• Courtney Heard

Bountiful: BC's Dirty Little Secret

The church in Bountiful, BC
The church in Bountiful, BC

The only telling signs that this was a polygamist community were the compound style homes that seemed to stretch for blocks. My husband steered the car around a corner, my parents in their SUV behind us, when the church appeared. Or rather, the temple, I suppose. There was no sign on it. We assumed this was to discourage gawkers like ourselves from getting out of their vehicles and posing for the 'gram in front of a sign that read, The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints, Bountiful.

We were on our way to Lethbridge to visit family, a two-day drive through South-Eastern British Columbia and then Alberta. We'd stayed the night in Creston, BC, in a strange hotel that looked like it hadn't been updated since the 70s and smelled of stale Player's Light butts extinguished in Bud Light. It was gorgeous in the photos on the booking site I had used a few weeks prior. Now, I was sure the rooms had an hourly rate, too. We were pretty eager to leave.

The night before, as we had all gathered in the shag-carpeted common area of the hotel, I threw it out there,

"You know, Bountiful is only a few minutes away from here."

"Bountiful? What's that?" My mom sipped her beer.

I told her all I knew, which wasn't much. It was settled by polygamists fleeing the persecution they'd experienced in the U.S. There were legal issues with the B.C. government, as well. Women were married off at a young age to much older men. They were members of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints. Joseph Smith was a swindler. Those sorts of tidbits. I didn't know the whole story, but we all agreed we would get up early the next morning, escape this haunted motor inn, and take a scenic drive through Canada's most notorious polygamist settlement.

The early morning mist settled on the fields of what looked like salad greens and maybe pumpkins. There was not a solitary soul in sight. We steered around a child's three-wheeler left in the middle of the crumbling road. It wasn't peaceful quiet; it was eerily quiet. Sure, it was early, but this was a rural community with fields to tend to and flocks of children to rear, animals awaiting care. Where was everyone?

My unease grew as we continued to tour what was just a neighbourhood. I'd been expecting a full-blown town, but it amounted to a compound: one school, maybe fifty houses, a church and about a dozen potholed roads. I would have thought there would be more to it. After all, the community had been there since 1947. That's seventy-two years to build a bustling town, but it certainly was not that. Perhaps it was because so many born and raised in Bountiful grew up to leave. I had only been there a few minutes, and I was ready to go myself.

I felt like an intruder, as though at any point, someone would come out on their porch with a shotgun and try to scare us away. I couldn't help but feel like the people in Bountiful were purposefully hiding as we took a leisurely drive through their neighbourhood, and I became impatient, asking my husband to get us out of there.

Bountiful is beautiful; there is no question. It's nestled at the base of British Columbia's Skimmerhorn Mountains, surrounded by oceans of greenery nourished by the humid climate. The tranquillity would provide the perfect backdrop for a yoga retreat or perhaps a Buddhist monastery. The only sounds besides our car engines were birds singing in the morning dew and the wind whistling through the abundant trees. Bountiful would be, by any metric, an idyllic place to live, raise a family, and grow some crops.

Compound-style living in Bountiful, BC
Compound-style living in Bountiful, BC

But you couldn't see the strife from the decaying country roads. For that, I had to bury my head in the books. After our offputting stop in Canada's polygamy capital, I did that. I educated myself on the people who had hidden in their homes and watched from behind their window blinds as we took our voyeuristic tour of the infamous Bountiful. The first seeds of this little community in British Columbia, I learned, had been sewn 200 years ago in the mind of a New York fraudster.

As skeptics, we know that Joseph Smith was nothing more than a con man. His deceptions began in the 1820s in New York. Smith convinced his marks that he had what he called seer stones that could indicate where to find precious metals beneath the ground. For a fee, of course. People referred to Joseph Smith as the Glass Looker while he roped them into his divining services. It wasn't long before his customers became irate at the lack of results. The outrage led to his arrest. His accusers had him charged with being a disorderly person and an imposter. Joseph Smith was found guilty and ordered to pay a fine.

Again, in 1830, Joseph Smith faced arrest for being a disorderly person. In Ohio, Smith drew more charges, this time of bank fraud, between 1831 and 1838. After he fled Ohio, he racked up another banking fraud charge in Missouri.

There is not much else to conclude, other than the fact that the man was a charlatan. We can be reasonably sure of this. You'd think after the second or third time facing charges of behaving fraudulently, the people around Joseph Smith would begin to doubt the claims he made. As we know, that's not what happened. Instead, a religion arose based upon this con's unsubstantiated claims. The fact that polygamy was being forced upon him by a sword-wielding angel sent by God was just one of these wild assertions.

Mormonism was borne of the very same seer stones that had gotten Joseph in trouble in New York. It was September 1823 when he claimed to have first laid eyes on the Golden Plates that would later become the Book of Mormon. The angel Moroni appeared to the prophet and led him to the buried plates' location, close to his home in New York. Each year after that, Joseph made the trek to view the tablets until the fourth year, when he could finally retrieve them for translation. He brought them home wrapped in fabric, forbidden to let anyone else see them. The plates had been engraved with some form of Egyptian hieroglyphics and required a seer stone to translate. What luck that they had fallen into the hands of the one man in New York who happened to know how to use a seer stone. After three years of work, the Book of Mormon was ready, and the angel Moroni requested his golden plates back. Smith obliged, leaving them alongside a sword and a breastplate inside a cave in Hill Cumorah, or Mormon Hill, in Manchester, New York.

If this sounds like a wild tale to you, you're not alone. Most of Smith's neighbours rejected his claims and came down hard on Smith and his followers. Recalling his previous run-in with the law, they saw this as just another scam and ran the newly formed Church of Christ, its prophet and his wife, Emma, out of town. Persecution would be a recurring problem for the early LDS church. Ultimately, the tensions would culminate with Joseph Smith's murder at the hands of an angry mob in Illinois.

Before the conman died, though, it would seem that any time Smith had a problem, the angel Moroni would appear to him with the perfect solution. During the first year of transcribing the plates, the prophet discovered he was working with a skeptical scribe. When the scribe finally lost the manuscript they had already spent a year recording, Moroni appeared and punished Smith by taking the plates. As soon as Smith had a new, devoted scribe, Smith was again visited by the angel and gifted the plates once more. When the book was finally finished, the angel paid yet another visit, requesting the plates' return once again. Of course, this relieved Smith of the pressure to produce the plates to back up his claims.

And when the chosen one found himself unable to resist the beauty of one Miss Fanny Alger, wouldn't you know it, Moroni came to visit yet again. This time, though, the angel sent by God came wielding a sword and threatening bloody murder should Joseph not partake in polygamy.

And so, you see, the poor boy had to. At least, that's how he explained it to his disapproving wife. In the time between Moroni revealing the principle of plural marriage and the day he died, Mr. Smith took an additional 30-plus wives, much to Emma's dismay.

When Brigham Young took the reigns of the young church after Smith's death, he, too, carried on the principle of plural marriage, taking on 55 wives of his own. He led the Latter-Day Saints on the infamous wagon train to establish Utah so they could stay far away from the persecution of skeptics. Polygamy would become accepted as an official revelation from God, and it was commonplace in the early days of the Latter-Day Saints.

Despite their departure and the distance they put between the rest of America and themselves, the Saints continued to clash with the U.S. government. The practice of polygamy seemed to be at the heart of the issue. The run-ins were many and could get bloody and murderous and eventually erupted into war. The Utah Mormon war broke out in 1857 and lasted just over a year, ending with Utah's occupation by the United States Army. Brigham Young found himself having to resign as Governor of Utah, and a non-Mormon was quickly appointed in his place. Young died shortly afterward. Despite this, the struggle continued between the LDS church and American society over plural marriage. Charges were laid against men who took part in the practice, and precedents were set in the courts. Religious freedom, it was determined, was not a valid defence. It all came to an abrupt head in 1890 when the United States government resorted to disincorporation of the church and seizure of all of its property. These actions left the saints with no other option. They had to disavow polygamy.

Wilford Woodruff, who had replaced Brigham Young as the church leader and had up to nine wives of his own, took a hard stand against the principle of plural marriage, citing a timely revelation from God. Of course, you could keep the wives you had collected until this point, but one was not to accumulate any more. Miraculously, Moroni did not return with his sword to disembowel these heretics as he had once promised Joseph Smith he would do if the Saints didn't partake in plural marriage.

This new stance on polygamy seemed to work. The United States government and the church leadership finally seemed able to make nice. It was so effective that Utah was admitted into the union as a state shortly after that. Things were going so well for Utah that in 1904, the church again took a public stand against polygamy and began excommunicating those who practiced it. This position enraged those who would eventually form the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), as did the consequent ex-communication of John W. Taylor, the son of John Taylor. John Taylor had been the third president of the LDS Church who, in 1886, is reported to have received a revelation from God. This revelation given to Mr. Taylor, who had eight wives himself, reinforces the revelation received by Joseph Smith: plural marriage is a prescribed principle of Mormon life. It was handed down to John Taylor just four years before the LDS Church denounced polygamy. Of course, the Saints who accepted the revelation of 1886 felt that the LDS church was acting outside of God's law and found fit to settle elsewhere, forming their own church. And thus, the FLDS splinter was born.

The polygamists took their wives and settled in what was called Short Creek. Located on the Utah/Arizona border, the town would become the center of the FLDS church and eventually be known as the Twin Cities of Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah. This splinter group of fundamentalists had a rocky road ahead of them filled with legal fights, raids, arrests and leadership turmoil. In 1953, the Arizona National Guard carried out the largest mass-arrest of accused polygamists in the nation's history. It wasn't received well by the American public as they learned that every community member had been taken, including the children.

Warren Jeffs
Warren Jeffs

In the aftermath, the U.S. government took a step back from their hard stance against this sect, and things were relatively peaceful for the FLDS, even as the infamous Rulon Jeffs took control. In 1986, Jeffs became the president of the FLDS church. Known to his followers as Uncle Rulon, he is said to have had 75 wives in his lifetime. Through one of these unions, Jeffs fathered the current president of the church, Warren Jeffs. Warren leads his congregation today from a cell in the Louis C. Powledge Unit in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, where he's serving life plus 20 years for sexual assault, but that's not why we're here.

We're here because all of this colourful history, all the tall tales and revelation, all the children and all these sister-wives led us to Bountiful, British Columbia, the idyllic village at the base of the Skimmerhorn Mountains, not too far from where I type this.

You see, amidst the turmoil in Colorado City and the constant legal harassment over their polygamist lifestyle, FLDS member Harold Blackmore wanted someplace a little more out of the way to settle down. He wanted to be away from the prying eyes of American law, free to take as many celestial wives as the good Lord would provide for him. So, just a few years before the tensions bubbled over with the Short Creek Raid, Harold went to Canada, purchased a plot of land in B.C. and moved his family there.

Currently, the population of Bountiful is said to be around 1000 people. A harrowing number when you consider that a vast majority of these residents descended from just six men within a few generations. One need only search for an ex-FLDS member on Facebook and glance at their friend list to see evidence of this. Nothing but Blackmores and Chatwins, Steeds and Olers, Palmers and Jessops. The FLDS church is so intermarried and incestuous that it caused a cluster of Fumarase Deficiency cases. Fumarase Deficiency is a congenital disability that sees sufferers with missing parts of their brain, extremely low I.Q. and an inability to remain upright either sitting or standing without some form of assistance. Before the cluster of 20 Fumarase Deficiency cases was identified in Colorado City and Hildale, there had only been 13 known cases worldwide. There are unconfirmed reports that alongside the cottage where Bountiful's women give birth lies a baby graveyard containing the bodies of infants born with Fumarase Deficiency.

Bountiful, BC
Bountiful, BC

Debbie Palmer was once a resident of Bountiful, BC. She was born and raised there and, at fifteen years of age, was married off to the 57-year-old then-leader of Bountiful, Ray Blackmore, who was also Debbie's step-grandfather. Ray had taken control of Bountiful out of the hands of his uncle Harold Blackmore back in 1953. Six mothers had raised Debbie, who had 46 siblings. Through two arranged marriages, Debbie became a stepmother, as a teenager, to 86 children. The current leader of Bountiful, BC, Winston Blackmore, is Debbie's uncle, stepson and step-grandson. When Debbie finally fled the community and became an outspoken activist against polygamy, she told the world that the FLDS based marriage on animal husbandry. Though Debbie passed this year, much of what outsiders know about this secretive community is thanks to her bravery.