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.
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."
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.
Photograph on Slate's home page of FLDS members by Keith Johnson/Deseret Morning News/Getty Images.