Sally Denton, The Colony: Faith and Blood in a Promised Land (Liveright), 336pp. Hardback, $27.95.

When the U.S. government passed the Edmunds Act in 1882, polygamy was essentially outlawed in the federal territories. The act (not the first to target polygamy) criminalized “unlawful cohabitation,” making it easy for marshals to go after Utah Mormons with multiples wives. John Taylor, who had succeeded Brigham Young as President of the Church of Latter-day Saints, and himself had eight wives, responded by sending dozens of Mormon families down to colonize Mexico. He figured that a stronger foothold in Chihuahua would provide insurance for the Church.

Following Taylor’s death in 1887, the elderly Wilford Woodruff—who also had multiple wives—became the next President of the LDS Church. Woodruff is best known for releasing the “1890 Manifesto,” in which, following a personal revelation from Jesus Christ, he declared that plural marriage would no longer be approved by the Church. The U.S. government was pleased to hear it, and Utah was granted statehood in 1896.

The turbulent 1880s provide the background for Sally Denton’s new book, The Colony, which investigates the massacre of three Mormon women and six of their children in Mexico in November of 2019. Initially explained as a tragic case of mistaken identity—that the mothers’ cars had essentially been caught in the crossfire of a turf war between two powerful drug cartels—the murders instead seem to have been motivated by more complex forces and agendas that stretch back decades. What, Denton asks, were those women doing driving their kids through the middle of a drug war? Why were they potentially targeted for assassination?

When the 1890 Manifesto banned plural marriage from mainstream Mormonism, many fundamentalists saw Woodruff as an apostate from the Church’s true Principle, and they moved to the new Mexican colonies to continue the practice of polygamy. The largest of such communities, Colonia LeBaron, has a population of around three thousand today and is, according to Denton, “the power center of Mexico’s fundamentalist Mormons.” Denton’s work attempts to understand the recent episode of lethal violence against God-fearing women and children by tracing the history of the mighty LeBaron family. She reveals “a tale of secrecy, polygamy, blood feuds, conquest, and exploitation, wrapped in a radical interpretation of Mormon doctrine and steeped in a myth of persecution.”

Denton is an accomplished historian of the West with many books to her credit. She is also a sharp investigative reporter and a skilled storyteller. Her historical research into the complex system at work in The Colony has exposed two key details about the Mexican Mormon fundamentalists.

First, a long history not only of plural marriage but of intermarriage has led to the creation of far-larger-than-usual families with associated outsize family drama. Because the fundamentalists were not directly part of the LDS Church, they were relatively free to keep reorganizing into their own splinter sects. The influential polygamist Ervil LeBaron (1925–1981), who started the Church of the First Born of the Lamb of God, was an infamous killer who ordered dozens of hits on enemy relatives for a number of years, up until his death in the Utah State Prison. Ervil’s catalyzing of internecine feuds continues to have consequences for his descendants, complicating relations between fundamentalists today.

Second, Denton explains that the Mormon colonists were canny agriculturalists. After all, these were Western American pioneers who transformed a desert landscape into fertile farmlands. When they moved to Mexico in the 1880s and purchased tens of thousands of acres, they set to work planting trees and digging canals. They became wealthy and competitive landowners, employing locals as hired laborers and vying with others for natural resources. As the LeBarons grew rich off of their especially profitable “water-intensive nut orchards” (walnut groves), water rights became a flash point. Those relying on neighboring ejidos (communally operated farmlands) have accused the LeBarons of digging illegal wells and threatening public resources.

What, Denton asks, were those women doing driving their kids through the middle of a drug war? Why were they potentially targeted for assassination?

In short, Mormon fundamentalists in Mexico have a lot of enemies. But why were women and children being slain in the desert? The safety of Colonia LeBaron depended in part on a mutual understanding with the powerful Sinaloa Cartel in Chihuahua. But when the cartel’s leader, “El Chapo,” was captured and extradited to the U.S. (where he was sentenced to life in prison in 2019), relations between the Sinaloa Cartel and other cartels and gangs became unstable as leadership changed hands. To some extent, Denton suggests, Colonia LeBaron is itself a cartel—stocked with illegal firearms, semi-independent from the Mexican government, and embroiled in uneasy alliances with other political organizations, including the U.S. government.

Denton’s work here is fascinating, though it’s a little hard to keep track of the timeline in The Colony. The book starts in 2019, moves back to the nineteenth century, jumps ahead a few decades, and then skips back between the recent past and the 1970s. Part of the confusion, however, is simply the result of polygamy itself; when a man has half a dozen wives and a hundred grandchildren, the family tree becomes unwieldy.

Descended from a polygamist Mormon family herself, Denton is especially attuned to the plight of the women caught within this radical patriarchal system. (Among her works, Denton’s 2007 book Passion and Principle: John and Jessie Frémont, the Couple Whose Power, Politics, and Love Shaped Nineteenth-Century America stands out for its depiction of a politician’s wife who exerted tremendous influence over the national conversation.) For The Colony, she conducted many personal interviews with women from the fundamentalist colonies who have experienced plural marriage firsthand. The result is a thick description of the opportunities and limitations for women who choose to live in such unusual circumstances.

Most striking in The Colony is Denton’s suggestion that, in recent years, both the Sinaloa Cartel and Colonia LeBaron have been shifting toward a more matriarchal structure. As the men spend more and more time away from home, often working in the United States, the women have been taking on greater responsibilities—and, as a result, gaining authority. We are left with the unsettling conclusion that the LeBaron women have targets on their backs because of a growing sense that they have become significant agents in a powerful colonizing enterprise.

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