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Polygamist Flight from St. Johns

Though federal anti-polygamy laws had been on the books for years, the Latter-day Saints of St. Johns, Arizona hoped the remote frontier town would be a refuge for them. An arrest on the evening of July 10, 1884 dashed this hope, and four plural wives fled the city that very night.

In July 1884, the David, Ella, and Ida Udall family of St. Johns, Arizona was optimistic about the future. The Udalls were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (then often nicknamed Mormons), and they were also polygamists, plural marriage being a central religious practice of the Church at the time. David’s marriage to both Ella and Ida violated the Edmunds Anti-Polygamy Act of 1882, but like most other Mormon polygamists, the Udalls followed the counsel of their prophet-president John Taylor to engage in civil disobedience. When faced with the choice to “obey God or Congress,” the Udalls chose God.

Despite the 1882 Edmunds Anti-polygamy Act, David had thus far avoided being arrested for polygamy, and their nontraditional family was growing. On July 5, David’s first wife Ella gave birth to their second daughter, to be named Erma. Meanwhile, their first daughter Pearl was four-years old. Despite anti-polygamy sentiments in St. Johns, the Church hoped eastern Arizona could be a haven for polygamist members. A neighbor, Catharine Cottam Romney, second wife to Miles Romney, had even returned to St. Johns after hiding in New Mexico. Ida thought her family might soon be “able to go out and do something as other people did.”

However, July 10 dashed that hope. Just as the Udalls finished dinner, Mormon neighbors Ammon Tenney and Joe Crosby arrived with urgent news. Federal marshals had arrested Tenney for violating the Edmunds Act (though they had not yet taken him into custody) and issued a subpoena to his second wife Eliza Udall Tenney, Ida’s sister, who promptly fled. Tenney and Crosby warned the marshals might next arrest David and subpoena Ida to testify against him.

Ida was hesitant to leave Ella, still recovering from the birth, and Pearl and Erma, who Ida regarded as if her own daughters. Still, she soon agreed to go “underground,” a term Latter-day Saints in the late-nineteenth century used to describelong-term hiding to evade arrests or subpoenas related to polygamy.

Ida stayed the rest of the evening at a neighbors’ home, but before she could sleep David arrived and took Ida along with Eliza, Catharine, and Annie (Miles Romney’s third wife) three miles out of town, arriving at the home of Joel White around 2:00 AM. The house did not have room for all four women, so the group arranged beds for them outside. In her journal, Ida described sleeping “on the shady side of the house, under the blue canopy of heaven… Thus passed our first night as exiles from home.”

All day July 11, Eliza kept watch with binoculars. Whenever she saw someone draw near the homestead, the four women hid behind curtains or underneath the beds. The four remained in hiding at the White home until July 16, when “it was decided,” as Ida wrote, that they would “be shipped” to Snowflake, Arizona. Unlike St. Johns, where the Mormons were newcomers, Latter-day Saints had founded Snowflake, and Ida and Eliza had family there. The women would still need to hide, but everyone hoped they would be safer in Snowflake than in St. Johns.

After sunset that day and before leaving St. Johns, Ida visited Ella, Pearl, and Erma one last time, and she kissed each of them.

The women departed for Snowflake thereafter and traveled through the night. Ida rode with Catharine and Annie in a wagon driven by their husband Miles Romney, but as an extra precaution Eliza (“the only criminal of the lot,” Ida wrote) took a different route. Accompanied by her husband Ammon Tenney and a neighbor, Eliza rode to Snowflake on horseback, disguised in men's clothes. 

Catharine gave birth in Snowflake two weeks later, having gone into, out of, and back into the underground in the span of two months, all during her final trimester. 

Over time, as federal marshals continued combing northeastern Arizona with subpoenas, the families decided even Snowflake wasn’t far enough. In September, David and Ida agreed to have her travel to Nephi, Utah, where she could live with David’s parents. There in Nephi, in March 1885, Ida, like Catharine, gave birth on the underground to her daughter Pauline. Ida did not reunite with the rest of the family again until the late 1880s, in Round Valley, Arizona.

Catharine moved from Snowflake to St. George, Utah, where she lived with her family for a few years. After Miles resolved to flee prosecution by moving to Mexico, he, Catharine, Hannah, Anna, and their children reunited in Juarez by 1886, continuing their underground exile beyond the reach of the United States.

By 1885, mounting persecution prompted President Taylor to advise the Latter-day Saints of eastern Arizona to flee the country and go to Mexico as the Romneys would in 1886. Around fifty families left St. Johns and the surrounding region, and while David did not leave initially, he eventually quit St. Johns and moved to Round Valley, Arizona in 1888, where the whole family lived together by 1892.  Some families eventually returned to St. Johns, like the Udalls who went on to build a home there (see “The Elm Hotel and the Udall Family”). Other families, like the Romneys who eventually repatriated, never lived in St. Johns again.

Images

St. Johns, Arizona A photograph of St. Johns, Arizona, taken between 1882 and 1883. Source: “St. Johns, Arizona.” W. Chapman, 1882–1889. Courtesy of the Church History Library. https://catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org/assets?id=f0546581-f84c-4e6e-b432-5b2bf790bb69&crate=0&index=0.
Ida and Pauline Ida Hunt Udall with her daughter Pauline Udall, who she gave birth to while on the underground. According to Pioneer Women of Arizona (2nd ed.), this was taken October 1, 1886 while they were hiding from federal authorities in Nephi, Utah. Source: “Portrait of Ida Hunt Udall with a young child, probably her oldest daughter Pauline Udall Smith,” ca. 1887. Ida Hunt Udall Photograph Collection, 1866–1898. Courtesy of the Utah State University Merrill-Cazier Library Special Collections. http://archiveswest.orbiscascade.org/ark:/80444/xv47448.
Annie and Miles A portrait of Miles Romney and his third wife Annie Woodbury Romney. Source: “Portrait of Miles and Annie Romney.” 1890. Courtesy of the Church History Library. https://catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org/assets?id=d7e71917-3bf4-4ab5-b49e-f5564464dd03&crate=0&index=0.

Location

35 West Cleveland Street St. Johns, Arizona 85936 | This pin marks a Latter-day Saint chapel in St. Johns. At the time of the women’s flight, the St. Johns congregation was part of the Church’s Eastern Arizona Stake. Today, it is part of the St. Johns Stake.

Metadata

Makoto Hunter, Brigham Young University, “Polygamist Flight from St. Johns,” Intermountain Histories, accessed May 30, 2023, https://www.intermountainhistories.org/items/show/499.