banned polygamy in 1890, plural marriage remained a way of life for many church members and leaders for several more decades. By the 1930s, however, Mormon officials began to excommunicate those who refused to abide by orders to enter only monogamous marriages. Polygamists—or fundamentalist Mormons, as they came to be called—insisted the church had strayed from Joseph Smith's most important teaching about the path to salvation. Many of them, vowing to preserve the practice of plural marriage, gathered in Short Creek, Ariz., an isolated town north of the Grand Canyon where other polygamists had begun to settle in 1928. The residents hoped to separate themselves from the world and live out their holy experiment.
Both church and state, however, refused to forget the polygamists at Short Creek. The Mormon Church, still struggling with its own relationship to plural marriage, pressured Utah and Arizona authorities to prosecute the fundamentalists' flouting of state laws. (A small part of the Short Creek community sat on the Utah side of the border.) Small raids in 1935 and 1944 resulted in a handful of arrests, but nothing would compare to the raid of 1953.
In the middle of the night of July 26, 1953, Arizona officials and state police swooped in to arrest the entire town. Government leaders claimed they were acting on behalf of the state's taxpayers. Area residents, resentful of the increase in school taxes connected to the abundance of fundamentalist children, had pressured the Arizona government to do something about the polygamists. The county welfare department was also struggling to support the large number of "single" women who applied for assistance for their dependent children. But Martha Sonntag Bradley, a professor at the University of Utah and the author of Kidnapped From That Land, a book about the Short Creek raid, contends this was all a smoke screen for the government's real desire to stamp out polygamy. "The real problem," Bradley says, "was the way this lifestyle was offensive to the far more basic Judeo-Christian values of the area."
Short Creek had become a ghost town. Thirty-six men were arrested, while 86 women and 263 children were taken into state custody and distributed to small towns throughout the state in an attempt to destroy the polygamous community. (Only a few nonpolygamists avoided arrest.) Newspapers excoriated Arizona for the raid, seeing in it—against the backdrop of the growing Red Scare—the threat of a totalitarian state's power over individual rights. And Americans, sensitive to the images of sobbing children being torn from their parents' arms, defended the fundamentalists' right to practice their religion and to raise their families as they saw fit. Only the Mormon Church seemed to endorse Arizona's actions against the polygamists at Short Creek.
Two years later, nearly all of the men, women, and children had returned to their town—and the already largely separatist fundamentalists further withdrew from the world, taking with them the lessons of the raid. The raid became a community reference point, underscoring the evil intentions of the outside world and the need to remain cut off from its influences. FLDS Church leaders used the raid as an excuse to tighten restrictions on clothing and hairstyles, ex-polygamist Carolyn Jessop writes in her memoir, Escape. Lest future generations forget, the Short Creek raid became a standard feature in community sermons and in the textbooks fundamentalist children studied.
Neil J. Young is a writer and historian in New York. He teaches at Princeton.
Photograph on Slate's home page of FLDS members by Keith Johnson/Deseret Morning News/Getty Images.