The history of God’s covenant people recounts numerous pilgrimages, under divine guidance, into foreign and sometimes distant lands. Ancient Israel was delivered out of Egypt as Moses led the Israelites into the promised land. Modern Israel found refuge in the western wilderness of the United States, ably guided by Brigham Young.
A similar exodus was the long, arduous journey of several hundred stalwart and faithful Latter-day Saints into northern Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1885. They too were commanded of God to undertake this journey, and they too were directed by inspired leaders.
“We came into Mexico gladly because we had to,” one early pioneer stated. At that time, United States marshals were zealously executing the Edmunds-Tucker Law against those practicing plural marriage in the United States. Rather than renounce family ties already established or go to prison, many persons fled to Mexico as a haven from persecution.
President John Taylor commissioned Elders George Teasdale and Moses Thatcher of the Council of the Twelve, along with Alexander F. McDonald, president of the Maricopa Stake in Arizona, and others, to locate a place of refuge for the Saints. They were finally granted permission to purchase lands in Mexico on the Piedras Verdes River in northwest Chihuahua, about a hundred miles south of the United States border.
On January 10, 1886, a townsite was laid out—Colonia Juarez, named in honor of Mexico’s great patriot, Benito Juarez.
The Saints’ first homes there were dugouts excavated into the riverbanks. Before the month ended a stockade meetinghouse was completed; it also served as a school and social center. A dam was constructed on the river above the townsite, canals were laboriously built, and lands were allotted and planted.
Less than three months after the town was founded, a patriotic celebration was organized. Appropriately, it was held on March 21, the birthday of Don Benito Juarez. In keeping with Mormon tradition to honor, obey, and respect the law of the land, as well as sustain its authorities, the Saints invited the political leaders of Casas Grandes, the county seat. A red, white, and green flag, sewn by the sisters, was hoisted to the top of a flagpole and fervent cheers were heard: Viva Colonia Juarez! Viva Mexico!
After such an auspicious beginning, Colonia Juarez almost became a casualty. Less than a year later it was discovered that the Saints were settling upon the San Diego ranch of Luis Terrazas and not upon land purchased from Gomez del Campo, as they had supposed. They were forced to abandon their homes, planted fields, and canals and move two miles north up the Piedras Verdes River, where the valley was narrow and the uneven ground sandy and rocky.
A few people returned to the United States, fearing starvation on such limited and unpromising acreage. However, most of the dauntless pioneers started anew, again laying out a townsite, digging canals, and leveling and planting the land.
Water, an absolute necessity for growing crops in this arid region, was scarce. During the dry months there was only a trickle along the dry, rocky riverbed.
Then one afternoon a severe earthquake convulsed the area, hurtling huge boulders down the mountainsides. Sparks from the rocks ignited the tinder-dry grass and shrubs, and smoke and dust filled the air.
That night awesome rumblings were still heard, and the sky was brightened by flashing lights and the glow of prairie fires. When morning dawned, to the Saints’ amazement, the trickle of water in the riverbed was now a large stream. The earth tremors had opened hot springs twenty miles up the river, a source of irrigation water to the valley even today.
By the turn of the century Colonia Juarez was a prosperous town of 750 inhabitants. Orchards were in production; cattle raising on ranches surrounding the town was thriving; a tannery supplied leather for a shoe factory and for the manufacturing of harnesses and saddles; and cheesemaking, gardening, and fruit canning helped augment the income of these industrious pioneers.
Seven other Mormon communities were founded soon after Colonia Juarez.
Pacheco, Garcia, and Chuhuichupa were nestled within the high timbered reaches of the Sierra Madre mountains, where sparkling streams teem with native rainbow trout, and deer, wild turkey, and other animals abound in the forests. These towns became noted for their sawmills, cattle raising, cheesemaking, and truck gardening. However, due to poor transportation, lack of schools beyond primary level, and a prolonged drought, these three once-thriving colonies were reluctantly abandoned.
Colonia Dublan was founded eighteen miles northeast of Colonia Juarez on the rich tableland of the fertile Casas Grandes River. Alfalfa, wheat, corn, and bean cultivation made this the agricultural center of the Mormon colonies. Grist mills were built, and the dairy industry flourished.
Colonia Diaz was settled some sixty miles north of Dublan, while Colonias Oaxaca and Morelos were founded seventy miles west of Diaz in the state of Sonora. Abandoned at the time of the Mexican revolution of 1912, these three towns were never reinhabited by the Latter-day Saints.
Today the combined membership of the Juarez Stake is approximately 1500, including some 500 Anglo-Saxon descendants of the original pioneers. These third- and fourth-generation descendants are still pioneers, for they have introduced and led in modern methods of agriculture, specializing in fruit growing, packaging, and marketing, and in turkey raising.
Why were these courageous Saints guided into Mexico in 1885? Perhaps the final answer still remains in the future.
In 1885 the immediate reason was to find a refuge where men might live in peace with their families.
However, this is not the complete answer, for many of the families that helped build these colonies were not polygamous. Even after the Manifesto was issued and the persecution ceased, these settlers and their numerous descendants chose to remain in Mexico.
Due to conditions in Mexico during the revolution of 1912, many of the Saints withdrew to the United States, abandoning their comfortable homes and prosperous businesses. A new exodus had begun, this time back to the United States, whence these Saints had fled less than thirty years earlier. Why didn’t they remain in the U.S. after the revolution subsided? Surely it was not financial gain that beckoned them back to Mexico. As soon as it was safe, an unknown force seemed to compel many to return to the land of their adoption, to pillaged or destroyed homes and to barns, equipment, and farms now in a bad state of deterioration.
Could it be that they still had a mission to perform? No truer measuring stick has been devised than the expression, “by their fruits ye shall know them.” What are some of these fruits?
The Church now has a foothold in Mexico among a choice people, a people rich in history, tradition, and heritage—people of the lineage of Joseph, direct descendants who are to be recipients of God’s choicest blessings.
The colonists have contributed substantially to the betterment not only of the people surrounding them, but also of the entire nation. Their products have earned honors in state and national fairs. Their methods of production and marketing have helped improve the standard of living of many.
In athletic activities, the Saints’ clean living, good sportsmanship, and athletic excellence have attracted favorable publicity toward the Church. Numerous state and national basketball championships have been won by both girls’ and boys’ teams. Three Latter-day Saints have been stars on Mexico’s Olympic basketball teams.
Education ranks high on the list of the fruits of these colonists. As the towns were founded, even before homes were built, schoolhouses were erected. Before the turn of the century the Juarez Stake Academy was organized. Its alumni include university presidents and many university professors. Perhaps the greatest contribution is the leadership it has provided for the Church schools throughout Mexico, for many of the superintendents, directors, and teachers are graduates of the academy.
Important as all of these reasons may be, the greatest contribution of the Latter-day Saint colonists in Mexico has probably been in Church leadership and in providing missionaries. Several former residents have become General Authorities, and many stake presidents and bishops trace their ancestry to the pioneer settlers of these small towns.
In 1925 ministers and missionaries of all religions were banished from Mexico by government edict. During the period that followed, able and faithful members of the Juarez Stake performed heroically to keep the Church united and active throughout Mexico.
For the next nine years no active proselyting work was allowed. Then in 1934 I was allowed to return to Mexico (having spent two years as a missionary among Mexican people in the United States) and helped establish the Mutual Improvement Association for the cultural and social benefit of the people. Shortly thereafter missionaries were allowed to return to Mexico, although for approximately the next fifteen years only nationals of Mexico were allowed to labor there. Until recently, all mission presidents there were also Mexican citizens. Throughout this period the Mormon colonies of Chihuahua furnished most of the leadership and the missionaries for all of Mexico.
Could this be the reason the Lord guided the faithful pioneer group into Mexico more than eighty years ago? Is their mission now completed? Only time and the Lord know the answer. Perhaps as they continue to serve the Lord faithfully and keep his commandments, their mission in Mexico will have only begun.