At 4:00 A.M. on July 26, 1953, two quite different men met face-to-face on the dusty street in front of the schoolhouse in the northern Arizona border town of Short Creek. Each protagonist was backed by a phalanx of supporters. Sheriff Fred Porter of Mohave County, Arizona, had an army of sixty to seventy Arizona deputy sheriffs, highway patrolmen, liquor control agents, and national guardsmen who had entered the town in a pincers movement. One group from the west had driven from Arizona, through Nevada and Utah, and back into Arizona at Short Creek, and the other one came over the Kaibab Plateau and through the town of Fredonia some thirty miles to the east. These lawmen originally had assembled at Williams, Arizona, south of the Grand Canyon, for what the rumor mill had labeled a special traffic school. They were given instructions and divided into the two groups, and after lengthy overnight travel around both ends of the canyon to the Arizona Strip, they burst into the isolated village with strident sirens and flashing lights. Leroy Johnson, the elderly spiritual leader of the fundamentalist polygamist community, had been alerted to the invasion by a dynamite blast set as a signal by lookouts, who had spotted the lights of the eastern cavalcade coming off the Kaibab. Johnson had many of his people lined up behind the picket fence around the schoolyard singing patriotic songs.
The scenario was ripe for violence, but neither side had a taste for it. The Johnson fundamentalists were clothed with religious zeal and the knowledge that they had survived intact two prior official “raids.” They probably believed this incursion was like an anti-Jewish pogrom in eastern Europe before Hitler’s “final solution”—they would suffer, but the community would survive. They were correct on both counts. The lawmen were under strict nobloodshed orders from Arizona’s governor, Howard Pyle, who had ordered the operation, and from senior law enforcement officials. Rather than making martyrs, the state officials hoped for public and voter approval in rescuing the women and children of Short Creek from what they believed were the grinding poverty and the unspeakable horrors of life in a plural marriage setting. Judges, lawyers, and social workers accompanied the police. The press, which was also on hand, had fallen into line behind the eastern peace officer convoy at Fredonia.