Finding Refuge in El Paso

BY FRED E. WOODS

Thousands of Latter-day Saints left their homes in Utah and Arizona in the late nineteenth century and settled in a region in northern Mexico that was said by locals to be “so dry even the lizards wore canteens.” This unexpected migration to Mexico was the result of laws passed in the United States that were intended to end the practice of plural marriage by requiring polygamous husbands to abandon all but one of their wives and families. That was a situation many Mormon families found unacceptable.

Persecution against Mormon polygamists had become so unpleasant by 1884 that President John Taylor counseled the Arizona Saints to go into Mexico if conditions became unbearable. In September of that year. Elder Erastus Snow told the Saints in St Johns, Arizona, that a move to Mexico had been “put upon me to do before President Young’s death. He felt to stretch out in this direction?

Brigham’s successor, John Taylor, also reminded Church members four months later in Snowflake, Arizona, of Joseph’s vision that Zion would occupy “all of North and South America?” Thus, moving across the border seemed to be both an opportunity to escape harassment and prosecution for polygamy and, in fulfillment of prophecy, to expand colonization efforts characterizing Mormon settlement in the West.

As 1885 dawned. President Taylor sent an exploring party to Chihuahua to look for possible sites in northern Mexico for the Mormons to colonize. Shortly thereafter. President Taylor decided that the core for this southern gathering place would be in the Casas Grandes area in the state of Chihuahua.

Joseph B. Romney noted that between 1885 and 1906 “nine major Mormon colonies were established in the two northernmost Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora.” The Mexican desert blossomed around the new Mormon colonies and the settlers enjoyed peace and prosperity for more than two decades until the brought sudden changes.

The Mexican Revolution was not a singular event with clearly defined beginning and ending dates. The Mexican government had evolved into a repressive and self-serving dictatorship that ignored the needs of the people and rewarded the wealthiest of its citizens. The common people were mired in poverty and hopelessness. These circumstances inevitably led to the rise of local leaders in opposition to the central government.

While they came from diverse backgrounds and often had conflicting philosophies, the rebel leaders easily raised volunteers to serve in their armies by promising political reform and economic improvement. Open rebellion began after the corrupt elections of 1910, and found fertile ground in northern Chihuahua state, which included most of the Mormon colonies. While relatively isolated geographically, the Mormon settlements were very visible for their prosperity. By early 1912 rebel bands had raided the Mormon communities several times, stealing guns, horses, cattle, and supplies.

A few Saints had been killed while defending their property. It was the rebel forced demand that the Mormons turn over all their weapons that ultimately led stake president Junius Romney to instruct the Saints to leave Mexico.

John Walser—a settler in Colonia Juarez—wrote in his journal in April 1912,

“My family are well, and we feel grateful to God for His great blessings, and protection over us. Colonia Juarez looks like a flower garden. The fruit trees all blossoming.”

However, in his next entry, recorded less than three months later, on July 28, Walser declared,

“We were compelled to deliver up our arms to the rebel forces, in consequence of this we sent our wives and children to El Paso.”

This same abrupt turn of events is attested to by seventeen-year-old , who seemed amazed by “how fast things were happening.” He wrote, “I had played violin in an orchestra for a dance in the Juarez Stake Academy celebrating the 24th of July”—and then notes that, within four days, the exodus by rail had already begun and that the Saints were already pouring into El Paso.

Hyrum Albert Cluff hints at the profound emotional shift accompanying these sudden changes in fortune:

“July twenty-fourth,” he writes, “we held a dance and had quite a good time. July twenty-eighth, we received word to leave our homes. We spent the twenty-ninth packing what few things we could take and cooking. We just walked out and closed the door and left everything.”

Departure to the Rail Stations and Train Travel North

 

The women, children, and men in the first wave of the forced exodus traveled from Mexico by rail, not by wagon or on horseback. The journey to El Paso was relatively brief and comfortable; it was the uprooting and the separation from home, family members, and community that was difficult and painful. Trains carrying the Mormons from Chihuahua departed from Casas Grandes and Pearson. These were commissioned trains departing at unusual hours—in the middle of the night, for example—to help the Mormon settlers avoid trouble and escape more easily. The first train left in the very early morning of July 28, 1912 and other trains followed through the first days of August.

 

Like Walser, Cluff, and others, also captured the abrupt nature of the sudden forced exodus by rail:

“The Bishop sent a runner over to our place to tell us to be ready to leave on the next train [departing from nearby Casas Grandes] that would take us to El Paso, Texas. We were to meet at 1:00 am at the store [or depot] where the train would take us on. We had to walk out of our home and leave everything we could not pack into two trunks—cows, horses, chickens, all our food and household things.”

remembered, “Each family was told to pack one trunk and make a roll of bedding in preparation to leave at a minutes notice.” Just before leaving with a group of Saints on the train she also recalled, “Bishop Thurber blessed his congregation and prayed Gods protection on them.”

remembered there were many revolutionists at the Casas Grandes depot who were riding on horses back and forth along the rail line. He also observed, “It was pretty ticklish the way everything was. We finally got loaded on the train and pulled out.”

Annie O’Donnal (wife of Frank O’Donnal) recalled that when she traveled out of the mountains from Garcia to the Pearson train depot, she tried to “keep the children quiet” Later she recalled that they said, “Let’s sing,” and, as the nervous and frightened adults were bidding farewell to their homes, the children began singing.

Charles E. McClellan declared,

“Words cannot fully describe all that it meant to these people to abandon their homes and all the cherished accumulations bought so dearly with toil and sacrifice through a quarter of a century.” To capture the emotion of this event, McClellan related the incident when his brother announced to their aged parents, “Mother, you and father have just thirty minutes in which to put into one small trunk the most valuable things you own—The wagon will call for you in thirty minutes to take you to the station.”

related that Church members in Chuichupa received word late one evening that the women and children were to be on the train the following day. “And so everybody was just as busy as could be all night long getting ready to go.” Camilla Eyring, seventeen years old at the time, recalled that it was necessary to leave “everything I ever owned.”

She further noted,

“Our family was in a third-dass car with long, hard benches … and baggage piled on top of one another. Buggies and wagons were left standing empty at the station. When passenger cars filled up, boxcars and even a few cattle cars were attached. We all suffered intensely [inside] the delayed train … in the stifling July heat.”

explained, “Suitcases, trunks and bedding were put in first and packed to a depth of four feet The people found seats as best they could on top of these.” She further noted that notwithstanding the difficult circumstances of their train travel, nine-year-old Earl Jones provided a touch of humor when he accidently “stepped into a five-gallon can of honey with a cloth tied over the top of it, and strung honey all over people, bedding and luggage.”

Robert Chestnut Beecroft remembered that, prior to the first rail departure, families were divided according to gender and age:

“We put our women and children on the train and sent them to El Paso. All men over fifty years of age, and boys under sixteen years, had to go with the women. All boys over sixteen had to stay with the men. So my son Nello stayed with me, as he had just turned sixteen August 11.”

In addition to the trial of leaving adult male family members and many possessions behind, with the exception of “a roll of bedding, a trunk of dothing and a basket of food,” great patience was also required due to the challenge of rail travel out of Mexico.

Willard Whipple, who was a young teen at the time of the exodus, remembered that “the train traveled so slowly that some of the youngsters jumped off and ran along side.” The reprieve for men and for boys over sixteen was short-lived. Soon after the women and children were put safely on the trains, the men decided that they too must exit and within weeks they traveled by horseback to Hachita, New Mexico, where they took a train to meet their families in El Paso. Other colonists from the Mexican state of Sonora would migrate directly to Arizona and other locations.

The departing Saints’ afflictions would increase when most of them later realized they would not return to their beloved homes in the colonies. As Edward Christian Eyring explained,

“At the time of leaving we had not the slightest idea we were malting a permanent move. The families going out on the train took only a few necessary articles to last for a couple of weeks when we expected we would return.” Yet most of the departing colonists never went back.”

Reception and Residence for the Weary Mormon Migrants at El Paso

During the blistering summer of 1912, El Paso, Texas— which lies near the northern border of the Mexican state of Chihuahua—played a pivotal role as a refuge far the Revolution-fleeing Saints. On July 29, 1912 the frontpage of the El Paso Morning Times announced that five hundred American refugees had crossed the border into El Paso at midnight, with 2,000 more expected soon. Traveling on special trains of the Mexico North-Western Railway, they came in from Pearson and Casas Grandes.

In Salt Lake City, also on July 29, the front page of the Deseret Evening News blared “Mormons Flee From Mexico” and reported “dire threats” as the cause of their flight. Two days later a somewhat more objective article in the same paper reported that the expulsion occurred “not because the colonists are Mormons,” but “because they are Americans, and because they have valuable property. The blow, the insult is aimed at the United States and not at the Church… and the expulsion … is to be regarded as a measure of retaliation for the refusal of our government to recognize the insurgents”— that is, to render them aid.”

On August 1, the El Paso Morning Times reported that “More Refugees Have Arrived” and described the heart-rending sight of displaced Mormon women and children arriving at their destination:

“The scene in the Union Station … as the train pulled in was a pitiful one. Children of all sizes and ages streamed from the coaches, tugging at the skirts of their mothers and looking in wild-eyed surprise at the evidences of the city about them.”

The reporter went on to note, however, that a number of El Paso citizens quickly rallied to support the weary travelers by offering transportation:

“As fast as the colonists gathered in the station lobby, the San Antonio street auto stand drove up to the side entrance of the building where the refugees were driven out to the lumber yard— All the automobiles are famished free of charge by the drivers.”

The refugee Saints themselves confirmed the many willing hands and charitable hearts ready to receive them. Lucille R. Taylor recalled, “The El Paso people were very kind. They provided water and food and everything we needed because we had taken very little.” And later wrote, “I feel thankful to the good citizens of El Paso for the aid and sympathy they gave us.”

Still, El Paso was unprepared to accommodate the large number of refugees streaming into it. The abandoned lumber yard referenced by the reporter provided a camping place, but little more. As Maude Guff Farnsworth reported,

“We had to hang blankets for a wall so we could go to bed. There were several babies bom that [first] night without much hdp. We would go to the gate and see people looking through the cracks at us as if we were wild animals.”

Other women had similarly negative memories. “People crowded in the depot and along the roads where our busses [sic] passed to look at us,” Vaneese Harris Woffinden declared, “and when the gates of the lumber yard were closed curious onlookers peeked between the bars. I felt as if I were a circus animal on parade and later shut behind the bars of a cage.”

Camilla Eyring recalled that “the kind people of El Paso met us at the depot and took us in automobiles… out to a big lumberyard, where they improvised shelter for the refugees.” However, of necessity the improvised shelter had been hastily prepared and was insufficient accommodation for the many who needed it. Eyring continues:

“They put us into a corral with dust a foot deep, flies swarming, noisy, stinking, and crowded with a mass of humanity. It was enough to make the stoutest heart sink. Those in charge tried to arrange a stall for each family, and we piled in for the night hanging blankets in an attempt at a little privacy. During that night five babies were born in these rude shelters. We felt humiliated as newspaper photographers and reporters recorded our pitiful dependence and as the curious townspeople gawked and pointed at us, as they would animals in a zoo.”

Although many Mormon refugees believed they had become a freak-show attraction, and although the Deseret Evening News confirmed that “the refugee camps are the gathering place for many El Pasoans, many of them visiting the place out idle curiosity,” the News insisted that “by for the greater number” of local visitors to the camps wanted to “ascertain if they can in any way assist in alleviating the sufferings of the refugees”—and that “the people of El Paso have opened their hearts to assist the colonists.” Some El Pasoans provided meat and vegetables, enabling Mormon women in the camp to “cook huge pots of stew where each refugee might come and receive hot food.”

One refugee observed that, using “a campfire out in front of the building,” two or three persons were assigned each day to “cook dinner for the whole group that were in the building”—and that a typical meal was potatoes boiled “in a six-gallon lard can.” And while “it seemed so good to have hot food,” there were always “news reporters and cameramen… on the job making the most of everything.”

The media reports likely encouraged El Pasoans in their prompt and sincere relief efforts. Almost overnight, as the Deseret Evening News reported on July 30,

“The city has put in water sewerage and lights and the Mormon Church is furnishing food to those unable to buy it. Many of the refugees are without clothing or utensils for cooking, but these are rapidly being provided and they are being made as comfortable as possible.”

Indeed given the scanty lead time available to them, LDS Church leaders in Salt Lake City and elsewhere had done much to prepare for the impending refugee crisis. Anthony W Ivins of the Quorum of the Twelve, who had been the first stake president in Mexico, was assigned to arrange provisions and temporary lodging for the refugees as well as rail transportation in and out of El Paso.

On July 26, two days before the first Mormon refugees reached El Paso, an LDS Church relief committee was established in the city with as chairman. Other committee members included Guy C. Wilson, Orson Pratt Brown and Joseph E Robinson—who was then serving as the president of the California mission. On July 29, just after the first refugees were arriving in the city, Bowman explained their plight to El Paso businessmen. After hearing Bowman’s report, Walter S. Clayton, president of El Paso’s Chamber of Commerce, asked his fellows “to devise ways and means to care for the families of the American settlers … who were being driven from their homes”—and many quickly responded.

Mayor C. E, Kelly later remarked,

“As the city’s chief executive I did what I could. What I did as a citizen I refuse to permit you to mention. These people are El Paso’s guests and it is our pleasure and our duty to take care of them.”

For the colonists, the weeks following their flight from Mexico were marked by deep and conflicting emotions. On the one hand, “their homes [were] looted, their fields and crops devastated, and their cattle stolen and killed”— and they were forced to flee to El Paso and other border cities where they were “huddled in quarters… with scanty provisions and only a few comforts.”

On the other, “El Pasoans and others active in the relief work” generously did “everything possible… for the refugees,” reaching out to them and blessing their lives. The US military station at Fort Bliss also provided provisions, shelter; and services for the displaced Mormons, Myrl Rowley Day, a young girl at the time of the exodus, recalled that army soldiers had built a shower for the refugees “out of green lumber… so the water could leak out.” She further remembered that “the shower itself was a tin can with nail holes in it,” and that because she and the other children “had always taken a bath in a washtub” and “had never seen a shower before,” they “thought [the shower] was great.”

Perhaps the most welcome assistance came from Washington DC. William Morley Black spoke for all the refugees when he said,

“I feel thankful to our government and to President Wiliam H. Taft for the prompt appropriation of the magnificent sum of one hundred thousand dollars to be used in giving aid to the American citizens who were expelled from Mexico.”

These funds were used for food that was distributed at the abandoned lumber yard and for hundreds of tents that had been transported from St Louis and that were distributed from nearby Fort Bliss.

As reported by the Deseret Evening News on August 2, additional help came from “western railroads” who had “granted a rate of one cent per mile to colonists who want to leave for places of refuge and safety in the United States.” The News reported further that “two hundred women and children will leave tonight for the Gila valley” and that “many others have left, or are preparing to leave far Utah, Arizona and other points.” A significant number of families remained in El Paso for several months or years—and some remained there permanently, convinced they had found home.

In an open letter published in the El Paso Morning Times, “Colonists Express Their Thanks to Citizens,” Elder Anthony Ivins and the four members of the LDS Church relief committee in El Paso were spokesmen for the refugees in expressing deep gratitude for the generous aid and support of El Pasoans and others in a time of great need:

“To the Times: In our own behalf and in behalf of the many refugees from the colonies of Chihuahua, who are now in El Paso, permit us to express, through the column of your paper; our appreciation, and the deep gratitude we fed, for the spontaneous and universal expression of sympathy, and the ready assistance, which has been rendered in this hour of trial and distress. … May He who rewards all men according to their works do unto you and yours as you have done unto us,”

Epilogue to the 1912 Exodus

Most Mormon refugees were in El Paso only a short time before leaving to find, new homes. Many of these moved nearer relatives and friends in Utah, Idaho, California, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico. A few returned to their homes in the Mexican colonies. But some chose to stay in El Paso—which, a century later, their descendants still call home. Today there are two LDS stakes in the El Paso region and more than 9,000 Latter-day Saints. On the other side of the border, more than one million Mexican citizens have converted to the Latter-day Saint faith, and there are now a dozen LDS temples in Mexico.

A century following the exodus, a joyful commemoration was held at El Paso Hundreds of Latter-day Saints and local citizens came together to remember the compassionate acts rendered by El Pasoans when thousands of LDS women and children suddenly fled Mexico and crossed the US border to safety. On July 28, 2012, exactly a century from the time that the Mormons left Mexico for El Paso, a series of commemorative events took place to capture this heartwarming story, and a year or more was spent in coordinating and cooperatively planning for the event.

Although the centennial commemoration held in El Paso on July 28, 2012 has come and gone, thousands continue to enjoy the rippling effects of the exhibit at the El Paso Museum of History; the documentary, “Finding Refuge in El Paso”; and the warm memories of shared experiences and association.


Notes & Sources

  • This article combines two earlier articles by Fred E. Woods:”Finding Refuge in El Paso: The 1912 Mormon Exodus from Mexico,” 14 Oct 2012 https://ldsmag.com/ article-1 -11596/, and “Finding Refuge in El Paso: Remembering a Centennial Commemoration” Mormon Historical Studies 13.1,2 (Spring/Fall 2012): 190-7.
  • Blaine Carmon Flardy,”The Mormon Colonies of Northern Mexico: A History, 1885-1912″ (PhD diss., Wayne State U, 1963), 71-2.
  • Joseph Barnard Romney, “The Lord, God of Israel, Brought Us Out of Mexico!’: Junius Romney and the 1912 Mormon Exodus. Journal of Mormon History (Fa 11 2010): 210-1.
  • John Jacob Walser,”Journal,”8 Apr 1912, in “My Life,” comp. Bonnie Simon, L.Tom Perry Special Collections, Brigham Young University.
  • “The Life of Willard Whipple” (privately published, Sunnyvale, CA: 1977), 13—4.
  • Journal of Hyrum Albert Cluff, submitted by Mrs. Sarah Matilda Cluff Lewis, daughter of Hyrum Albert Cluff, in Nelle Spilsbury Hatch and B. Carmon Hardy, eds., Stalwarts South of the Border (1985), 122.
  • Journal of Catherine Aurelia Carling Porter, wife of Edson Darius Porter, in Hatch and Hardy 535.
  • Vaneese Harris Woffinden,”The Mormons in Mexico,” in Treasures of Pioneer History, ed. Kate B. Carter (1954), 3:248.
  • Interview of Jesse M. Taylor by Ivan Carbine, 10 Nov 1959, transcript, 16, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.
  • Interview of Frank and Annie O’Donnal by Karl Young, 26 Dec 1962, transcript, 11, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.
  • Charles E. McClellan, “The Exodus,” in Carter 3:242.
  • Interview of Helaman Judd by Joseph B. Romney, 31 Aug 1971, transcript, 6, California State University, Fullerton, Oral History Program.
  • Caroline Eyring Miner and Edward L Kimball, Camilla: A Biography of Camilla Eyring Kimball (1980), 30.
  • Sarah Jones Payne, daughter of Timothy Jones, in Hatch and Hardy 376-377.
  • Nelle Spilsbury Hatch and B. Carmon Hardy, Stalwarts South of the Border (1985), 29.
  • Albert EzrelThurber, son of Albert Daniel Thurber, in Hatch and Hardy 705.
  • William Whipple, cited by Pat Henry,”El Paso: Sanctuary to Mormon refugees,” El Paso Times (February 5,1984), 1E.
  • Edward Christian Eyring in Hatch and Hardy 149-50. Thomas C. Romney noted, “Although the decision had been made to send the women and children to El Paso it was felt by most of us at least that their absence would be of short duration” (The Mormon Colonies in Mexico [1938], 183).The decision for most not to return to the colonies was probably influenced by President Joseph F. Smith’s declaration in October 1912,”I could not advise our people to go back to Mexico under existing circumstances. Indeed, I would advise them not to go back, if I should advise at all”(quoted in Romney 216-7).
  • W. H. Timmons, El Paso: A Borderlands History (1990), xvii.
  • Red Flaggers drive Americans from their Mexican homes,” El Paso Morning Times (29 Jul 1912)
  • “Mormons Flee From Mexico,”Deseret Evening News (29 Jul 1912)
  • “Protesting Against Outrages,”Deseret Evening News (31 Jul 1912)
  • “More Refugees have Arrived,” El Paso Morning Times (1 Aug 1912): 1-2. W. H. Timmons, El Paso: A Borderlands Flistory {2004}, 193, noted that Union Depot was constructed in 1906 at a cost of $260,000.
  • “More Refugees have Arrived,” El Paso Morning Times (1 Aug 1912): 2.
  • Interview of Lucille R.Taylor by Joseph B. Romney, 27 Nov 1970, transcript, 6, California State University, Fullerton, Oral Flistory Program.
  • William Morley Black, in Hatch and Hardy 49-50.
  • , wife of Byron Nephi Farnsworth, in Hatch and Hardy 169.
  • See account by Vaneese Harris Woffinden,”The Mormons in Mexico,” in Treasures of Pioneer History, comp. Kate B. Carter, vol.3 (Salt Lake City, Utah: Daughters of the Utah Pioneers),248.
  • Caroline Eyring Miner and Edward L Kimball, Camilla: A Biography of Camilla Eyring Kimball (1980), 31-32.
  • “Refugees From Colonies In Mexico Being Given Every Possible Comfort,” Deseret Evening News (August 1,1912), 1.
  • Walter Frederick Hurst, in Hatch and Hardy 307.
  • “Refugees Are Fleeing North,”Deseret Evening News (30 JuI 1912): 1.
  • Notes from Relief Committee Minutes, 1912, first page, cited in Romney 251-2.
  • “Heart Rending Recital Given,” El Paso Morning Times (30 Jul 1912): 1.
  • Ibid. As listed in the article, names of the men chosen for the El Paso relief committee were “James A. Dick, chairman; J. H. Nations, Thomas O’Keeffe, J. C. Wilmarth, H. S. Potter, George Flory, D. M. Payne, J. A. Smith, and W. S. Clayton.”
  • “Refugees From Colonies In Mexico Being Given …”: 1.
  • Interview of Mryl Rowley Day by Christine Day Young, 19 Feb 1978, transcript,
    18, Church History Library.
  • William Morley Black, in Hatch and Hardy 49-50. Pat Henry,”El Paso: Sanctuary to Mormon refugees,” El Paso Times (5 Feb 1984): 1E, provides details contradicting Black: “Mormon headquarters in Salt Lake City took responsibility for the refugees.The United States appropriated $20,000 for their care (which the Mormon Church paid back}.
  • “Orozco Expected to Burn Juarez Before He Evacuates The Town,” Deseret Evening News (3 Aug 1912): 1.
  • “Colonists Leaving Refugee Camps For Places of Safety Elsewhere,” Deseret Evening News (2 Aug 1912): 1.
  • “Colonists Express Their Thanks to Citizens,” El Paso Morning Times (2 Aug 1912): 1. It is probable that Elder Anthony W. Ivins penned the letter inasmuch as he presided over the committee and provided the first signature.
  • In his master’s thesis, “The Exodus of the Mormon Colonists From Mexico, 1912″(U of Utah, 1967), Joseph B. Romney noted that, in 1912, there were about 4500 men, women, and children distributed among northern Mexico’s nine colonies “as follows: Diaz, 750; Dublan, 1200; Juarez, 800, Pacheco, 275; Garcia, 275; Chuichupa, 275; San Jose,200; Oaxaca, 64; and Morelos, 625.” El Paso Mormon historian Michael R. Mullen has found evidence of at least one other settlement and perhaps more.

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