In 1882 the Edmund Bill was passed in Washington, D.C., outlawing the practice of polygamy in the United States. For Mormons this was a direct blow against one of the tenets of their church, and when polygamous families started being prosecuted by the Federal Government many of them felt they had no choice but to leave the country.
At this time Mexican president Porfirio Díaz was welcoming hard-working prosperous foreigners into the Mexican northwest. Mormons obtained land in Chihuahua, near the town of Casas Grandes, and established the colonies that still exist today with proud and well-celebrated history.
Less well-known are the shorter-lived colonies established at about the same time on the Río Bavispe in Sonora. There was Colonia Morelos at the bend of the Bavispe, as well as the smaller colonias of Oaxaca and San José.
Morelos, however, remained the center of Mormon occupation in Sonora. It was a hard-working agricultural community which managed to export wheat, fruit, and other produce to the relatively nearby mines at El Tigre and Pilares. It had blacksmiths, a working flour mill and a store. The non-irrigable lands were used for cattle raising. This prosperity and surplus of foodstuffs worked against the colony, making it a target for easy looting during the Revolution.
1912 was a bad year for the Sonoran Mormons. Federales, Maderistas, and Oroquistas (the Colorados or “Red Flaggers,” whom we have met before) from Chihuahua all came through Colonia Morelos, looting, pillaging, and shocking the conservative Mormons by their behavior.
The Mormons attempted to maintain neutrality (a standard technique in the Chihuahua colonies as well), but this had no deterrent effect on the hungry looters. Rifles and ammunition were brought to the John Slaughter ranch on the border, smuggled across, and placed in lumber wagons which were driven by young boys so as to be above suspicion. At least one of these wagons was equipped with a false bed for the concealment of the rifles and ammunition. Some of these arms ended up at the mines of El Tigre, which were also under serious threat. Finally on August 30, 1912, a general exodus took some 450 Mormons across the border to safety. There were sporadic attempts to keep the mill going in 1913 and '14, but the colony was effectively abandoned. The land was sold to Mexico in 1921.
In later years Colonia Morelos was settled by Mexican families, but it still features a few brick houses and other physical traces of its Mormon past. There is more information on the Mormon colonies in Mexico online under “the Mormon Colonies in Sonora.” This site includes the complete study of Colonia Morelos written by the late Barney Burns and the later Tom Naylor.
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