Just before sunrise on a summer Sunday morning, 120 government agents swoop down on a remote community in Arizona. By the time they are done, 36 fathers will be arrested, and 86 women and 263 children, many of them crying, will be herded onto buses and shipped hundreds of miles away, where some of the children will be placed in foster care.This was not a scene along the U.S. border with Mexico in 2018. It happened in 1953, in a place called Short Creek, on the Arizona-Utah border, during an attempt to crack down on polygamy.Some of the women involved were “sister wives,” married to the same man, and remained separated for as long as two years before they were allowed to return to their homes. The national furor over the raid would eventually cost Arizona’s governor his job.Children as young as 5 sob uncontrollably in government dormitories. They have been uprooted from their families, some forcibly, and sent hundreds, even thousands, of miles away for the explicit purpose of stripping them of their culture and heritage. They are forbidden from speaking their native languages, and government employees are prevented from hugging or consoling them.This, too, is not a contemporary scene. Beginning in the late 1800s and for more than a century, the federal government forced tens of thousands of Native American children into Indian boarding schools.The first such school, the Carlisle Industrial Indian School in Pennsylvania, was founded by Capt. Richard Pratt, whose model was followed across the country, including Phoenix. It was Pratt who coined the phrase, “Kill the Indian, save the man.” His goal was to educate Native American children in the Anglo ways and eventually send them home to “Americanize” their peers. The practice continued well into the 20th century.
Three nuns shepherd 40 orphans 2,000 miles across the country to place them with Catholic families in two small Arizona towns. The adoptions are arranged in advance and approved by the local priest.Local women, however, object that one race is being placed with families of another and demand that local law enforcement officials round the children up. Angry mobs form, and the nuns and the priest are nearly lynched. The orphanage and the Catholic church sue on behalf of the original adoptive families. Their case will go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.This happened in 1904 in the Arizona territorial mining towns of Clifton and Morenci. The children, who came from an orphanage in New York, were mostly blond and blue-eyed, while the Catholic families they were placed with were predominantly of Mexican Indian descent.The Supreme Court ruled that the Mexican mothers were not fit “by mode of living, habits and education” and that the children would be better off being raised by their own kind.
Other cases of systemic family separation can be found throughout history, the most notorious being slavery and the internment of U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry in World War II.None of these episodes are perfect parallels with the current controversy over the separation of migrant families at U.S. border detention facilities, a practice President Donald Trump ended earlier this week by executive order.All three examples involved children and families who were born in the United States. The Short Creek raid involved state authorities, not the federal government. And the children in what became known as the Irish Orphan Abduction case were never really with their new families long enough to form a bond.But the events in each case were traumatic for the families that endured them, and the long lens of history provides lessons those who were there say are relevant today.
The raid on Short Creek Alvin S. Barlow was 15 when the raid came. It was July 26, 1953, and the people of the isolated polygamist community in northwestern Arizona had been expecting it. They’d gathered in the schoolyard the night before, and when nothing happened, some went home, while others stayed.Early in the morning, sentries posted outside town sounded a prearranged signal — a blast from a stick of dynamite — and the raid was on. Dozens of Arizona Highway Patrolmen, sheriff’s deputies and state liquor agents descended on the town and began rounding people up with the stated purpose of re-establishing the rule of law in Short Creek.
Arizona Gov. Howard Pyle had for months been barraged with complaints about the town over the polygamy issue. The complaints involved allegations of forced child marriage, rape and incest.The townspeople claimed they were exercising their right to practice their religion, a major tenet of which includes plural marriage, which is outlawed by the federal government.But there were also allegations of rampant welfare fraud.
Arizona historian Marshall Trimble said the political pressure from Mohave County officials was intense because their coffers “were being bled dry.”
“Something had to be done,” he said.