Placing the Short Creek Raid in the Context of the Cold War

By August 29, 2013

Ever since rereading Elaine Tyler May?s Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era for a second time during my first year of my PhD coursework, I became curious about how Mormon families, especially in the heart of the Mormon Culture Region, fit within the context of the idealized suburban Cold War family. I questioned how the religion?s history as an ?outsider? religion and group in the nineteenth century and the church?s long (and arguably an ongoing) transition, more or less, into the mainstream United States affected the typical monogamous Mormon family?s position and feelings of belonging and/or outsiderhood in the post-World War II era.  When pondering these questions, it is impossible to ignore the Short Creek Raid of 1953. The July 26th raid occurred during the especially heightened summer of 1953.  Just over a month before the raid,  Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the infamous American accused of espionage, specifically passing information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union, were executed.  Additionally, during the same week as the armistice for the Korean War was signed. The Short Creek Raid is not merely an event that matters within Mormon history but is illustrative of larger fears of deviancy that plagued the United States throughout the Cold War era.

Polygamist members who were opposed to the passages of the 1890 and 1904 Manifestos exhibited their opposition to the Chu044aa01c2ae8196d_landingrch?s new positions on polygamy in a variety of ways: some fled to Mexico or Canada while others still maintained their official Church membership wile secretly practicing polygamy. The establishment of community at Short Creek (later known as Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah) on the southwest border between Utah and Arizona was a reaction to disillusionment with the official Church?s stance on polygamy. Sparsely populated, the strip offered an ideal place for Fundamentalist Mormons, (the name polygamists who still followed certain tenets of the LDS religion used to describe themselves) to develop a community. In the late 1920s, the LDS Church and its leaders were not shy about their antipolygamist stances. Church Presiding Bishop Davis A. Smith pressured government agents ?to take strong action against offenders and make an example of them. Persons using the Church as a cloak for such practices are bringing ill repute to use, and we are cooperating, whenever possible, in obtaining enforcement of the law.?[1]  The Church wanted the American government and public to know that not only would they not tolerate polygamists calling themselves members of the Church, but they were adamantly against any practice of polygamy in the United States.

The 1953 raid against the Short Creek polygamists was galvanized by enthusiasm from Arizona?s governor Howard Pyle. Pyle was the first republican to be elected to the position of governor in twenty-five years. Pyle was a well-liked man who as Martha Sonntag Bradley describes in her book Kidnapped from That Land: The Government Raids on the Short Creek Polygamists ?epitomized what the decade of the 1950s was about for most Americans?a conservative turning back to American tradition.? At the same time, local and regional distrust of the polygamists continued to grow. In the context of the growing anticommunism of the Cold War, the polygamist settlement?s cooperative and communal atmosphere did not fit squarely within the capitalist United States. Their questionable marital practice and supposed tax evasion drew local politicians and lawmakers to seek out ways to persecute the polygamists. Spurred on by a local judge who had been gathering evidence against the polygamists at Short Creek, Pyle was soon in the midst of orchestrating a massive raid against the community. He had hired a private investigation service to capture evidence of statutory rape, bigamy, open cohabitation, income tax evasion, misappropriation of school funds, and contributing to the delinquency of minors.  What drove Pyle to pursue the raid was what he perceived as the outright abuse of women and children. Original plans for the raid called for women and children to be airlifted out of Arizona to different states across the country.[2]

On Sunday, July 26, 1953, during the Pioneer Day weekend, at 4 AM, around one hundred Arizona patrolmen, National Guard and deputies sheriffs descended upon Short Creek. Hearing word of an expected raid, the adults of Short Creek gathered in the schoolhouse, singing both patriotic and Mormon songs like ?The Star-Spangled Banner? and ?Come, Come, Ye Saints.?[3]  Thirty-one men and fifty-six women were arraigned on charges of polygamy; the men were sent to jail and the women and 263 children went to live with different Mormon foster families.[4]   Arizona took custody of  153 of the 263 children who lived on the Arizona side of the settlement. The state designated many LDS families  in Mesa and Phoenix to serve as foster families to these women and children.

Rhetoric surrounding the polygamist women and children was at once similar and different from the earlier rhetoric of the late-nineteenth century. In a statement written to be released after the raid took place on July 26, 1953, Pyle referred to plural marriage as ?degrading slavery? and referred to the women as ?white slaves? echoing earlier comparison between slavery and polygamy from the early nineteenth century. The most glaring difference was the attitude toward the children and the assumption of women?s willing participation in  perpetuating polygamy. From the same statement, Pyle commented:

?The State is moving at once to seek through the courts the custody of these 263 children, all under the age of 18. They are the innocent chattels of a lawless commercial undertaking of wicked design and ruthlessly exercised power?Here is a community is a community?many of women, sadly, right along with the men?unalterably dedicated to the wicked theory that every maturing girl child should be forced into the bondage of multiple wifehood with men of all ages for the sole purpose of producing more children to be reared to become more chattels of this totally lawless enterprise. Some of the boys have escaped this dreadful and dreary life. But the girls?no.?[5]

Even though the majority of women at Short Creek did not have to endure prison with heir children,  their experiences in foster homes varied widely. One polygamist woman, Margaret Hunter Jessop, was shocked to learn that the woman she was staying with wanted to adopt one of her children. Other foster homes did not provide adequate housing for the women and her children. One woman stayed for seven months in a tool shed, with s bed and no toilet,  with her three children for seven months. One woman, who able to live on her own in apartment with her children, was approached by a man in a local park who ?said that he and his wife would like to adopt her daughters and give them in a good life in a Mormon home.? Many remarked that they would not feel calm until they were back ?home? in Short Creek. [6]

The raid quickly appeared in the national news with sensational story titles like ?Arizona Raids Polygamous Cult? in the New York Times and ?Arizona: The Great Love-Nest Raid? in Newsweek. Despite positive coverage of the raids from Church-owned publications, most of the media was overwhelmingly favorable toward the families of Short Creek. Newspapers like the Los Angeles Times and the Arizona Republic questioned if the raid was a good use of public funds. Articles about the event garnered a slew of letters to the editor. One such letter read:” These women have shown spunk and will power in every action of defiance; and in pictures, the young girls are neatly dressed with carefully braided hair, which belies the implications that these women are spineless ?slaves? and victims. They are raising their families under severe economic and pioneering conditions, but they seem quite capable of raising their own children and want to do so!”[7] Though some Americans questioned whether if the raids defied the constitution, religious rights, and rights to privacy, the main concerns centered upon the status of the children and their mothers.  On December 7, 1953, all arrested men were placed on one-year sentences. Most of the children held in Arizona were restored to their families in March of 1955.[8]

Several of the arrested polygamists lived on the Utah side of Short Creek and fell under that state?s jurisdiction. Several women and children who lived on the Utah side, not knowing if Utah would take similar action as Arizona and take custody of the children, immediately moved out of the area following the raid. After the July 1953, Arizona?s attorney general Ross Jones contacted Judge David F. Anderson of the Sixth District Juvenile Court in St. George, to inform him that the Arizona Juvenile Court was concerned over the plight of the polygamous children in Utah.[9]  After several months of deciding how to proceed with the issue, Anderson decided to pursue a test case with the polygamist Leonard Black and his second wife Vera Johnson Black, with whom he had eight children. On May 11, 1954, Judge Anderson stated that the children were indeed neglected. The children were to be placed within foster care for a year, so the parents would stop practicing plural marriage to prevent the permanent adoption of the children. To circumvent this action, Leonard and Vera Black had thirty days to sign an affidavit to comply and renounce their religious beliefs. Nonetheless, the Blacks refused and stood by their religious beliefs. A year and a half later in January of 1956, Vera Black and her children were transported two hundred and seventy miles to Provo where officials once again attempted to have her renounce polygamy. She still refused.

That same month, the Church owned Deseret News ran an editorial entitled ?Stamp Out Polygamy? that took the responsibility of the separation of the children from the government and placed it squarely upon the parents. ?The real responsibility lies upon the parents who persists in flouting the law, thus bringing harm to themselves and to their children and to the reputation of this great state. It is only the humanitarianism of the courts that has kept both parents from going to jail??[10]  Juanita Brooks, who had actually visited with Vera Black before her children were originally taken from her, wrote a livid letter to the editor in response to this article. A loyal LDS adherent, Brooks wrote: ?That the official organ of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should approve such a basically cruel and wicked thing as the taking of little children and babies form their mother strains the faith of many, many of us.?[11] The letter remained unpublished by the Deseret News but it was printed in the Salt Lake Tribune and Truth, a newspaper published by polygamists. In June of that same year, Vera Black was only reunited with her children after she decided to sign an affidavit renouncing her belief in polygamy.

This historical moment simultaneously reveals how many mainstream Americans were still unsettled by news of the practice of Mormon plural marriage but were also principally concerned about the plight of the children, their health and well being.  Breaking up the polygamist family was not good especially if it meant the breaking up of a family. Nevertheless, wide fears of communism and deviancy also gave way to newfound and reactivated fears of Mormon plural marriage amongst mainstream Americans. The Short Creek raid is just not a mere historical curiosity of the 1950s, but one that highlights how different Americans, including Mormons, attempted to reconcile their fears of deviancy with the desire to appear normal and patriotic during the Cold War.


[1] Bradley, Kidnapped from That Land: The Government Raids on the Short Creek Polygamists (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press), 53.

[2] Bradley, 115, 119, 122-3, 209.

[3] Bradley, Kidnapped from the Land, 127.

[4]   Levi S. Peterson  Juanita Brooks: Mormon Woman Historian (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988), 226-7.

[5] Governor Pyle quoted  in Bradley, 208, 210.

[6] All anecdotes take from Bradley, 142-144.

[7] Quoted in Bradley, 152.

[8]   Ken Driggs, “Who Shall Raise the Children? Vera Black and the Rights of Polygamous Utah Parents”, Utah Historical Quarterly 60.27 (1992): 32.

[9] Bradley, 166.

[10] ?Stamp Out Polygamy.? Deseret News  28 Jan. 1956

[11] Peterson, 248.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks, Natalie. I, too, thought about how Mormons fit into the postwar American narrative while reading May’s book in a graduate seminar, but had never considered what context it might provide for the Short Creek Raid. Fascinating.

    Comment by Christopher — August 29, 2013 @ 1:57 pm

  2. Thanks, Natalie. Fascinating.

    Comment by David G. — August 29, 2013 @ 3:38 pm

  3. I don’t know why the execution of the Rosenbergs or the signing of the armistice in Korea would have heightened anything in the summer of 1953. If anything, the execution of the Rosenbergs, as contrasted with their trial and conviction, began to expose some cracks in the near monolithic anti-Communist bloc in the U.S. And the end of the long stalemate in Korea (there had been scarcely any movement in the armies’ positions for two years) would, if anything, have eased tensions between the U.S. and what was then called the “Communist bloc.”

    But I also don’t see any evidence for your conclusion that fears of communism led to renewed fears of plural marriage during the Cold War.

    It seems just as likely that those fears of plural marriage–or the actions Gov. Pyle took–were the result of a confluence of several events: the end of the Great Depression, the end of the 2nd World War and, ultimately, the election of a Republican governor.

    Comment by Mark B. — August 29, 2013 @ 3:54 pm

  4. Mark,

    May’s argument from Homeward Bound is that fears of Communism and efforts to contain it in the 1950s were related to the rising ideology of stay-at-home mothers and normative families to contain female sexuality during the same era. The idea is that fear of the outside subversive ideology caused American families to turn inward to control at home what they couldn’t contain abroad. As a couple, the Rosenbergs represented a family tainted by the Communist stain which needed to be purged. The Polygamist raid represented a similar purge of non-normative families. While the relationship isn’t causal it might be correlative and that seems to be the argument being tested out by Natalie. The question becomes how does fear of a nebulous ideology (Communism) translate into the lives of everyday people? May makes a compelling case that it manifest itself in the conception of the family. During the 50s Mormons were trying to transition in mainstream American society, why wouldn’t they support a purge of those groups which represented their religion’s non-normative past?

    Comment by Joel — August 29, 2013 @ 5:07 pm

  5. Very interesting post Natalie, and thanks for the clarification Joel. It was during the McKay’s administration when the family rhetoric was really pushed, right?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 29, 2013 @ 5:12 pm

  6. Thanks for your comments everyone!
    I should have perhaps included Elaine Tyler May’s basic argument from Homeward Bound.

    Mark, thank you for your points. These all very important to consider while writing about “heightened” moments during the Cold War. As Joel pointed out, this blog post is just an argument being tested out by me. A longer and more conclusive piece would take into account all of these points that you and Joel mention.

    Steve, thanks for mentioning McKay’s administration. That is a significant piece of this moment as well.

    Comment by Natalie R — August 29, 2013 @ 5:33 pm

  7. Natalie,

    I hope I didn’t step on your toes–that wasn’t my intention. I really enjoyed the post, and just wanted to make sure people didn’t get distracted from your interesting insights.

    Comment by Joel — August 29, 2013 @ 6:49 pm

  8. I haven’t read May, but the idea of communitarian polygamists raising the ire of of anti-communists is something that I hadn’t ever considered. Really interesting. I should check out Homeward Bound.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 29, 2013 @ 7:21 pm

  9. Apostle Mark E. Petersen stated, “The Church has actively assisted federal and state authorities in obtaining evidence against the cultists, and helping to prosecute them under the law. . . . Among the witnesses for the prosecution are men who have been appointed by the Church to search out the cultists, turning over such information as they gather to the prosecution for their use; these men have also been appointed by the Church to do all they can to fight the spread of polygamy.” . (Sunstone, Feb. 1990, “Changed Faces”, p. 30

    What a sad chapter in the history of the church.

    Comment by Brent Hartman — August 30, 2013 @ 1:42 pm

  10. Were the Church efforts spoken of by Elder Peterson first and foremost intended to provide information to the civil authorities? My understanding is that certain polygamous groups proselytized surreptitiously among LDS congregations and even tried to get their polygamous unions solemnized in LDS temples. That being the case, a concerted effort to purge the Church of polygamists would seem justifiable even if the subsequent decision to turn the records of those investigations over to prosecutors wasn’t.

    Comment by JimD — August 31, 2013 @ 1:28 pm

  11. Natalie: great post. I am curious about how this fit into the national image of Mormonism. JB Haws’s MHA presentation highlighted a Time Magazine cover story on Mormonism during the period, and the types of characteristics they places on this. Could this have played a role in how the nation viewed and dealt with polygamy?

    Comment by Ben P — September 1, 2013 @ 7:01 am

  12. […] teaches a Cold War history course, I appreciated one grad student’s post rereading the 1953 raid on a polygamist settlement at Short Creek in light of Elaine Tyler May’s treatment of the Cold War idealization of the suburban, […]

    Pingback by 10 Blogs by Christian Historians You Should Be Reading | The Pietist Schoolman — September 2, 2013 @ 1:54 pm


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