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Ruined Raid on Short Creek

Arizona National Guard troops fed women and children following the 1953 raid on Short Creek.

Prior to dawn on a summer morning in 1953, Arizona staged the largest police action in its history. It was a costly, controversial venture that made headlines across the nation but produced no tangible results.
Short Creek — today called Colorado City — is situated on the Arizona Strip, one of the state’s most inaccessible and least-populated regions. Established in 1909, it was an obscure hamlet without distinguishing characteristics until 1928, when brothers Price and Elmer Johnson moved their families from Lee’s Ferry on the Colorado River to the remote community in the hope of continuing, without societal interference, their practice of polygamy. In time, Short Creek became a magnet for renegade polygamists, a practice disavowed by the Mormon Church in 1890.
The state raided Short Creek in 1935 and again in 1944, in conjunction with the FBI. A handful of men were tried on various charges — largely Mann Act violations — but most convictions were overturned on legal technicalities. Few went to jail, but the raids did nothing to inhibit plural marriage.
In 1950, at the Mohave County seat in Kingman, some 400 miles distant, welfare workers reported that young wives — some were 13 or 14 years old — were applying for assistance. In more than a few instances, they listed the same man as their husband.
In the spring of 1951, this oddity was brought to the attention of Gov. Howard Pyle and Attorney General Fred Wilson. Keenly aware that polygamy was practiced on the Arizona Strip, Wilson proposed that the state, in conjunction with its northern neighbor, raid the adjoining towns of Short Creek and Hilldale, Utah. He wanted the entire population of Short Creek removed to Kingman and housed in barracks pending legal action. Utah declined participation and Wilson’s bizarre idea was scuttled.
Time passed, but a situation regarded as troublesome by Arizona authorities did not. Wilson pressed the issue and in early 1953, the Legislature appropriated $50,000 to “rescue” Short Creek’s women and children from the “shackles” of polygamy.
Burns Detectives were hired to ferret out information. The town was mapped and each home was numbered and labeled with the names of its occupants. Months were consumed by Arizona authorities who drafted plans in utmost secrecy.
On Saturday, July 25, an armada of highway patrol cars carrying more than 100 officers converged on the high school auditorium at Williams. They thought they were there to attend traffic-control school. The ruse was revealed and the men were told they would participate in a raid on Short Creek.
After dark, the patrol cars left Williams at five-minute intervals. One group of vehicles drove east to Flagstaff, then north to Navajo Bridge at Marble Canyon and across the Kaibab Plateau. The second group headed northwest toward Nevada to enter the village through Hurricane on the Utah side. Uniform speed was regulated at 50 miles per hour and the raid was set for 4 a.m. Sunday.
Hundreds of hours of planning, preparation and secrecy shrouding the raid were all for naught. Hours before lawmen arrived, a reporter drove into town. “Has the raid happened yet?” he asked a resident.
A dynamite blast awakened the community. Leaders of the sect assembled in the school yard to await the intruders. Soon, the armada of police vehicles rolled onto Short Creek’s main street, sirens wailing, red lights flashing against the blackened sky. The ominous situation officers anticipated did not materialize. There was no violence, no resistance. In 30 minutes, law enforcement officials declared the town “secured.”
A reporter noted that results of the massive police action could have been achieved by the county sheriff and a handful of deputies. With blistering sarcasm, The Arizona Republic wrote: “Officials of the state of Arizona have humiliated its citizens by a pistol and shotgun raid that resembled an operation to subdue Pork Chop Hill” — a reference to a bloody battle in the just-concluded Korean War.
Short Creek residents were read their rights and the men trucked to jail at Kingman. The children and 12 juvenile wives were placed under juvenile court jurisdiction. Then, on August 1, bail was posted and the jailed men were released. On their return home, they learned that 38 wives and 154 children had been whisked by a convoy of buses to the Department of Public Welfare in Phoenix.
Myriad legal difficulties plagued authorities and court proceedings were postponed time and again. Nearly a year passed when 36 men pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate Arizona law prohibiting polygamy. Each was given a one-year suspended sentence.
Juvenile mothers and children, who were placed in foster homes in the Phoenix area, were forbidden to return to Short Creek. Virtually all of them did. The pattern of their lives resumed and polygamy flourished on the Arizona Strip.
The largest police raid in Arizona history was a colossal waste of time and taxpayer money.
W. Lane Rogers. Photo courtesy Utah State Historical Society.

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