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About the Mormon Exodus from Mexico in 1912

SCHEDULE OF EVENTS
July 28, 2012 | El Paso, Texas

9:00 a.m.
  Exhibit Ribbon Cutting
El Paso Museum of History

     
10:00 a.m.
  History Conference
El Paso Public Library

     
6:30 p.m.
  Commemoration Ceremony
UTEP Union Cinema

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DOWNTOWN EL PASO

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In 1912, in response concern for their personal safety during the Mexican Revolution, approximately 4,500 Mormons left their homes in several colonies in northern Chihuahua and Sonora in what has become known as the Mormon Exodus. This page answers some frequently asked questions, identifies places to visit, and provides a few recommendations for reading more.

Mormons Living in Lumber Yard, El Paso, circa 1912
Mormons Living in Lumber Yard, El Paso [c. 1912]
Source: Library of Congress
   
Frequently Asked Questions    

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Who are Mormons?

The term “Mormon” is often used to refer to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), who more typically refer to themselves as Latter-day Saints. The name “Mormon” derives from the fact that Latter-day Saints accept The Book of Mormon as a volume of sacred scripture comparable to the Bible.

Why were Mormons Living in Mexico in 1912?

Between 1847 and the 1870s, Mormons established nearly 400 settlements throughout the intermountain West. During the 1880s, the federal government intensified legal efforts to eliminate the Mormon marriage practice of polygamy in which a man married more than one wife. As a result, Mormon polygamists and their families created colonies in northern Mexico and southern Canada where they could live beyond the reach of federal law. Other Mormon families went along for health reasons or job opportunities. The Church formally abandoned the practice of polygamy more than one hundred years ago, and in 1912 many descendants of the first settlers still lived in Mexico.

Where in Mexico did Mormons Live?

The first Mormon settlements in the state of Chihuahua were established in 1885 at Colonia (Spanish for colony) Diaz and Colonia Juarez. Settlements in Cave Valley and Pacheco followed in 1887. In 1888, Colonia Dublan rounded out this cluster of colonies located south of the New Mexico border and southwest of El Paso, Texas. During the 1890s, Mormons established other colonies in Garcia and Chuichupa and in the state of Sonora (south of Arizona) in Oaxaca and Morelos.

What was Life like in the Mormon Colonies?

The Mormon settlers hailed originally from New England, the Atlantic States, the Midwest and South, Scandinavia, the British Isles, and other countries of Western Europe. The settler families often started out with only a wagon and personal belongings. As a group they laid out the settlements, dug wells, created dams, surveyed and dug irrigation canals, and built churches and schools. Among the businesses they established were leather tanneries, mercantile stores, grist mills, and lumber mills.

Religion was central to daily life. Each colony was organized into a congregation called a Ward that was presided over by a bishop, an appointed position similar to a pastor or parish priest. The bishop was the presiding ecclesiastical authority in charge of religious services and social activities. In 1895, the wards were organized into a larger unit named the Juarez Stake.

Why Did the Mormons Leave Mexico?

As long-term residents of Mexico, Mormons tried to remain neutral during the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution. Soldiers from both sides of the conflict would show up unannounced and demand clothing, food, cash, and livestock. Though Pancho Villa is often erroneously charged with “chasing the Mormons out of Mexico,” he was actually in prison during much of 1912. It was the followers of General Pascual Orozco who posed the most immediate threat to the Mormons. Orozco’s men controlled much of the state of Chihuahua, made exorbitant demands on local residents, and in isolated cases murdered Mormons. In July 1912, an Orozco subordinate demanded Mormon guns and ammunition and withdrew any promise of safety. At this point, the Mormons decided to send women and children to El Paso and the evacuation began. The refugees traveled overland to the nearest rail depots and then by rail to the Union Depot in El Paso, where the first group arrived late in the evening of July 28, 1912.

What Happened to the Mormon Refugees?

Approximately 2,500 of the refugees took a train first to El Paso where they stayed in temporary housing--in a local lumberyard and a "tent city" that were set up to support them. About 10 percent of these remained in El Paso where they established the first Mormon congregation in the state of Texas (1918) and built the first LDS chapel in the state (1931)--a mission revival style building crafted of red Texas granite that is now recognized by the Texas Historical Commission. After a few months or years, the rest of the refugees moved on to other areas of the country. After the Revolution, some Mormons returned to Mexico--two of the colonies remain to the present--but for many families the exodus marked the end of a decades-long sojourn in Mexico.

Were Mormons the Only People to Leave Mexico?

Between 1910 and 1920, more than one million people fled Mexico for the United States. Some, like the Mormons, were non-Mexicans who had been granted generous business or farming rights by the Porfirio Díaz regime--at the expense of local Mexicans, the revolutionaries argued. Others were persons loyal to Díaz who were newly at risk under revolutionary rule. Others simply fled the violence and looked to the United States for new opportunities. This massive migration transformed the social, cultural, and economic character of the United States. Most of the refugees moved into border states but many moved northward where they established Mexican barrios in large cities and communities throughout the Midwest.

Do Any Prominent Mormons Have Ties to the Exodus?

Among the one-time residents of the colonies was Anthony W. Ivins (1952-1934), who later served in the LDS First Presidency.

Among the refugees were future renowned physical chemist Henry Eyring (1901-1981) and future American Motors Corporation CEO and Michigan governor George W. Romney (1907-1995). Eyring was 11 at the time of the exodus and stayed in El Paso for one year before moving to Pima, AZ; Romney was 5 at the time and ended up in Salt Lake City, UT.

Among the descendants of the refugees are current LDS First Presidency member Henry B. Eyring (1933-), businessman and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (1947-), and bank executive and emeritus member of the LDS Quorum of Seventy Robert J. Whetten (1943-) who continues to maintain a residence in El Paso. Law enforcement officer and anti-communist writer W. Cleon Skousen (1913-2006) moved with his family to resettle Colonia Juarez after the Mexican Revolution.

   
Places to Visit    

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  • Union Depot Train Station, El Paso, TX - Mormon refugees arrived in the city by train.
  • Long Lumber Yards, Magoffin Street, El Paso, TX - Mormon refugees found temporary shelter in lumber yards that have now been replaced by commercial buildings.
  • A "Tent City" was set up near the El Paso foundry
   
Recommended Reading    

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Books

  • Thomas Cottam Romney, The Mormon Colonies in Mexico (1938; reprinted University of Utah Press, 2005).
  • LaVon Brown Whetten, Colonia Juarez: Commemorating 125 Years of the Mormon Colonies in Mexico (AuthorHouse, 2010).
  • Fred E. Woods, Finding Refuge in El Paso: The 1912 Mormon Exodus from Mexico (Cedar Fort Publishers, forthcoming 2012).

Articles

  • Michael N. Landon, “‘We Navigated by Pure Understanding’: Bishop George T. Sevey’s Account of the 1912 Exodus from Mexico,” BYU Studies 43, no. 2 (2004): 63–101.
  • B. Carmon Hardy and Melody Seymour, "The Importation of Arms and the 1912 Mormon 'Exodus' from Mexico," New Mexico Historical Review (October 1997): 297-309.
  • Joseph B. Romney, "''The Lord, God of Israel, Brought Us out of Mexico!' Junius Romney and the 1912 Mormon Exodus," Journal of Mormon History 36:4 (Fall 2010): 208-58.

 

Archival Collections

 

About the Mexican Revolution

  • Robert C. Overfelt, "Mexican Revolution," Handbook of Texas Online (Texas State Historical Association).
  • David Dorado Romo, Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juarez, 1893-1923 (Cinco Puntos Press, 2005)

 

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