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US history and politics

When race came before faith

The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction

On the evening of October 1 1904, a group of 40 children in the care of three Catholic nuns arrived by train in Clifton, Arizona. They had travelled all the way from New York City, across the Allegheny Mountains, over the Mississippi, through the southern desert plains to the lower reaches of the Rocky Mountains, a distance of over 2,000 miles.

This was one of the "orphan trains", which delivered poor Catholic waifs (not all of them actual orphans) to respectable Catholic families all over the United States, thereby accomplishing a threefold mission of rescuing children from poverty, ridding New York of ragamuffins and extending the Catholic faith. This particular group, from the New York Foundling Hospital, was destined for the mining towns of Clifton and Morenci, a pair of grim frontier settlements carved out by the copper mining giants Phelps Dodge and the Arizona Copper Company, and inhabited by a rough western mix of company men, immigrants and entrepreneurs.

As the sun sank behind the canyon walls, the travellers caught their first glimpse of their destination. In the distance, smelters disgorged trails of smoke, molten slag oozed down the sides of great black slag heaps, particles of ash and fumes drifted on the air. A fittingly infernal setting for the squalid play about to be enacted.

This was the farthest the Foundling had ever sent its orphans and none of the sisters had ever been to Clifton before. The families who were to receive the children had been selected by the local priest, a recently arrived Frenchman, on the grounds that they were decent, honest, devout and could provide for the children's needs. No one at the New York end seemed to notice that they were Mexican, but it was a fact that no one in Clifton who saw the fair-skinned, fair-haired (largely Irish) children get off the train could possibly ignore.

The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction is an account of the events of the next 72 hours, during which a group of armed vigilantes, drawn from Clifton and Morenci's middle class, raided the Mexican homes and "rescued" the white orphans, bringing them back to the hotel and redistributing them among a group of Anglo ladies. In order to defend this grossly illegal act,the ladies, whose outrage had incited the midnight raid in the first place, concocted an increasingly hysterical captivity narrative in which innocent "white" babies had been sold to dirty, drunken, immoral, dark-skinned people who would mistreat and abuse them.

"Race is a strong, hot idea," writes Linda Gordon, "that means different things to different people. Sometimes it is a matter of appearance, sometimes of ancestry, sometimes it is code for status or social class. In New York in 1904, the operative "racial" categories were Irish, Italian, German, Hebrew, Protestant and Catholic. The category to which the orphans belonged was Catholic and what the Sisters of Mercy wanted for them was Catholic homes. What kind of Catholic homes was not important.

In Clifton, on the other hand, there were only two "racial" categories: Mexican and Anglo. Clifton's Anglos included Frenchmen, Irishmen, Italians,Slavs, Catholics, Protestants and Jews - pretty much everyone except Apaches, Negroes and Chinese. As a term, "Anglo" was synonymous with "white" and "American", implying citizenship, even when this was not the case. "Mexican", on the other hand, was increasingly a term of derogation. Even when they had been born in the United States, Mexicans were treated as aliens or, worse, as "natives" by the Anglo minority.

One of the most tantalising aspects of this story is the sense of opportunities lost. Of the three groups that converged on the church that evening (New York nuns, Mexican mothers and Anglo townswomen), all were genuinely concerned about the children's fate. Two of the groups were further united by religion, and two by race. "But they did not all recognise these alignments. The New Yorkers did not feel bound to the Anglos by whiteness. The Anglos did not understand how the Catholics felt about preserving the young souls for the faith."

Nor was their commonality as women apparent. "If we look back from the end of the 20th century," Gordon writes, "the orphan affair seems a tragedy" precisely because the women shared so many things: a desire to civilise the frontier, to bring order and beauty to their surroundings, to nurture the children in their care. But the race card trumped not only religion and class but gender. Far from ameliorating what was harsh, unjust and ugly about their world, the women in the orphan debacle deepened the southwest's racial divide, contributed to the entrenchment of a colonial culture and undermined democracy and the rule of law.

Part of the historian's job, says Gordon, is "to break free of the sticky web of today's categories", to try to see the past as it actually happened and not as we now think it did. A story of this kind challenges one's ability to do this. The Anglo women are so despicable it is hard to have any sympathy for them, while the Mexican women remain stubbornly obscure. To her credit, however, Gordon is genuinely curious and deeply thoughtful about the complex ways in which race, class and gender intersect to produce pivotal moments like this one. The book that she has written should be of interest not only to scholars of the American southwest, but to anyone curious about how ideologies make us what we are.

Christina Thompson teaches English at Framingham State College, Boston, United States.

The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction

Author - Linda Gordon
ISBN - 0 674 36041 9
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £18.50
Pages - 416

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