The Latter-day Saint colonies in Mexico were becoming successful after years of effort. But the Mexican Revolution changed them forever.
I am grateful for righteous ancestors who taught the gospel to their children in the home long before there were formal family home evenings. My maternal grandparents were Ida Jesperson and John A. Whetten. They lived in the small community of Colonia Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico. The Whetten children were taught by precept and by observing the examples of their parents.
~Carl B. Pratt
This is part 16 of a history series in connection with the Mexican Mission Hymns project.
This is the third in a trilogy of posts on the Mexican Revolution within the larger framework of the overarching history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Mexico. The first laid out the groundwork of the Revolution. The second one focused on the experiences of Mexican Latter-day Saints during the Revolution. This third one will focus on the experiences of the colonies in the north. This post is also connected to three earlier posts on the history of the colonies, including one on the reasons for establishing Latter-day Saint colonies in Mexico, another on post-Manifesto polygamy in Mexico, and a third on an attempt at creating a colony of Mexican Latter-day Saints.
By 1910, the colonies had become productive and prosperous for the Latter-day Saints. Fruit orchards were growing well, cattle ranches were thriving, the communities were well-established and a respectable school had been established in Colonia Juárez. The colonies were home to thousands of Latter-day Saints and formed a not insignificant portion of the population of the states of Chihuahua and Sonora. The style of the buildings and communities reflected the patterns of settlement found elsewhere in Latter-day Saint settlements in western North America, standing in contrast to the styles of traditional Mexican and indigenous settlements in the area. As one author described the scene at the time that Andrés Carlos González arrived in 1904:
The stage came around a hill to the lush Colonia Juarez valley, and Andres was smitten. The landscape in his view was a decidedly un-Mexican scene. The Americans had built the traditional cottages for homes, surrounding them with trees and gardens. The serene Piedras Verde River cut through the center of town, feeding tall cottonwoods and willows. Prominent on the landscape was the red brick, two-story Juarez Stake Academy, looking like any American public school of the era. Andres had never been to Utah, but if he had, he would have recognized its re-created landscape in Colonia Juarez.
Once again, Latter-day Saints were working to make the desert blossom as a rose.
Under the surface, however, there were a few factors that didn’t bode well for their long-term future in northern Mexico. A few points of particular note:
- The colonies were established with the approval of Porfirio Díaz as part of a plan to allow foreigners to help build the Mexican economy and infrastructure. Díaz, at that time was an unpopular and brutal dictator who would face a reckoning in the form of the Mexican Revolution. Given that he was seen as having sold out a lot of the Mexican economy to foreigners (rather than the people of Mexico), his ousting also coincided with a spike in anti-American and European sentiment.
- The majority of denizens in the colonies tended to be a bit clannish and—as noted in a previous discussion about an attempt of establishing Mexican Latter-day Saints in the colonies—harbored some racist attitudes that were prevalent among Euro-Americans in the United States at the time. As Hannah Johnson Spencer—one of the more assimilated inhabitants of the colonies—noted in her journal: “[A]t times the souls of a great number of these good [Mexican] people among whom I labor become afire with faith—then they contact some individual in the colonies in some way or another, and they chill completely. They react as though a bucket of ice water had been thrown over them.”
- The prosperity of the colonies would make them a target for resources when war broke out.
For the first couple years of the Revolution, however, the Latter-day Saints maintained an uneasy peace and neutrality in the conflict, though they tended to the wounded when battles took place near the settlements. Anthony Ivins and Joseph Bentley even helped a wounded Francisco Madero, who would become president of Mexico after Porfirio Díaz was overthrown. Madero’s ascent to the presidency, however, did not bring lasting peace and the Revolution continued to rage around the colonies.
In 1912, things took a dramatic turn for life in the colonies. As American expatriates, the colonists were an area of concern from the United States government. As such, the United States provided weapons and ammunition to the colonies in the interest of self-defense, while denying Mexicans access to arms deals. For a time, local Latter-day Saint leaders were also able to negotiate peace and protection deals with the rebel leaders. On July 27, however, a rebel general named José Inés Salazar gave Junius Romney (the stake president) an ultimatum to turn over their weapons or face war, stating that: “I will come and get the guns no matter where I have to go for them. … We will consider you as our enemies and will declare war on you immediately.” Faced with this threat, Romney made the decision to evacuate.
The evacuation took place quickly. Families packed what they could, then traveled to the nearest railway station. Around 2,000 women and children were packed into trains bound for El Paso, Texas, while the men fled to the nearby mountains until there was opportunity for them to leave as well (a few days later). In total, around 4,500 colonists would evacuate. The train ride took around 24 hours, with passengers and baggage crammed like sardines, trains moving so slowly that children could walk alongside, and fears about rebel forces stopping and robbing them haunting the exiles. They arrived safely in Texas, where the refugees immediately became objects of curiosity and media attention. A young Camilla Eyring (future wife of Spencer W. Kimball and aunt of Henry B. Eyring) rode on those trains and felt like “we’re just monkeys in a cage” to the people of El Paso. The refugees arrived destitute of cash (having lived in a barter economy in the colonies) and had to rely on the kindness and support of the people of El Paso, the United States government, the Church, and their relatives in the western United States to survive. El Paso’s citizens—in particular—rallied to help them.
Saving the Colonies
Meanwhile, back in the colonies, Hannah Johnson Spencer and her husband Franklin had refused the order to evacuate and worked to preserve Colonia Dublán. They had initially delayed evacuating, and when they arrived in Colonia Dublán, they found the town mostly deserted. As they waited for their son, Josiah, to arrive, Hannah heard a voice that told her: “You have a special work to perform. Your mission is not yet complete. You save these colonies.” She told her husband and son that: ““If these colonies are left alone they will be gone forever. We must make a stand, and the Lord will guide and sustain us.”
Initially, José Inés Salazar commanded his men to burn the town down, but through negotiating and promises of colonists returning, the Spencers managed to dissuade his men from doing more than looting the general store. The Spencers continued to spend the next several weeks running around the town, chasing away looters, boarding up broken windows and doors, and feeding livestock. After Andrés Carlos González returned to the colonies from his mission (only to find them abandoned), he checked in with his family in El Paso, then returned to Colonia Dublán to help the Spencers (his in-laws), later to be joined by more of the family.
Other colonies didn’t fare as well. The Stewart family attempted to do a similar service as the Spencers in Colonia Pacheco, but their father was stabbed to death by a looter. Colonia Diaz was burned to the ground. Most of the other colonies were heavily vandalized or destroyed. The Spencers were both admired and vilified for their efforts—admired because of the amount of property they were able to save and vilified by those who wished the property had been destroyed so they could have been eligible for money from the United States government to compensate for their losses.
To Return or Not?
It became apparent that a return to the colonies would not be an easy thing to achieve. When that realization came, Junius Romney cabled President Joseph F. Smith asking for direction: “Will these people be expected to return to Mexico or shall they consider themselves free to go where they please?” Smith cabled back, “[R]efugees at liberty to go where wisdom suggests or necessity requires.” At the following general conference, President Smith said:
Now in relation to these matters I want to say that our hearts have been touched, our sympathies have been drawn out towards our people of Mexico. We have prayed for them, we have thought of them day and night, and now we feel to say to them that they are at liberty to make homes wherever they can find suitable locations among their own people and in their own nation, where they have or will have at least an assurance of protection and of civil liberty. … 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 give advice at all to them, but we wish our brethren to feel at liberty to do just what they feel in their hearts will be for their best good.
This gave leave for folks to make plans other than returning to the colonies. Some stayed in El Paso, forming the nucleus of the Church in that city, others moved elsewhere, and a few did return to the colonies the following year. Only about 10% of the colonists who had been there before the evacuation returned to living in Mexico. Even for those who did return in 1913–1914, a second evacuation took place in April 1914 due to a spike in anti-American sentiment after the United States occupied Veracruz and a third exodus in 1917 before the situation stabilized enough for around two hundred Mormon colonists to return permanently to Colonia Dublán. Many of the exiled families provided new vitality and leadership to Latter-day Saint congregations in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.
One complication for those who stayed in the United States was the issue of post-Manifesto polygamy. Polygamous marriages that were sanctioned by leaders of the Church continued to be initiated in Mexico for around fourteen years after the 1890 Manifesto was issued. This was done in secret, however, so most Latter-day Saints outside of the colonies were not fully aware that this was the case, leading them to believe that the marriages were not sanctioned by Church leaders, viewing them as what we might call proto-Fundamentalist Mormon actions (from the vantage point of today). As Barbara Jones Brown wrote about one polygamous family (the Calls):
During her stay in Binghampton [Arizona], Julia had a disturbing conversation with Effie Young, a friend from Dublán, regarding one of the places in the United States where the Calls briefly considered relocating. “I don’t think you would like it there because even the Bishop thinks it was awful for plural marriage to be practiced in Mexico,” Effie told Julia. Effie then repeated disparaging remarks the bishop had made about polygamy. The Mormon bishop’s remarks reflected the growing divide between monogamous and polygamous Latter-day Saints, with pro-monogamous Mormons now representing the vast majority. Julia recorded Effie’s comments in a letter to [her husband] Bowen, along with other rumors she heard that plural marriages performed even in Mexico after the 1890 Manifesto were not recognized by the church.
While the First Presidency confirmed that their marriages were recognized by the Church, many polygamists exiled back to the United States felt a sense of abandonment by Church leadership due to the ostracism they experienced from their monogamous coreligionists.
The Colonies Go On
The colonies continued to exist (and still do exist), though the Euro-American Latter-day Saint population in them was decimated. Colonia Dublán was occupied for a time by Pancho Villa and his army, then became a base of operations for the United States’ military during John Pershing’s Mexican Expedition to catch Pancho Villa. The military brought in economic windfall that helped the colonies (particularly Colonia Dublán) thrive for a time. Eventually, however, most of the colonies petered out. Colonia Dublán and Colonia Juárez are the two main colonies that survive to this day (asides from the colonies founded by fundamentalist groups, like Colonia Le Barón).
In fact, the colonies were part of what inspired the creation of small temples. As one article on President Gordon B. Hinckley explained:
The inspiration to construct smaller temples close to the members of the Church came to President Gordon B. Hinckley in northern Mexico … during a 3 ½-hour automobile ride to the El Paso, Texas, airport.
President Hinckley had attended the centennial observance of Juarez Academy in Colonia Juarez, Mexico, in June 1997, and was returning to the airport for the flight back to Salt Lake City.
“As we were riding to El Paso, I reflected on what we could do to help these people in the Church colonies in Mexico,” President Hinckley said in a Church News interview. … “They’ve been so faithful over the years. They’ve kept the faith. They’ve gone on missions in large numbers. These stakes have produced very many mission presidents who served faithfully and well. They’ve been the very epitome of faithfulness.
“And yet, they’ve had to travel all the way to Mesa, Ariz., to go to a temple,” President Hinckley noted.
He said as they quietly drove along, “I thought of these things and what could be done. The concept of these smaller temples came into my mind.” …
Once on the airplane, President Hinckley put his ideas onto paper. “I took a piece of paper,” he said, “and sketched out the [floor] plan, and turned it over to the architects to refine it.”
The colonies in northern Mexico live on and continue to be home to many faithful Latter-day Saints, though the Mexican Revolution changed those colonies dramatically.
 Carl B. Pratt, “The Lord’s Richest Blessings,” General Conference, April 2011, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2011/04/the-lords-richest-blessings?lang=eng.
 John A Gonzalez, “Elder Gonzalez: First Mexican Missionary,” in No More Strangers and Foreigners: The Melding of Cultures Against the Backdrop of Deep Religious Faith (Independently Published, 2019), 49.
 Cited in John A. Gonzalez, No More Strangers and Foreigners: The Melding of Cultures Against the Backdrop of Deep Religious Faith (pp. 38-39). JAG Legacy Press. Kindle Edition
 John A Gonzalez, “Elder Gonzalez: First Mexican Missionary,” in No More Strangers and Foreigners: The Melding of Cultures Against the Backdrop of Deep Religious Faith (Independently Published, 2019), 65.
 Saints, Volume 3, 152-153, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/history/saints-v3/part-2/10-struggle-and-fight?lang=eng.
 Saints, Volume 3, 156, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/history/saints-v3/part-2/10-struggle-and-fight?lang=eng.
 Gonzalez, No More Strangers, 75.
 Gonzalez, No More Strangers, 83.
 Eighty-third Semi-Annual Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1912), 3-4, https://archive.org/details/conferencereport1912sa/page/n3/mode/2up.
 Barbara Jones Brown, “The 1910 Mexican Revolution and the Rise and Demise of Mormon Polygamy in Mexico,” in Just South of Zion: The Mormons in Mexico and Its Borderlands, ed. Jason H. Dormandy and Jared M. Tamez (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2015), 29-34.
 Brown, “The 1910 Mexican Revolution and Mormon Polygamy,” 32.
 Dell Van Orden, “Inspiration came for smaller temples on trip to Mexico,” Deseret News: Church News, August 1, 1998, p.3.