Related to the presidential candidate by blood and religion; each traveling separate roads.
On a sultry day in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in July 1846, 496 Mormon men, accompanied by many wives, children, and at least 18 laundresses, set off on a long march for San Diego to do battle with Mexico on behalf of the United States of America. When they finally arrived here in January 1847, the so-called Mormon Battalion had been worn down to 335 weary soldiers, plus remaining camp followers, and the fighting with Mexico, which never amounted to much in the first place, was over.
As far as has been recorded, none of Mitt Romney’s ancestors belonged to the weary band that straggled into the dusty Pueblo de San Diego at the end of their long desert trek. The journey had been personally sanctioned by Mormon president Brigham Young, who furnished the volunteers knowing they would be paid by the federal government for their mission into the vast new western spaces, where he counted on them to promulgate the faith of the church, founded just 16 years before in upstate New York.
Having arrived in San Diego, they fanned out from their small base to Orange County and Los Angeles, then north to Monterey and San Francisco. A few ended up at a place called Sutter’s Mill near Sacramento. Other ex-brigadiers headed northeast to San Bernardino, cutting a wagon road through the Cajon Pass and on to the Salt Lake Valley in Utah, where seven-year-old Miles Park Romney, the great-grandfather of Mitt Romney, arrived with his family in 1850, two years after gold was discovered in California.
Miles would eventually take five wives, conforming to the practice of polygamy dictated by the edict of church founder Joseph Smith and enforced by Brigham Young, who himself had been “sealed” to 55 brides. “They were trying to build a generation out there in the desert,” Mitt Romney has said, “and so he took additional wives as he was told to do. And I must admit I can’t imagine anything more awful than polygamy.”
Mitt Romney’s great-grandmother, Hannah, Miles’s first wife, apparently agreed. “I used to walk the floor and shed tears of sorrow,” she wrote in a letter quoted by Romney biographers Michael Kranish and Scott Helman in their book The Real Romney. “If anything will make a woman’s heart ache, it is for her husband to take another wife, but I put my trust in my Heavenly Father and prayed and pled with him to give me strength to bear this trial.”
In 1881, another order came down from the church. Miles and his family were instructed to move from Utah to Arizona. A slow and dangerous trip of 400 miles, write Kranish and Helman, landed them in a rough-and-tough town called St. Johns, where a newspaper railed against the Mormon men and their multiple wives. “Hang a few of their polygamist leaders such as . . . [Bishop David] Udall [and Miles] Romney . . . and a stop will be put to it.”
The newspaper called Romney “a mass of putrid pus and rotten goose pimples; a skunk, with the face of a baboon, the character of a louse, the breath of a buzzard and the record of a perjurer and common drunkard.”
Miles struck back with his own paper, the Orion Era, further inflaming an already volatile situation. One night in 1885, with a federal marshal in close pursuit, Romney headed for the Mexican border. “The marshal had a gun in one hand and handcuffs in the other,” recalled Hannah. “I told him Mr. Romney was not at home. He said he had better give himself up to save the country expense and himself more trouble.”
Once into Mexico, Romney continued south 90 miles to the Piedras Verdes River valley, where he had been instructed by church leaders to help found a polygamist colony, which became known as Colonia Juárez. There polygamy would thrive beyond the authoritarian reach of the United States government and its intolerant citizenry. Mitt Romney’s father, George, the future governor of Michigan, was born there in 1907 to Gaskell Romney, one of Miles’s sons by his first wife Hannah.
On a calm, sweltering fall day in 2012, the phone rings in a Palm Springs condo; it is answered by the genial-sounding voice of Douglas Wayne Romney, age 67.
His grandfather was Orin Romney, Sr., a son of Miles Park Romney and half-brother of Gaskell Romney, which makes Douglas a relatively distant cousin to Mitt (but still family, which counts for a lot among Romneys). Gaskell’s mother was Miles Park Romney’s first wife Hannah Hood Hill; Orin was born to Miles Park Romney’s fourth wife, Alice Marie “Annie” Woodbury, a school teacher.
Douglas, or Doug as he is known, is well acquainted with the family’s history in Mexico, how the Romneys prospered there for many years, cultivating vast tracts of idyllic farmland. Then, in July 1912, Mexican revolutionaries besieged the colony, causing Gaskell and his family, including his only wife and five-year-old son George, to hastily pack their bags and flee north across the border to El Paso. They would never return.
Doug’s clan remained in their Mexico colony throughout the most violent days of the revolution, later passing down stories of collecting the bullets left by marauding revolutionaries. Many Romneys are still there, though Doug’s father and grandfather and their families eventually returned to the United States.
“My father came out of Mexico a year or two before World War II,” Doug recalls. His parents, who met in Mexico, were married in the Salt Lake Temple in May 1941. It is a sacred place, which, to nonbelievers (known as “gentiles” by church members) is strictly off limits. His mother went to the University of Utah, was a missionary in New York for two years, and was a member of the church’s General Board of the Young Women’s Mutual Improvement Association.
Doug was born in the hospital at Hill Air Force Base, Hillfield, Utah, in 1945, and grew up in the Salt Lake City and Bountiful, Utah, of the 1950s.