Updated July 17, 2013If you happen to be driving along in Utah or on the Utah-Arizona border you know you are in a land founded by hard-working Mormons. As I visited Bryce and Zion National Parks, we encountered some charming villages down some of the back roads that had, as their centers, a Mormon Church. The Mormons have had a very positive effect on the countryside. The towns are orderly and close-knit.
While these small towns are charming, there is a darker side to aspects of fundamentalist sects that have their roots in the Church of Latter-Day Saints. There are those that have carried things to the extreme. The Salt Lake Tribune published a "Polygamist Leadership Tree" that provides an excellent overview of the origins and linkages between Polygamist sects in the United States and Canada.
Polygamous sects have founded isolated communities in the Southwest, and have developed a society that defies the laws of both Arizona and Utah and supports polygamous marriage including the marriage of under-age girls and older men. One such community is located in Colorado City, Arizona. Colorado city (map)is in Mojave County. The closest larger community is St. George, Utah, known as a retirement and recreation community. St. George is quite a distance away. Colorado City is very isolated.
Another community, Hildale, Utah, is home to the nation's largest polygamist community. It is across the border from Colorado City.
It is important for visitors to the area to be aware of this community. Strangers are not common and the isolation has allowed a radical sect of polygamists to establish control over the families and children that live there.
A Phoenix, Arizona woman, who was once a member of the sect in Colorado City, escaped the night before she was to be married to an older man. She was 14 at the time. Pennie Petersen, at age 14, found out she was to be married to a 48-year-old man who she said had previously molested her. She ran from the sect and has become an advocate for the under-age brides in Colorado City. In an article, published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, she expressed her ideas, "Petersen advocates education as an important element to any sort of solution in Short Creek (original name for Colorado City). Currently, many boys and girls never make it past the eighth grade, and even then their schooling is done in private, religious schools under the supervision of Jeffs. Peterson added, "Show my 17-year-old daughter a 70-year-old man and tell her that's going to be her new husband, she'll tell you, 'Hell, no,' and beat the crap out of you."
For those that want to know more about the issues, you can visit the website, ChildBrides.org, the site of The HOPE Organization, a St. George, Utah based charity providing assistance to individuals and families to safely transition from a polygamous lifestyle into mainstream society. Their site is an excellent resource for history, news and advocacy for these at-risk children and families.
A video entitled Banking on Heaven illustrates the plight of the children in polygamist sects such as Colorado City. The makers of the documentary describe their work, "Banking on Heaven is the inside story of the largest polygamous enclave in the United States, written, produced, and narrated by Laurie Allen, who escaped a similar polygamous sect at age sixteen. While the media sensationalize this story, Banking on Heaven takes you inside, takes you where no one has gone before, behind closed doors in Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah. The website has a trailer for this film which is definitely worth watching.
With the arrest and conviction of Warren Jeffs, the leader of this community, change may be in the cards. Nevertheless, these are not communities that welcome outsiders and, for the time being, should be avoided by travelers.