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6:49 PM Mon, Sept. 24th

Romney, other Mormon ancestors in Arizona were once jailed for religious beliefs

Miles Park Romney was the great-grandfather of Mitt Romney, as well as Larry Romney and Marsha Romney Stratton.

Miles Park Romney was the great-grandfather of Mitt Romney, as well as Larry Romney and Marsha Romney Stratton.

Editor's Note - This is the second in a series of two stories about the Romney family history in Arizona.

The 1880s were a time of extreme hardship for Mormons, and those hardships were centered in Arizona.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made a concerted effort to colonize Arizona in 1876-81, calling its members from Utah to establish colonies along several Arizona rivers.

Just a year later in 1882 the federal Edmunds Act cracked down on polygamy, making it a felony. It also made polygamists ineligible for public office.

More than 1,000 Mormons were imprisoned in the 1880s because of their faith, estimated Carmon Hardy, a professor emeritus of history at Cal State Fullerton who is an expert on Mormon history.

"I thought it would have been a much more noble thing for our government to leave them alone," Hardy said.

St. Johns became a center of strife for the Mormons in Arizona, as factions fought for control of the community's land and water. Enemies of the Mormons tried to use the new stronger polygamy law to drive out the Mormons.

Battles over land lot jumping were common, noted Arizonans Eric Kramer and Carol Sletten in their new book "Story of the American West." They extensively researched local newspapers and Mormon papers.

At the direction of the church in 1879, Mormon Ammon Meshach Tenney bought land from a powerful local merchant named Simon Barth to establish the Mormon colony at St. Johns, but Mexican squatters already were living there. Existing white settlers also established an anti-Mormon faction called the St. John's Ring. Some tried to "jump" the land the Mormons already had purchased.

The local election judge refused to allow Mormon Bishop David King Udall to vote.

Amidst this strife in 1882, Ammon's father Nathan was shot dead while trying to keep the peace. The Mormon church sent more members to St. Johns to strengthen their numbers.

Miles Park Romney started a Mormon newspaper called the Orion Era in St. Johns, while the anti-Mormon faction started a paper called the Apache chief. The editor was the same judge who had prevented King from voting. He wrote editorials calling for the killing of Mormons.

In 1884 Bishop Udall and Joseph Crosby were official witnesses to Romney's homestead claim. At the urging of the St. John's Ring, the three Mormons were arrested on charges of perjury, but a grand jury wouldn't indict them.

In 1884 a federal grand jury in the territorial capital of Prescott indicted five prominent St. Johns Mormons for polygamy: Ammon Tenney, William Flake, Peter Christofferson, Christopher Kempe and James Skousen.

Their trial was the first of its kind in Arizona, noted JoAnn Bair and Richard Jensen in their article "Prosecution of the Mormons in Arizona Territory in the 1880s," published in the University of Arizona's historical periodical "Arizona and the West" in 1977.

Flake and Skousen pleaded guilty and received six-month sentences in the Yuma territorial prison.

But Tenney, Kempe and Christofferson, who refused to plead guilty, were convicted in December 1884 and sentenced to 3.5 years in the new House of Corrections in Detroit.

Within two months of the sentencings, Mormon Church President John Taylor was publicly encouraging Arizona followers to organize settlements in Mexico.

Bishop Udall was the only man who escaped prosecution because authorities couldn't find his second wife.

Emboldened by the convictions, federal authorities revived the perjury charges against Romney, Crosby and Udall in 1885.

Deciding he couldn't get a fair trial, Romney skipped bail and fled to Mexico with his then four wives and their children. William Flake, the co-founder of Snowflake, had to find a way to cover Romney's $2,000 bond.

Romney wrote a letter to church President John Taylor while traveling to Mexico. He relates how he had been forced to keep his family on the move for nine months, and discusses his contempt for U.S. District Attorney Sumner Howard, who was based in Prescott.

Udall talked about jumping bail and fleeing as well. Others offered to cover his bail bond. He stayed but said he was not permitted to testify on his behalf. Even though a jury acquitted Crosby, it convicted Udall.

Udall was crushed, saying he'd rather be convicted of polygamy because the perjury conviction attacked his character. In the Prescott jail awaiting sentencing, he wrote about how his family was homeless and without his financial support.

Local newspapers supported the conviction. Meanwhile the territorial legislature in Prescott enacted its own anti-polygamy law that prohibited polygamists from voting or holding public office.

But church leaders fought back, getting key witnesses to submit written statements that Udall had not perjured himself.

Mormons generally voted Democratic back then, and they convinced newly elected Democratic U.S. President Grover Cleveland to pardon Udall at the end of 1885. Cleveland was the first Democratic president since 1869.

Church leaders then obtained support from Howard, Territorial Gov. Conrad Meyer Zulick and others for a presidential pardon for the three St. Johns Mormon leaders serving time in Detroit. Cleveland signed their pardons in October 1886 after they had served nearly two years in prison.

Zulick, the first Democrat to ever hold the office of territorial governor, in turn pardoned many other polygamists.

Historians have cited the desire of Zulick and Cleveland to foster more Democratic voters as a major reason behind the pardons.

St. Johns changed the name of the town's main street to Cleveland, while Udall and his second wife Ida named their first son Grover Cleveland Udall in 1887.

The territorial Legislature repealed its anti-polygamy law in 1887.

Mormon leaders started encouraging more followers to be Republicans in order to split their votes for both parties, thereby reducing fears that they might be trying to exert too much political block influence. The political Udalls of today are Democrats, while the Flakes, Romneys and Tenneys generally are Republicans.

By 1890 the Mormon church stopped sanctioning polygamy. In a further effort to stay low key, the Mormon church stopped sending large groups of settlers to Arizona.

Miles Park Romney died in Mexico in 1904 before his family returned to the U.S. during the Mexican Revolution in 1912. Mitt's father George, a Michigan governor who also ran for president, was born in Mexico in 1907. Mitt Romney descends from Miles Romney's first of five wives.

While some small polygamist groups still live in the remote northern fringes of Arizona, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not sanction their practices.