The Miracle of the Piedras Verdes: The Story of the Founding of Colonia Juarez

The Miracle of the Piedras Verdes: The Story of the Founding of Colonia Juarez

By Leslie L. Sudweeks

Brigham Young had envisioned the establishing of Mormon settlements in Mexico as a logical extension of his colonization of the Great Basin and adjacent regions, but he did not live to see the fulfillment of his plans, although he did send missionary expeditions into Chihuahua and Sonora as well as Mexico City. Six years after the death of the great colonizer, when the Maricopa Stake was organized among the settlers along the Salt River in Arizona, President Alexander F. Macdonald was instructed to investigate the possibilities for settlement along the Mexican border. Some preliminary explorations had been conducted by Macdonald prior to this time, and in 1884 he acted as guide for elders Brigham Young, Jr., and Heber J. Grant, of the Council of the Twelve, on an exploring expedition into Sonora

A letter was dispatched from the First Presidency to President Christopher Layton of the St. Joseph Stake under date of December 16, 1884, advising the Arizona settlers to seek homes in Mexico. This letter was considered of sufficient importance that it was personally carried to Arizona by Elder Seymour B. Young. Before the end of the year several of the Arizona brethren, acting upon counsel, had crossed the border and obtained employment hauling salt to the Mexican Central Railroad at San Jose.(1)

During January 1885, Macdonald and Layton made a hasty trip to seek out suitable lands in northern Chihuahua and make arrangements to rent or buy.(2) On February 23, Elder Moses Thatcher of the Council of the Twelve and Alexander F. Macdonald set out from St. David, Arizona, with a company of emigrants. Reaching the Casas Grandes River near the Mexican town of Ascencion early in March, a temporary camp was established. A week later a second company arrived from Snowflake. Additional emigrants continued to arrive during the following weeks.

The influx of so large a group of foreigners aroused the suspicion and enmity of certain local Mexican officials which resulted in an order on April 9 from the acting governor of Chihuahua for the Mormons to leave that state within fifteen days. An appeal to the Chihuahua government proving futile, Elders Brigham Young, Jr., and Moses Thatcher of the Council of the Twelve were dispatched to Mexico City to bring the case before President Porfirio Diaz.

The Mormon emissaries were successful in having the expulsion order revoked and the Chihuahua governor deposed. President Diaz stated that he was anxious to have the Mormons come and help develop the country and that they were welcome to settle on lands of their own choosing in the states of Chihuahua, Sonora or anywhere else except in that narrow strip of land along the border known as the Zona Prohibida. (3)

Upon his return from Mexico City, Elder Thatcher advised the colonists to scatter out and rent lands from the Mexicans until such time as suitable tracts could be purchased. This scattering would also serve to allay any anxiety existing among the natives that they were being invaded, or that an armed conquest was in prospect.

When the original camp broke up in April, one party consisting of eleven families went up the Casas Grandes River, some sixty miles and located temporarily at the Tres Alamos, about five miles north of the Mexican town of Casas Grandes. There land was rented from the local Mexicans and crops planted. The place was called Turley's Camp, after Isaac Turley, who had been appointed presiding elder. The little group was soon swelled by the arrival of a half-dozen other families. Because of the temporary nature of their residence and the press of work, the exiles lived in tents or wagons or constructed rude shelters known as boweries. Though strangers in a new land, religious duties were not neglected. Sunday schools and sacrament meetings were faithfully held under the shade of the trees or around the campfire under the stars.

As a result of the explorations of Francis M. Lyman, George Teasdale, and George C. Williams, during the summer of 1885, the little company at Turley's Camp, which seems also to have been called San Jose, decided to locate in the beautiful valley of the Piedras Verdes River, where a considerable acreage of land was available for purchase.

At a special meeting held December 4, 1885, miles P. Romney read a letter from Elder George Teasdale, of the Council of the Twelve, appointing George W. Sevey as the presiding elder for the new venture. Three days later several families, including George W. Sevey, George C. Williams, Isaac Turley, Peter Nielsen, Ira B. Elmore, Joseph A. Moffett, William G. Romney, Hyrum Christian Nielson, Peter N. Skousen, Hyrum Jerome Judd, and Ernest L. Taylor left San Jose and drove some seventeen miles to the Piedras Verdes. They were followed within a few days by Miles P. Romney, Thomas Hawkins, John Bloomfield, Joseph Haycock, and Joseph C. Fish.

The site selected was a beautiful one, located on the southwest bank of the Piedras Verdes about opposite the mouth of the Tinaja Wash. The valley there was about two miles wide and the land was almost as level as a floor. To the west lay the grassy foothills of the might Sierra Madres, and to the east, another bulwark of low hills, separating the valley of the Piedras Verdes from that of the Casas Grandes.

Joseph C. Fish surveyed the town site before the close of the year, and town lots were allotted to the heads of families. The first residences consisted of dugouts and boweries constructed along the bank of the river.

Regular Sunday meetings were continued at the new location, and, to start the new year out right, a choir was organized on Sunday, January 3, 1886. The little colony took much pride in this choir, which furnished music for patriotic and social gatherings as well as religious ones.

On January 6, Senor Gomez del Campo met with the brethren regarding their negotiations for the purchase of lands on the Piedras Verdes, promising them as much as they wanted. Alexander F. Macdonald was selected by the Saints as their representative to accompany Senor del Campo to Mexico City and arrange the details of the purchase. Macdonald returned on March 6, reporting the acquisition of 20,000 hectares (about 49,000 acres) of land. The President of the Church had appropriated $12,000 toward this purchase.

At a meeting two weeks later, on March 19, it was decided that the settlers would form themselves into a company and hold the land in common, with no title passing to individuals. The assignments made to heads of families were to be held merely as stewardships. Irrigation ditches were dug, water being taken out of the Piedras Verdes about two miles above the campsite, and farming operations were commenced.

Meanwhile a meetinghouse, eighteen by twenty-eight feet, had been completed in January, the walls formed by logs set on end as close together as possible and the floor and roof of dirt. Elder George Teasdale preached the first sermon in the new building on January 30, and Elder Erastus Snow preached there on March 14.

A week later, Sunday, March 21, a celebration was held, the townsite being formally dedicated and named Colonia Juarez, after Benito Juarez, the Mexican national hero. Senor Don Urban Zubia, the Jefe Politico of Casas Grandes, and the Catholic padre were in attendance, and both delivered speeches of welcome to the Mormons. The ceremonies included a Mexican flag-raising. Speeches were also made by Senor Gomez del Campo, Erastus Snow, Miles P. Romney, and Alexander F. Macdonald. The choir rendered several musical selections, including "Oh Say, What Is Truth?" "Do What Is Right," and "Beautiful River." A banquet followed these impressive ceremonies.

In April, Annie M. Romney, wife of Miles P. Romney, was persuaded to become the first teacher of Colonia Juarez, holding school in the log meetinghouse.

The year 1886 held promise of success for the new colonists. An irrigation system had been completed. Their corn, vegetables, and sugar cane did well, and the wild grass on the hillsides provided ample forage for their cattle. A thriving store was operated by Ernest L. Taylor and George W. Sevey. The population of the colony numbered about thirty families.

Then came the stunning news that their town site was located two miles below the northern boundary of the San Diego Ranch and not on the lands which they had purchased. The legal owner stubbornly refused to sell or trade, although he was offered twice as much land in exchange. There was nothing left, therefore, but to pull up stakes, abandon their improvements, and move two miles north to the land to which they had title.

On November 3, Alexander F. Macdonald commenced to survey the new town site. George W. Sevey and Miles P. Romney located the line for a new canal on the northeast side of the river. This ditch was three miles long and was completed within a few months.

On New Year's day, 1887, a party of settlers drove up in their wagons and carriages to dedicate the new town site. The sun shone brightly, and the day was sufficiently warm that an outdoor meeting was not unpleasant. Services commenced at 11:00 a.m., with Elder Erastus Show, of the Council of the Twelve, conducting. Elder Moses Thatcher offered the dedicatory prayer. He petitioned the Lord that every hard feeling might be banished from the minds of the Saints. In simple eloquence he continued:

We thank the Lord for liberty. We give this town the name of Juarez. May it be a place of liberty for the Saints. As the Nephites were destroyed for desecrating this land, may we, O Lord, be willing to obey thy laws. O Lord, bless the land, the water, the elements. May the gospel go forth from this place to the house of Israel. ... We pledge ourselves to strive to do thy will ever more. Increase the water, we pray thee, and the principal street shall be known by the name of Anahuac.(4)

In the afternoon Elder Show preached. He drew a parallel between the move now forced upon the Saints to the betrayal and flight of Benito Juarez in the dark days of Napoleon's intervention in Mexico. He stated that if in the wisdom of God, the Saints should eventually be permitted to repossess their lands as President Juarez was permitted to return to his capital, they should freely acknowledge the hand of God. Continuing:

I feel to bless the land and waters in the name of Jesus Christ; that the water may be pure and healthy, and the land yield in abundance. If any should come here who do not want to serve God, I hope they will not remain here long.(5)

In addition to Anahuac, the names of Toltec, Aztez, Diaz, and Mariscal were suggested and adopted for the principal streets bounding the public square and park.

Immediately after the dedication, Sextus Johnson moved his family and belongs to the new town site, followed shortly by the other settlers. Construction of a tithing office was begun, to be used for religious purposes, socials, and other gatherings. By May, the canal was sufficiently completed so that water could be brought to the new town site.

The same month, Erastus Snow and Helaman Pratt arrived from Mexico City with a company of native converts, who had been furnished free transportation by the Mexican government. Lands were assigned to these families, but most of them eventually became discouraged and returned to their former homes.

On June 5, 1887, the Juarez Ward was organized with George W. Sevey as bishop and Miles P. Romney and Ernest L. Taylor as counselors.

Construction of a road up San Diego Canyon to Corrales Basin was undertaken to open the timber resources of the Sierra Madres and supply their sawmill.(6)

Following up the Piedras Verdes from the old town site of Colonia Juarez to the new, the picturesque valley narrows from a width of two miles to approximately three fourths of a mile. Hills rise abruptly on each side to a height of two hundred feed above the floor of the valley. Through the center winds the channel of the Piedras Verdes, whose banks even in 1887 were lined with cottonwood trees together with a sprinkling of walnut, sycamore, black willow, and ash, forming one of the chief natural attractions of the valley.(7)

The soil, however, was coarse and gravelly and somewhat inferior for field crops to that lower down. Some two hundred fifty acres were placed under cultivation during the summer of 1887, while on the west side of the river an estimated five hundred acres of arable land awaited only the building of an additional canal.(8)

The summer heat and drought came early in northern Mexico, and June 1887 was no exception. With the rainy season at least a month away and the water rights of the San Diego ranch below to be respected, the receding Piedras Verdes was pitifully small. Then came the answer to the prayers of the faithful. Writing from Colonia Juarez under date of August 26, 1887, a correspondent who signed himself "Amram," penned the following word picture:

All at once, about 3 o'clock in the afternoon, the earth began to quake and tremble. Our old huts began to sway to and fro. Women and children ran out of them with blanched faces, many of them exclaiming: "It is an earthquake! It is an earthquake!" and immediately all eyes were turned toward the Sierra Madres, the entire length of which for thirty miles seemed to be swaying backwards and forwards, and from their precipices could be seen falling huge masses of rock, causing an immense dust to rise a mile high in the air.

This dust was immediately followed by smoke, and in a short time fires could be seen along the entire range in places as far as eye could penetrate. These fires we think were caused by the friction of the falling rocks, and at night they presented a truly grand sight, and some of them continued to burn for weeks.

Now, strange to say, the following day the water in the Piedras Verdes River, which was getting low, began to rise until it was increased one third in volume and has continued so ever since, and we all felt thankful for the shaking and are willing to stand another (even though it does produce a queer sensation) if its effects will prove as beneficial to us; for by that providential event we have had an abundance of water for our crops and the Mexican population below us feel that we will not be of any injury to them, as they also have plenty of water. ... We give God the praise for the increase.(9)

Thus was the prayer of Elder Moses Thatcher at the dedication of the new Colonia Juarez, less than six months before, so dramatically answered.

--The Improvement Era, January 1946


  1. Andrew Jenson, "Juarez Stake," Ms., L.D.S. Church Historical Library.
  2. Andrew Jenson, Church Chronology Salt Lake City, page 117.
  3. Brigham Young, Jr., John W. Taylor, Helaman Pratt, letter to A.F. Macdonald, written from Mexico City under date of July 11, 1885, quoted in Andrew Jenson, "Juarez Stake," Ms.
  4. Andrew Jenson, "Wards of the Juarez Stake," Ms., Salt Lake City.
  5. Idem.
  6. Idem.
  7. The Deseret News, Salt Lake City, September 21, 1887, Vol. XXXVI, No. 36, p. 574.
  8. Idem.
  9. The correspondent does not give the exact date of the disturbance, merely remarking: "The earthquake that visited this country in June last was quite an event."