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MITT ROMNEY’S MEXICAN ROOTS. The National Post. Imprimir

THIRD OF FIVE BOOK EXCERPTS A new book tells the story of Mitt Romney, and the four Romney patriarchs who preceded him. In today’s third excerpt, a profile of grandfather Gaskell, who built — and then abandoned — a thriving community south of the bord.

Gaskell Romney represented the church’s new, post-1890 monogamous outlook: He and his wife were
married only to each other

By 1890, Colonia Juárez, the Mexican Mormon settlement founded by Mitt Romney’s great grandfather, Miles P. Romney, was thriving. The Romneys built many of the town’s handsome brick homes, along with train stations for a railroad that would provide settlers with more opportunities to sell their produce.

Then the Romneys’ world came crashing down again. Back in Utah, some of the same Mormon leaders who had urged Miles to create a refuge for polygamy in Mexico at great personal hazard now turned against the practice. On September 24, 1890, church president Wilford Woodruff, under pressure from the U.S. government, issued what was called the Manifesto: “I now publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriages forbidden by the law of the land.”

The careful wording of the manifesto might have given some solace to the Romneys. They may have believed that Woodruff was referring to the law in the United States, not Mexico. They continued their polygamous practice even more isolated than before. In 1897, seven years after the Manifesto, 53-year-old Miles married a wealthy widow named Emily Henrietta Eyring Snow. “There was a great closeness between the sons and daughters of [his] four wives,” a family biography says. “All told there were thirty children.”

More and more, responsibilities shifted to the industrious and head-strong Gaskell, the son born to Miles and his wife Hannah in 1871. Gaskell, who would become Mitt Romney’s grandfather, had become his father’s “mainstay,” as a family biography put it, but one day in his teens he announced to his father that he was leaving to go to school in Salt Lake. “Yes, and go to hell like your brother,” Miles said, referring to another son who had gone on a church mission to France and returned with “fancy habits.” But Gaskell went ahead.

In 1895, after completing his education in Salt Lake City, Gaskell returned to Mexico and married Anna Amelia Pratt, who would become Mitt Romney’s grandmother. Anna was descended from one of the most important families in the Mor mon faith. Her grandfather, Parley Pratt, had 12 wives and had been chosen by the faith’s founder, Joseph Smith, as one of the early apostles.

By the turn of the 20th century, the Romneys’ years of hardship were followed by years of plenty in Mexico. The family “accumulated a great deal of means” in those “lovely times,” Hannah wrote. The Romneys owned many cattle and chickens, farmed vast lands, and built sturdy houses in a town near the original settlement. The children went to a newly built redbrick school and joined a baseball team that sometimes travelled 150 miles northeast to play in El Paso, Texas.

One day in early March 1904, 60-year-old Miles looked out at his farm and commented how beautiful it looked. That night, as he read a newspaper, he called to Hannah and requested the gathering of all of his wives, and their children and grandchildren. Hannah held his hand for a moment and then he “breathed his last,” she recalled years later. Miles’s life had spanned the saga of the Mormon church from his birth in Nauvoo, Ill. to the exodus over the Mormon trail to Utah, across the border to Mexico to maintain polygamy, and then into the more modern era, when the church sought broader societal acceptance.

Now the burden of family leadership shifted even more to Gaskell. As much as he had admired his father, Gaskell represented the church’s new outlook, and he and his wife were married only to each other.

With the foundation laid by Miles, Gaskell accumulated land and businesses and became “very prosperous,” running a cattle farm and a door factory. His wealth enabled him to build a two-story red-brick home that was considered one of the nicest in his community. It was in that home in 1907 that Gaskell’s wife, Anna, gave birth to George Wilcken Romney, Mitt Romney’s father.

George would go on to display many of the distinctive family traits; he was industrious, smart and indefatigably hardworking, but also a blustery, imposing and outspoken figure like Miles. George would tower over his short father, and his long frame would be passed along to his son, Mitt Romney. For five years, George Romney lived an idyllic life in Mexico. The wealth of his family, and the stability and sturdiness of their home, were in stark contrast to the wanderings and poverty experienced by Miles. But prosperity would again prove fleeting.

Gaskell was aware of constant talk of revolution among the local Mexican population. Factions within the country were battling one another, and the Mormon colony tried to remain neutral. At one point, little George heard gunfire as he sat on the porch of their home. In July 1912, the Romneys learned that hundreds of revolutionaries were nearby. The rebels ignored the Mormons’ insistence that they were neutral. They demanded that the Romneys turn over their guns and horses. Gaskell’s half brother Junius declared that he “would die before ordering our people to give up their arms.” Vastly outnumbered by the rebels, the Romneys, including five-year-old George, packed their belongings and joined other Mormons at a nearby railroad station, waiting hours before boarding a packed train to El Paso, Texas. Over three days, 2,300 of 4,000 Mormons evacuated.

Twenty-seven years after Miles fled from U.S. government agents and took refuge in Mexico, the Romney family was back in the United States. In the course of a few days, Gaskell’s family had gone from owning a large Mexican ranch to being nearly penniless. George would later say that his family was among “the first displaced

persons of the 20th century.” George would forever be bitter about his unceremonious exile. “I was kicked out of Mexico when I was five years old because the Mexicans were envious of the fact that my people ... became prosperous,” George said years later. He also noted that “the Mexicans thought if they could just take it away from the Mormon settlers, it would be paradise. It just didn’t work that way, of course.”

Fortunately for the Romneys, the U.S. government, which had once chased Miles to Mexico due to his polygamy, now welcomed the Romneys and other Mormons to the United States. Congress established a $100,000 relief fund that enabled the Romneys and other Mormon exiles to receive food and lodging.

Initially, the Romneys’ stay on U.S. soil was to be temporary. The El Paso Herald reported on Oct. 25, 1912, that Gaskell Romney and his family, including little George, had gone to Los Angeles “until it is safe for his family to return to the colonies” in Mexico. But Gaskell’s family would never return to live there, and made only a sentimental trip years later. Had they returned for good, Mitt Romney might never have been in a position to run for president.

The Romneys moved from house to house, from California to Idaho to Utah, as they rebuilt their lives. Gaskell once again became prosperous, constructing some of the finest homes in Salt Lake City and becoming bishop of the church’s wealthiest ward, where he might have overseen 500 members. But during the Great Depression, he “lost all he had and more,” according to a family biography. The Romneys left their three-story home and moved into a rented bungalow. “Even though Father was driven out of Mexico penniless ... he didn’t make me feel poor,” George wrote about Gaskell. “He never took out bankruptcy, which he could have done several times.”

Gaskell regained his financial footing with help from an unlikely source: Mexico. He had never given up trying to obtain financial compensation from the Mexican government for losing his family property. Twenty-six years after the Romneys were forced from Mexico, the case of Gaskell Romney v. United States of Mexico was finalized in Salt Lake City in 1938. Gaskell requested $26,753 in damages. He was awarded $9,163, court records show — a sizable amount in the post-Depression years. The records say that Gaskell was to give half of the award to his son George, helping to set the family on firmer financial footing in the United States.

The Romneys had come an extraordinary distance from the day in 1841 when Miles Archibald Romney, convinced of the truth of Mormonism, had set sail for America. His son Miles Park had devoted his life to his faith and family and religious salvation and ended his days in Mexico, but in a roundabout way he had enabled succeeding generations of his family to have their chance at the American dream. He could hardly have imagined that a grandson would be governor of Michigan and run for the presidency, or that a great-grandson would be governor of Massachusetts and also seek the presidency. But the generational line passed along much: not just the angular physical characteristics, not just the fidelity to Mormon faith, but also a world-view grounded in the family’s ancestral story of flight and persecution and rebuilding. The family would cycle through utter poverty and unimaginable wealth, but the Romneys would say over the years that what they held in common was clear, that they were builders all, from the carpenters to the politicians, each son trying to accomplish what the father had left undone.

Today, about 40 Romneys remain in Colonia Juárez, many of them living in the brick houses built by their Romney ancestors and attending school in the Academia Juárez, funded by the Mormon Church. They are descendants of some family members who, after fleeing to Texas during the revolution, did return to Mexico. Schoolchildren bound through the hallways and across a soccer field in the shadow of the same mountains that Miles P. Romney first eyed many years ago. A Mormon temple, perched on a hilltop, is brilliantly lit at night and topped by the gold-leafed figure of the angel Moroni.

Amid all this lives a man named Mike Romney, whose life has striking parallels with Mitt Romney’s. Mike and Mitt Romney are both great-grandsons of Miles P. and Hannah Romney. Their grandfathers were brothers. Mitt is one year older than Mike. It seems only a twist of fate that Mike Romney lives today in Mexico and has worked as a widely respected school administrator while Mitt Romney lives in the United States and twice has sought the presidency. Mike reveres his family’s history, and he takes special pride in having recovered and restored the well-worn organ that Hannah had insisted be taken on the family’s journeys across the American Southwest and Mexico.

Mike has followed Mitt Romney’s career and thinks he would make a great president, but as of mid-2011 he had never met or spoken to his cousin and can only hope that Mitt takes pride in the family’s remarkable history.

 


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