Finding Refuge in El Paso

The Setting: Mormon Migration In and Out of Mexico

What caused thousands of Mormons to leave America and settle in northern Mexico in the late nineteenth century? Was it to expand their ecclesiastical borders? Was it to proselytize the Mexican nation? Or was it to escape prosecution for the practice of plural marriage? Each of these options seemed to play a role in the migration and colonization of Mexico. Many Latter-day Saints left the comforts of their homes in Utah and Arizona to a region that was so dry even the lizards wore canteens. There were hundreds and eventually thousands who either migrated southward to Mexico or chose to move northward to Canada to avoid problems with the laws regarding plural marriage

In late 1884, persecution against Mormon polygamists became so unpleasant that President John Taylor counseled the Arizona Saints to go into Mexico if the conditions became unbearable.[1] About this same time, Elder Erastus Snow told the Saints in St. John’s Arizona (September 25, 1884), “I have truly aided and cherished the settlements in this part of the country. This was 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, of Joseph’s vision that Zion would occupy all of “North and South America.”[2] Thus, the factors for the move across the border seem to be a combination of factors: missionary work, colonization and the harassment caused by government officials who sought to prosecute the Mormons for the practice of plural marriage.  

At the dawn of 1885, President Taylor sent another exploring party to Chihuahua to look for possible sites in northern Mexico for the Mormons to colonize. Shortly thereafter, President Taylor also decided that the core for this southern gathering place would be in the Casas Grandes area in the state of Chihuahua.[3] 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.” Such settlements were established “south of El Paso in the state of Chihuahua, along the valley floor near Colonia Juarez. In the mountains to the west were Colonia Pacheco, Colonia Garcia, and Colonia Chuichupa. In the state of Sonora south of Douglas, Arizona, along the Bavispe River were Colonia Morelos, Colonia Oaxaca, and San Jose.”[4] Those who went south and established these settlements, would soon make the Mexican desert environment blossom as a rose and enjoy peace and prosperity, but things would suddenly change with the echoes of the Mexican Revolution.

This is readily apparent from the journal account of John Walser who lived in Colonia Juarez. In early April 1912 he wrote, “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 only a few months later (July 28, 1912), he writes, 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.”[5] This same abruptness is attested by seventeen year old Willard Whipple who recalled “how fast things were happening, I had played violin in an orchestra for a dance in the Juarez Stake Academy celebrating the 24th of July,” but four days later, the exodus had already begun and the Saints began to pour into El Paso.[6]

Concerning the unexpected turn of events occurring at the time of the sudden evacuation, Hyrum Albert Cluff also hints at the sweeping shift of emotion which transpired from the heights of joy at a Pioneer Day celebration to apparent depths of despair at the time of departure: “July twenty-fourth, 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.”[7]

Journey to the Border and Reception at El Paso

When they arrived, they found willing hands and charitable hearts ready to receive them.   “I feel thankful to the good citizens of El Paso for the aid and sympathy they gave us.”[8] So wrote 86 year old William Morley Black, as he recalled memorable events during the peak of the blistering summer of 1912. At this time, thousands of Mormons living in the Mexican colonies began to flow to and through El Paso, much like the ripples of the Rio Grande. Their forced exodus from the colonies where Latter-day Saints had been dwelling for a quarter of a century was one necessitated by the Mexican Revolution. El Paso, Texas which lies near the geographic center of the Borderlands region on the southern border of the United States and northern border of Ciudad Jurez, Chihuahua played a pivotal role as a refuge from the Revolution.[9]

On July 29, 1912, the front page 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 a special train over the Mexico North Western Railroad, they came in from Pearson and Casas Grandes.[10] In Salt Lake City, the front page of the Deseret Evening News under the heading “Mormons Flee From Mexico,” there were “dire threats” reported.[11] Two days later it was reported that the cause of the expulsion of the Saints from the colonies was “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” and to render them aid.[12]

Departure to the Rail Stations and Train Travel North

Catherine Aurelia Carling Porter captured the abrupt nature of the sudden forced exodus: “The Bishop sent a runner over to our place to tell us to be ready to leave on the next train that would take us to El Paso, Texas. We were to meet at 1:00am at the store where the train would take us on. We had to walk out of our home and leave everything we could pack into two trunks – – cows, horses, chickens, all our food and household things.”[13] Vaneese Harris Woffinden remembered “Each family was told to pack one trunk and make a roll of bedding in preparation to leave at a minute’s notice.” Just before leaving with a group of Saints on the train she also recalled, “Bishop Thurber blessed his congregation and prayed God’s protection on them.”[14]

Jesse M. Taylor remembered that there were many revolutionists at the 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.

[15] 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 they started to sing as the group was nervous and frightened and were bidding farewell to their homes.[16]

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.”[17]

Helaman Judd related that Church members in Chuichupa received word one night that the women and children were to be on the train the following day. “And so every body was just as busy as could be all night long getting ready to go.”[18] 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-class 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 as the delayed train . . . in the stifling July heat.”[19]

Such affliction would increase when the departing Saints later realized that most would not return to their beloved homes in the colonies. For as Edward Christian Eyring explained, “At the time of leaving we had not the slightest idea we were making 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 did.[20]  

In addition to the trial of leaving all possessions behind, with the exception of “a roll of bedding, a trunk of clothing and a basket of food,”[21] great patience was also required due to the challenge of rail travel out of Mexico. Willard Whipple, who was a youth at the time of the exodus, “was to remember that the train traveled so slowly that some of the youngsters jumped off and ran along side.”[22]  

Sarah Jones Payne 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.”[23]

Robert Chestnut Beecroft remembered that at the time of 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. 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.

Reception and Residence for the Weary at El Paso

The El Paso Morning Times described the pathetic sight as these incoming Mormon refugee women and children reached 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. . . . O. [Orson] P. [Pratt] Brown, of the colonists was on hand to look after the arrivals,” with the aid of others.[24]

A number of El Paso citizens quickly rallied to support the incoming, weary travelers by offering automobile 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 furnished free of charge by the drivers.”[25] 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.”[26]

Notwithstanding such hospitality, upon arrival at the abandoned lumber yard, the refugees would find conditions wanting. For example, Maude Cluff Farnsworth wrote,

“We had to hang blankets for a wall so we could go to bed. There were several babies born that night without much help. We would go to the gate and see people looking through the cracks at us as if we were wild animals”[27] Vaneese Harris Woffinden remembered, “People crowded in the depot and along the roads where our busses [sic] passed to look at us 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.”[28]

Camilla Eyring recalled, 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. . . . 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.[29]

Although these Mormon refugees believed that some of the Texas folk found the Mormons a curiosity, the Deseret Evening News explained, “the refuge camps are the gathering place for many El Pasoans, many of them visiting the place out of idle curiosity, but by far the greater number coming into ascertain if they can in any way assist in alleviating the sufferings of the refugees.

.. . The people of El Paso have opened their hearts to assist the colonists.”[30] Some of the people even sent meat and vegetables and the women within the enclosure cooked hugh pots of stew where each refugee might come and received hot food.


One refugee observed, “news reporters and cameramen were on the job making the most of everything. When we moved in, we had a chance to cook in a campfire out in front of the building. Each day two or three persons would cook dinner for the whole group that were in the building. We cooked potatoes in a six-gallon lard can and it seemed so good to have hot food.[32]

That news reporters were “making the most of everything,” can certainly be attested by articles which continued to in newspapers both in El Paso as well as in Utah. Both regions continued to tell of the plight of the Mormon refugees and the concerted efforts being made to provide relief.   For example, in Utah, the Deseret Evening News reported on July 30, 1912, in a front page article titled, “Refugees Are Fleeing North,” that “the majority of the refugees are being housed under sheds in an abandoned lumber yard, although many have been taken care of in hotels and rooming houses.” Culling from the Associated Press, this same article observed, “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.”[33]          

This same day the El Paso Morning Times reported a meeting in the Chamber of Commerce in which Henry Eyring Bowman told El Paso businessmen of the terrible plight and conditions of the Mormons fleeing from the colonies by one of the suffering Saints who was an eye-witness to this tragedy. After hearing a portion of this report, President Walter S. Clayton of the Chamber of Commerce asked the businessmen “to devise ways and means to care for the families of the American settlers . . . who were being driven from their homes. . . . The call was responded to by a large number of the leading men of this city.”[34]

Mayor C. E. Kelly 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.”[35]

As August dawned, the Deseret News again described the turbulent events for the refugees: “While their homes are being looted, their fields and crops devastated, and their cattle stolen and killed, [they] . . . are fleeing for safety . . . and are being huddled in quarters in this city [El Paso] with scanty provisions and only a few comforts. To the credit of the El Pasoans and others active in the relief work, it must be said that everything possible is being done for the refugees.”[36]  

The U.S. government and military station at Fort Bliss were also involved with providing provisions and shelter for the Mormon refugees and such attention did not go unnoticed, even by the children. Myrl Rowley Day, a young girl at the time of the exodus, recalled, that the army had built a shower for the refugees “out of green lumber. . . so the water could leak out.” She further observed, “The shower itself was in a tin can with nail holes in it. . . . I had never seen a shower before so we thought that was great. We had always taken a bath in a washtub before that.”[37]

William Morley Black remarked, “I feel thankful to our government and to President William 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.”[38] Funds were used for food which was distributed at the abandoned lumber yard and hundreds of tents were distributed from nearby Fort Bliss which had been transported from St. Louis.[39] Such help had been arranged through LDS Church leader, Anthony W. Ivins who had been responsible from the beginning in arranging provisions, temporary lodging as well as rail transportation in and out of El Paso. Two days before the first Mormon refugees reached El Paso, an LDS church relief committee was also established in the city with Henry E. Bowman 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.[40]

The Deseret Evening News also reported additional help: The “western railroads have granted a rate of one cent per mile to colonists who want to leave for places of refuge and safety in the United States. Two hundred women and children will leave tonight for the Gila valley. Many others have left, or are preparing to leave for Utah, Arizona and other points.”[41] However, a number of families remained in El Paso for several months or even a number of years and some never left as they felt they had found a new home.  

In an El Paso Morning Times article titled, “Colonists Express Their Thanks to Citizens,” signed by A. W. Ivins and four other Latter-day Saint Church leaders assigned as a committee to assist the refugees, sincere gratitude was expressed in an open letter for the generous aid provided them by the city of El Paso and other organizations:  

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 feel, 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.[42]


Although they felt the compassion of the El Pasoans, it was not long before Mormon refugees departed from El Paso to find new homes. Most moved to be near relatives and friends in Utah, Idaho, California, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico. Some even returned to their homes in the Mexican colonies. Yet others chose to stay in El Paso where a century later, their descendants now call home. Today there are two LDS stakes in the El Paso region and over nine thousand Latter-day Saints. On the other side of the border, over one million Mexican citizens after converted to the Latter-day Saint faith and there are now a dozen LDS temples in operation. For the rest of the story, see the forthcoming book by the author titled, Finding Refuge in El Paso: The 1912 Mormon Exodus from Mexico which will also contain a 30 minute documentary to tell the story.


[1]              Blaine Carmon Hardy, “The Mormon Colonies of Northern Mexico: A History, 1885-1912,” (Wayne State University, 1963), 71-72.

[2]              Blaine Carmon Hardy, “The Mormon Colonies of Northern Mexico: A History, 1885-1912,” (Wayne State University, 1963), 37.

[3]              Blaine Carmon Hardy, “The Mormon Colonies of Northern Mexico: A History, 1885-1912,” (Wayne State University, 1963), 73-74.

[4]          “The Lord, God of Israel, Brought Us Out of Mexico!’ Junius Romney and the 1912 Mormon Exodus,” Journal of Mormon History (Fall 2010):211. Romney, in his master’s thesis, “The Exodus of the Mormon Colonists From Mexico, 1912,” (Salt Lake City: University of Utah, 1967), 2-3, further notes that by 1912, there were about “4500 men women and children distributed [in these nine colonies] as follows: Diaz – 750, Dublan, 1,200, Juarez -800, Pacheco -275, Garcia -275, Chuichupa – 275, San Jose -200, Oaxaca -64, and Morelos – 625.” El Paso Mormon historian Mike Mullen, has also found evidence of at least one other settlement and perhaps more.

[5]              John Jacob Walser, “Journal,” April 8, 1912, in “My Life,” compiled by Bonnie Simmon, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Brigham Young University, cited in Matthew G. Geilman, “Document Analysis Paper: The Exodus of the Mormon Colonies form Mexico, Summer, 1912,” 3, unpublished document in possession of author.

[6]              “The Life of Willard Whipple,” (Sunnyvale, CA: October 1977), 13-14. The author thanks Michael Mullen for bringing this source to the attention of the author.  

[7]              Journal of Hyrum Albert Cluff, submitted by Mrs. Sarah Matilda Cluff Lewis, daughter of Hyrum Albert Cluff, in Stalwarts South of the Border, 122.

[8]              William Morley Black, in Stalwarts South of the Border, comps. and eds. Nelle Spilsbury Hatch and B. Carmon Hardy, (California: Ernestine Hatch, 1985), 49 -50.

[9]              W. H. Timmons, El Paso: A Borderlands History (El Paso, Texas: University of Texas at El Paso, 1990), xvii.

[10]             “Red Flaggers drive Americans from their Mexican homes,” El Paso Morning Times (July 29, 1912), 1.

[11]             “Mormons’ Flee From Mexico,” Deseret Evening News (July 29, 1912), 1.

[12]             “Protesting Against Outrages,” Deseret Evening News (July 31, 1912), 4.

[13]             Journal of Catherine Auerlia Carling Porter, wife of Edson Darius Porter, in Stalwarts South of the Border, 535.

[14]             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.

[15]             Interview of Jesse M. Taylor by Ivan Carbine, November 10, 1959, transcript, 16, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.  

[16]             Interview with Frank and Annie O’Donnal by Karl Young in Mesa, Arizona, December 26, 1962, transcript, 11, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.  

[17]             Charles E. McClellan, “The Exodus,” in Treasures of Pioneer History, comp. Kate B. Carter, 6 vols., (Salt Lake City, Utah, 1954), 3:242.

[18]             Interview of Helaman Judd by Joseph B. Romney, August 31, 1971 in Colonia Juarez, transcript, 6, California State University, Fullerton, Oral History Program.

[19]             Caroline Eyring Miner and Edward L. Kimball, Camilla: A Biography of Camilla Eyring Kimball (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1980), 30.

[20]             Edward Christian Eyring, Stalwarts South of the Border, 149-50.   Thomas Cottam Romney, The Mormon Colonies in Mexico, 183, 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 decision not to return was probably greatly influenced by an address which church president, Joseph F. Smith gave in a session of the October 1912 general conference in which he recalled the atrocities committed against the Mormon colonists and then stated, “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 advice at all.” (Cited in Thomas Cottam Romney, The Mormon Colonies in Mexico, 216-217.

[21]             Albert Ezrel Thurber, son of Albert Daniel Thurber, in Stalwarts South of the Border, 705.

[22]             William Whipple, cited by Pat Henry, “El Paso: Sanctuary to Mormon refugees,” El Paso Times (February 5, 1984), 1E. Gratitude is expressed to Ellwyn Stoddard , emeritus professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso, for bringing this article to our attention.

[23]             Sarah Jones Payne, daughter of Timothy Jones, in Stalwarts South of the Border, 376-377.

[24]             “More Refugees have Arrived,” El Paso Morning Times (August 1, 1912), 1-2. W. H. Timmons, El Paso: A Borderlands History, 193, noted that the Union Depot was constructed in 1906 at the cost of $260,000.00.

[25]             “More Refugees have Arrived,” El Paso Morning Times (August 1, 1912), 2.  

[26]             Interview of Lucille R. Taylor by Joseph B. Romney, November 27, 1970, in the home of Lucille R. Taylor, Colonia Dublan, transcript, 6, California State University, Fullerton, Oral History Program.

[27]             Maude Cluff Farnsworth, wife of Byron Nephi Farnsworth, in Stalwarts South of the Border, 169.

[28]             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.

[29]             Caroline Eyring Miner and Edward L. Kimball, Camilla: A Biography of Camilla Eyring Kimball (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1980), 31-32.

[30]             “Refugees From Colonies In Mexico Being Given Every Possible Comfort,” Deseret Evening News (August 1, 1912), 1.

[31]             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.

[32]             Walter Frederick Hurst, written by Hannah Hurst Howell Bohne, daughter of Walter Frederick Hurst, condensed from original by Ruby Hurst Morgan, in Stalwarts South of the Border, 307.

[33]             “Refugees Are Fleeing North,” Deseret Evening News (July 30, 1912), 1.

[34]             “Heart Rending Recital Given,” El Paso Morning Times (July 30, 1912), 1.

[35]             “Heart Rending Recital Given,” El Paso Morning Times (July 30, 1912), 2.The article also named the men chose for this El Paso relief committee: “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.”

[36]             “Refugees From Colonies In Mexico Being Given Every Possible Comfort,” Deseret Evening News (August 1, 1912), 1.

[37]             Oral History interview with Mryl Rowley Day by Christine Day Young, February 19, 1978, transcript, 18, Church History Library.

[38]             William Morley Black, in Stalwarts South of the Border, 49-50. Pat Henry, “El Paso: Sanctuary to Mormon refugees,” El Paso Times (February 5, 1984), 1E, differed from the high sum calculated by Black. Henry noted, “Mormon headquarters in Salt Lake City took responsibility for the refugees. The United States appropriated $20,000.00 for their care (which the Mormon Church paid back).”

[39]             “Orozco Expected to Burn Juarez Before He Evacuates The Town,” Deseret Evening News (August 3, 1912), 1.

[40]             Notes from Relief Committee Minutes, 1912, first page, cited in Joseph Barnard Romney, “The Lord, God of Israel, Brought Us Out of Mexico!’ Junius Romney and the 1912 Mormon Exodus,” Journal of Mormon History (Fall 2010):251-252.

[41]             “Colonists Leaving Refugee Camps For Places of Safety Elsewhere,” Deseret Evening News (August 2, 1912), 1.

[42]             “Colonists Express Their Thanks to Citizens,” El Paso Morning Times (August 2, 1912), 1. The committee of five LDS church leaders who signed the letter were A. W. Ivins, H. E. Bowman, O. P. Brown, Jos. E. Robinson and Guy C. Wilson. It is probable that A. W. Ivins was the person who penned the letter inasmuch as he presided over the committee and provided the first signature.