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“Not Humiliation, But Heroism”: Mormon Refugees in El Paso, 1912

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 29, 2011

The Mexican Revolution drove many hundreds of Mormon colonists from settlements in northern Mexico to refuge in border towns like El Paso. This El Paso newspaper article from August, 1912, describes the wealth the Mormons created and left behind in Mexico, and welcomes them as “the guests of this community, and the people of El Paso are glad to be able to contribute even a little toward immediate succor in their time of sudden deprivation and temporary distress.”

And speaking of El Paso, scholars of the history of Mormonism in Latin America and the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands should consider the conference to be held in El Paso next July, and its Call for Papers. Juvenile Instructor blogger Jared T. is the primary force behind the organization of that conference, of which Keepa will be reminding you occasionally throughout the next year.

With the fragrant memory of many a perfect day among the pines in the Sierra Madre; of many a pipe which was only half enjoyed because our Mormon friends were abstainers; of many a talk around the fire in camp or in the homes of the people; of many a pleasant meeting with old friends in new surroundings; and of many a hearty and satisfying repast of hot corn bread, juicy rutabaga turnips, greatly mealy baked potatoes, sweet home cured pork, cold buttermilk, real butter, and black sorghum syrup, that the writer of this has enjoyed among conditions of a hospitality that is not surpassed anywhere under God’s blue sky, it is a pleasure right now to testify from personal knowledge to some of the many virtues of the Mormon colonists in Northern Mexico, many of whom are the guests of El Paso pending the settling of the Mexican family quarrel.

Old timers in El Paso know these Mormon people, and know what great work they have done in pioneering. Many El Pasoans have spent pleasant and profitable days in the colonies, and through personal association and intimate acquaintance have learned to appreciate the colonists at their true value. But new comers, as a general thing, are not so well informed, and have not had the opportunity of personal observation. Any disposition to underrate the high industrial and community status of the Mormon colonists in Mexico simply displays the ignorance of the doubter, and would better be kept very quiet to avoid making discreditable mistakes.

The oldest colonies were established about a quarter century ago. The first families came from Utah under special colonists’ concessions from the Mexican government. many of the early pioneers were an exceedingly hardy type – men and women used to frontier conditions and ready to face any hardship in establishing themselves in the new country. The section chosen for the colonies had not been occupied by Mexicans because it had been run over by Apache Indians and dangerous renegades until the Mexicans had learned to avoid it. The Mormons went in there, drove back and held back the wild Indians, and began at the very beginning to reconstruct a part of the world that had never been finished or brought into profitable use.

It is ridiculous and disgusting to hear the comments made by some ignorant persons about the colonists who have been forced to come to El Paso for safety. While some of these people for the time being find themselves without ready money, there is not a single person in the whole group of about 2,500 refugees that can be called a dependent on his own community or on any outside aid, except to the extent that immediate necessities following hasty flight have left some without quick current assets. In all the colonies there is not one pauper. Nearly all the people who have come out in response to the advice of the leaders have left comfortable, even luxurious homes behind, and much wealth in farm equipment and crops.

An official estimate from the headquarters of the Mormons in Salt Lake City gives the average wealth of the 800 families engaged in the exodus at $10,000 each family, or $8,000,000, all of which, however, is represented in material possessions left behind for the rebels to take or destroy. The colonists that have gone into Mexico have always taken some property with them, and often a considerable sum of money. But their beginnings were generally small, and their present prosperous condition (the Mexican colonists are rated as about the wealthiest per capita in the whole Mormon establishment) is the result of their extraordinary industry and thrift.

Few persons unacquainted with the real conditions in the Mormon colonies would believe that the distressed people who have been flocking by thousands into El Paso have come from homes that would compare favorably with the best homes in El Paso. The older Mormon colonies have many homes that are as costly and as comfortable as the homes on Arizona or Rio Grande street or other choice residence districts in this city. These homes of the colonists are many of them supplied with private sewerage systems, water pressure, acetylene gas or electricity, modern plumbing and all conveniences; they are built of brick and stone on modern architectural lines, and they are not only roomy and comfortable, but lavishly furnished. The majority of the colonists are farmers, and the farms are equipped with every modern device for profitable manufacture of animal products and economic production of prime field and orchard crops. The live stock is largely graded or even registered, including costly imported strains. The irrigation systems of the colonies are models of design and construction. The latest, that of Colonia Dublan, cost $300,000, and was just ready for use, having just been finished, when the trouble with the rebels arose and the colony had to be abandoned. The new system is complete with modern dams and canals and is to serve a large acreage hitherto dependent on rather uncertain supply.

One of the first efforts of the colonists has always been to beautify their towns and homes. All their towns are laid out with a view to beauty. The streets are wide and planted with double and quadruple rows of trees. Irrigation canals sparkle everywhere. Each of the town homes has its plot of several acres with gardens and orchards, while the fields lie near by adjacent to the towns. The effort has always been to concentrate the people in homelike communities, with plenty of room around all the houses, and not to isolate the homes on separate farms, but rather to administer the neighboring farms from the one community, the social and business center of the colony. The result of this wise policy has been to build up in the fewest possible years, colony towns that far exceed in beauty and comfort and convenience the majority of small towns in the United States, whose future has not been planned so wisely or whose destiny has not been guided so consistently.

In the homes themselves, one is struck with the comparative luxury that prevails. There is no disposition to withhold the luxuries and pleasures of life in following the stern necessities of pioneering. On the contrary, the homes are always comfortably, sometimes lavishly furnished, and filled with books, magazines, newspapers, pictures, musical instruments and music, ornaments, and all of the little things that go to make a home homelike. The Mormons are exceedingly ambitious for their young people, and their schools are always maintained at high standards, even in the smallest and most remote colonies. The schools reach to every phase of life, and devote themselves largely to industrial and technical training. A Mormon boy does not have to leave home to learn farming or blacksmithing, and a Mormon girl does not grow up in ignorance of cookery, needlework, and home nursing. The schools and the churches are furthermore the social centers of the various communities, and as one Mormon expressed it, both church and school work seven days a week and each individual comes under their influence all the time.

The social and industrial system of the Mormon colonies is worth careful study. These Mormon colonies come nearer to realizing the world-old dreams of perfect equality of opportunity and perfect co-operation in the fundamentals of existence, than any other communities the world ever knew. They are truly socialistic in the best sense, being generally self supporting, each community to itself, and providing material rewards according to individual industry, without bearing too hard on any, or permitting too great aggregations of wealth.

There is a perfect interchange of products, through the community stores. From the very first day a new colony is started, the co-operative commercial system is in operation. It is possible for the woman with a few cans of preserved peaches or a couple of homemade aprons to go to the store and trade for boys’ caps and laundry soap made by a neighbor. The farmer in the early days of a colony pays in corn for having his horse shod and his saddle mended, and the carpenter pays his board by mending the porch floor. As the colony grows, and becomes more prosperous, and business becomes more diverse, money comes into more general use in trade. But in even the oldest colonies the co-operative stores and the mutual interchange of products and labor prevail to a great extent among all classes.

It is interesting in the colonies to note the evidences of conservatism and thrift among the colonists. On one corner of a small acreage tract in town will be seen a sod shack, the first home of the pioneer. Near by will be seen a small stone cabin of two rooms and a lean-to, with rough boarded floor and roof of hand split shingles – the second home, built years later. And on the corner of finest exposure stands the modern brick house of 10 or 12 rooms, fitted with all improvements and surrounded by beautiful flowers, trimmed hedges, and gravel or cement walks. Such is the story of 20 or 25 years of well directed industry and thrift, the epic of the Mormon pioneers that may be found written on every acre of the Mexican colonies in a language that all can understand.

The Mormons have no courts, and need none. They seldom or never resort to the Mexican courts because they compose their disputes before they reach that stage. Differences are referred to the business, civil, or ecclesiastical leaders, and arbitrated in a way that the human race has ever dreamed of and almost never realized. The discipline of the communities is perfect, too perfect altogether for men and women who do not care to subordinate their personal and individual interests on all occasions to the interests of the community as a whole and of the great social, industrial, and religi8ous organization to which the colonists have given their allegiance.

Without alluding to or discussing any phases of the Mormon system which may not commend themselves to non-Mormons, it is yet due to them to declare that they have built up the most remarkable system of community life in existence, the most rational, the most vital, the most successful. The “gospel of hard work” is joined with a spirit of altruistic regard for the rights and welfare of others in a way to reduce strife to a minimum. these people are trail makers and road builders. They have made the development of nature’s resources one of the cardinal points of their religion, and they have put their religion consistently into practice. Their splendid fight against adverse material conditions, wherever they have gone, compels admiration from every intelligent observer.

Not humiliation, but heroism, marks their present status. They are not the objects of charity while they are in this city, but they are the guests of this community, and the people of El Paso are glad to be able to contribute even a little toward immediate succor in their time of sudden deprivation and temporary distress. The pioneer stock that runs in these colonists is not of the sort to yield to the impulse of “sudden panic” or “senseless scare” as ascribed to them by the Mexican and American consuls. Their impulse, both men and women, has always been and would always be to stand and fight for what they deem their rights. In this case, the safety of thousands of women and children was the first and only consideration, and the men decided to submit to the rebel demands, give up their arms and ammunition, and send their families to safety. But it will be noticed that the men and young men, though now rendered defenseless, have all remained behind, to try to save something of what remains. Only one able bodied man to ten families was sent out to look after the refugees. it is the sheerest injustice to impute any but the most honorable and creditable motives to the action of the Mormons in sending their women and children to the United States, under all the circumstances that influenced the decision.

The perfection of organization and discipline that made it possible to collect 2,500 women and children from widely scattered colonies over an area of 4,000 or 5,000 square miles in a difficult mountain region, and in four days move them all some hundreds of miles into another country and establish them in temporary homes and camps, all without losing a single individual by death or incurring any serious illness, is nothing short of marvelous. Those moved were women and children almost exclusively, and included hundreds of babes in arms, and mothers of tiny infants, not a few expectant mothers, numerous invalids, and the very aged. But the movement was accomplished without any serious mishaps, under conditions of maximum inconvenience and hardship; and it was touching to witness the reunion of families and neighbors, after the hegira was ended.



7 Comments »

  1. Fantastic find! Among the prominent refugees were the Romneys (Marion G. and the grandparents of Mitt) the Eyrings (including Camilla, and the grandparents of Henry B.) and numerous Pratts, Calls, and Ivins’.

    I can only assume that the Church estimated income based on tithing receipts. The fact that this information was shared with the newspaper is surprising (As is the report that Mexico was per capita the weathiest part of the Mormon Corridor.) If this was really the case, I would have expected more refugees to return to their homes, but the fact is the relatively few of them did.

    Comment by The Other Clark — August 29, 2011 @ 9:36 am

  2. Great article, and thank you for helping spread the word about the conference, it’ll be a good time.

    Comment by Jared T. — August 29, 2011 @ 10:29 am

  3. The conference sounds very interesting! I’m not sure I have anything applicable, but I’ve bookmarked the Call for Papers so I can mull it over and pass it on to others who might be interested. Thanks for the head’s up!

    Comment by Mina — August 29, 2011 @ 11:08 am

  4. Wow..? Great timing. I happened to be in El Paso for work and heading home today with a few hours to kill before hopping on a plane.

    I saw from the utep site some places to visit and decided to swing by the old first ward Chapel. FANTASTIC BUILDING. Beautiful architecture, and fun to know the church history that passed through its doors…. Shoot me an email and I’ll get you the pictures if you like.

    Comment by Zionssuburb — August 29, 2011 @ 1:45 pm

  5. Zionssuburb, email on its way. I recently saw an article about the 1930 (1931? crumbling memory here) dedication of the building, with a picture as of that date — it would be great to see a contemporary one.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 29, 2011 @ 2:27 pm

  6. Wow. My great-grandparents were kids then. They ended up bouncing north and south of the border a lot over the next forty years, including a few years way south in Hidalgo.

    Very cool to see this.

    Comment by James Goldberg — August 29, 2011 @ 10:41 pm

  7. Still an undertold part of the Mormon story. We really need a much more thorough and detailed history of the Mormon colonies.

    Comment by Kent Larsen — September 1, 2011 @ 10:12 am

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