Helaman Pratt (1846-1909)

By Mary Pratt Parrish, granddaughter

Helaman was a frontiersman. Even at the time of his birth he was beyond the reach of civilization, for the wagon in which his mother was riding had to stop a few miles out from Mr. Pisgah, on the plains of Iowa, while the rest of the company went on. Helaman was born about an hour later and his mother’s wagon joined those at Mr. Pisgah that same afternoon. Mary proudly showed off her newborn son. The date was May 31, 1846.

Helaman, of course, was too young to remember the trek across the plains, but he did remember some things that happened in those early days in the valley. He remember that for a long time his ration for a meal was one half slice of bread. He remembered digging sego roots and bringing them home for his mother to cook. He remembered herding cows by the Hot Springs and hiding his lunch so Indians wouldn’t find it. Sometimes, they found it anyway and Helaman had nothing to eat until he got home that night. He remembered fighting the crickets, and the joy that he knew when the seagulls came. These experiences conditioned Helaman for the pioneer life he was to lead.

At the October conference of 1867, Helaman was called to the Muddy Mission. The Muddy was a tributary of the Rio Virgin on which the town of St. George had been established some years before. In 1865, Church Authorities, after much investigation, decided the Muddy, which was even lower in altitude than St. George, would be a fertile field for the growing of cotton and other semitropical products. For this reason the Muddy settlements were established. Thomas S. Smith and his company of Saints arrived there in 1865. Others followed him until the new colony numbered fifty families. These colonists located in St. Thomas and St. Joseph. Helaman and his group located in Overton, Nevada in 1868.

When Helaman was called he was told that he must take a wife with him. His choice was Victoria Billingsley, a beautiful young lady of sixteen. She consented and soon after their marriage on July 25, 1868, they started for the Muddy. Upon their arrival, Helaman was called to be the Presiding Elder over the settlement of Overton.

At first they had trouble with the Indians, and one day Helaman caught two of them stealing what little wheat the settlers had. Helaman locked them up. He expected trouble and he got it. The whole tribe descended upon him with bows drawn. The settlers gathered around with their pistols cocked. It was a dramatic moment. Helaman stood by the Chief who was demanding that his men be released. Helaman looked over his shoulder and saw his little sixteen years old bride at the window with the old flintlock gun. He spoke boldly:

“The wheat your men have taken was our winter supply. Without it we have no food for the winter months. If your men will return the wheat they will go free; if they don’t, they won’t. If your men pull their bows and let their arrows fly, I will press the trigger on this pistol and as I fall, you will fall also.”

With this, the Chief was much more willing to negotiate and after that Helaman had little trouble with the Indians stealing foodstuffs. However, Helaman was generous with the Indians and often gave them of their supplies.

On April 20, 1874, Helaman, on the advice of Brigham Young, married Dora Johanna Dorothy Wilcken as his second wife. Helaman met Dora on a business trip to Salt Lake City. He was staying with his friend, Billie Segmiller, at whose home Dora was boarding. Sister Segmiller asked Dora if she would make some cornmeal mush for their evening meal. She did so and then retired to her room. Helaman complimented his hostess on the excellence of the dish and was told that a young lady who was boarding with them made it. Of course, Helaman insisted on meeting the young lady. They did not meet again until Dora went to Long Valley, as a member of the United Order, to teach school. There she and Helaman became better acquainted and Helaman asked for her hand in marriage. This he did with the full consent of his wife Victoria. The two wives understood and loved each other and helped each other with their families during the long months and years that Helaman was away on his missionary endeavors.

In 1875, Helaman was called to go on an exploration mission into Arizona and Mexico. The purpose of the mission was to find suitable places for Mormon colonization and to determine whether or not the time was ripe for missionary work. His companions were James Z. Stewart, Robert H. Smith, Daniel W. Jones and Wiley, his son, Anthony W. Ivins and Ammon S. Tenny. Jacob Hamblin accompanied them as a guide and an interpreter until they crossed the Colorado River. By the time they returned home, they had traveled 4000 miles through unexplored territory. President Wells, Apostle Erastus Snow and Brigham Young, Jr. met them at the Little Colorado and traveled with them for the remainder of their journey. They arrived home ten months after leaving for their mission. Two short months after their arrival, Helaman left again for a proselytizing mission over the same territory from which he had just returned.

On his second mission to Arizona and Mexico, Helaman had as his companions, James Z. Stewart, Isaac J. Stewart, Louis Garff, and George Terry. Meliton G. Trejo Joined them at Richfield.

Since this mission was to be of a missionary nature, they traveled with teams through southern Utah, up the Little Colorado in Arizona, southwest to Prescott, thence to Phoenix. They made frequents stops to preach whenever an opportunity presented itself. When they arrived at Tucson, four of the Elders went to work for the Yellow Jacket mine in order to have enough money to resume their journey.

In February 1877, they established their headquarters at Tuba and for several months that settlement was the hub of missionary work throughout Arizona among the Mexicans and Indians. It was while at Tuba that Helaman and Brother Terry went to Sonora in search of the Yaqui Indians. On May 29, 1877, Helaman made the following entry in his diary:
May 29, visited the American Consul, Mr. Willard, and was kindly received. At eleven o’clock we started in a boat for the Yaqui River, distance thirty or forty miles. Slept in the boat. May 30. In the morning went up the river about four miles to the house of one of the governors of the Yaquis. He sent immediately in search of the headman of the nation, Jose Maria, We find the Indians farming here without irrigating their crops of corn, beans and melons and other crops look well. The Captain General sent for our Book of Mormon and after reading it an hour or two he returned it to us, but the Governor would not tell us where Jose Maria, the Chief was. He said if you will go to the village you will see him and he volunteered to take us. We accordingly started and when we came to the village we found the Padre from Guaymas was there and the Indians were gathered from all over the country to a big fiesta. I must say that I never saw Catholics until I saw them here. They were having their processions, etc. They also had instruments of torture of various kinds. We were marched in the center of these and a council of their leading men was held and then we were called to the council and asked to state our business. We said we wished to talk with Jose Maria and to present him with a book. We were told that he was at the upper village and that we could not see him and were advised to leave and an escort furnished to take us back to the boat that we came in.

After we returned, the captain of our boat told us that he had seen Jose Maria and was with him while he was reading our book and that he was not at any of the towns but was at a house near us but he did not want to see us and that the Indians had purposely led us off the track. We accordingly returned to the mouth of the river.

Helaman and his companion then returned to Guayma and reported to the American Consul who was quite astonished when he learned they had been to the River Yaqui and returned safely. He said that the Yaqui were in a state of rebellion and that it was not considered safe for anyone to go among them. Helaman said: “We certainly acknowledged the hand of God in our preservation, as we were completely in their hands and they were very much excited at our being among them, and nothing but the power of God could have delivered us. But thanks to Him, we were permitted to return in safety.”
On November 19, Helaman received a letter from President Taylor releasing him to return home. At Long Valley he found his wife Victoria and their children. He remained there a few days and then started for Salt Lake City where Dora was and found all was well.

The following year, 1878, Helaman was elected as chaplain of the council of the legislature, and for the next five years he worked as a policeman.

On October 23, 1883, Helaman Pratt left Salt Lake City in company with Elders Morgan, Grosbeck, Frank R. Snow and Richardson for the Mexican Mission, with headquarters located in Mexico City. En route, they passes Liberty Landing Station, near Liberty Jail, were Helaman’s father, Parley P. Pratt, had been held prisoner.

Finally, arriving at Veracruz by ship from New Orleans, Helaman boarded the train for Mexico City. He was met there by President Anthony W. Ivins and Elder Nelson R. Pratt who was assigned to be his missionary companion. They establish their headquarters in Ozumba. The first thing they did was to call on Felipe Sanchez, the president of the municipality, who received them very kindly and assured them every protection in his power.

On March 27, 1884, four months after arriving the mission field, President Ivins set Helaman apart to be President of the Mission. President Ivins and Elder Nelson R. Pratt left the next day for Salt Lake City.

Helaman worked hard and was not well. He had malaria and frequently had chills and high fever while touring the mission. This was made worse by the fact that he had to walk from town to town most of the time. For example, on November 8, he records: “Brothres Barco, Zuniga and others accompanied me to the Rancho del Barranca del Cuarto, about three miles south where we held meetings, after which I baptized three persons, then walked six miles to Morales, took the train for Yautepec, and then walked nine miles to San Andres de la Cal.”

Because of Helaman’s ill health, the brethren thought it wise that one of his wives join him in the mission field. It was decided that Victoria would go and that Dora would remain and care for the children. She arrived in Mexico City on September 14, 1885, the day before her birthday. Helaman was surprised but delighted that she brought their little son Carl with her. Helaman loved his family and longed to be with them. In his diary he often referred to the good dinners Victoria prepared and was very appreciative of the fact that she was willing to invite the missionaries in for a meal. Often he took Victoria and Carl with him on a tour of the mission. Victoria stayed for about a year and then returned to Salt Lake City where she awaited the birth of her son, Leon.

On June 18, 1885, Helaman received a letter from Moses Thatcher stating that Brother Erastus Snow, Brigham Young, Jr., he (Helaman) had been appointed by the President of the Church as an exploring commission to explore the land in Mexico and determine a site that would be suitable for a city of refuge for the Saints. This was a starting point of a long and arduous effort to find a place where the Saints could live in peace and be free from persecution.

A year later, almost to the day, a site was chosen and an inauguration ceremony was held, Helaman being the grand marshal. The city was called Colonia Juarez. It was located in northern Mexico in the State of Chihuahua. As soon as the inauguration ceremonies were over, the Saints started to move onto the land to make improvements and plant crops. They were totally unprepared for a telegram received from the Governor of Chihuahua stating that he would not allow the Mormons to settle in Chihuahua. They could harvest the crops they had planted, but then they must leave the state.

The Saints, of course, were disturbed about this for they had the blessing of the federal government, and particularly the blessing of Porfirio Diaz, the President of Mexico. Elder Thatcher wired Salt Lake City and the Church Authorities sent a telegram to Helaman in Mexico City: “Expulsion of Mormons from Chihuahua referred to Federal Government. Ask for stay of decision until representatives from here arrive.”

At the time this telegram arrived, Helaman was not at home. He was in Toluca holding conference. He had expected to stay another week or so but after the conference meeting was over, he had a strong feeling that he must leave at once for home. It was only fifteen minutes before the train was to leave, but he made it and arrived home that night. He was surprised to receive the telegram… Knowing the urgency of the situation he took the telegram to the office of President Diaz early the following morning. The President received him kindly and voiced his displeasure over the action of the governor of Chihuahua. He sent the following telegram to the governor; ” Allow the Mormons to stay and treat them kindly.” Elders Thatcher and Young arrived in a few days and the entire matter was settled amiable. After the trouble with the governor of Chihuahua, Helaman was released and set apart by President Taylor to help in the colonization of the Saints in Mexico.

In this new calling, he worked hard to help the Saints get land, secure land titles, water rights, spearhead the building of canals and ditches and all that was necessary to make their new home a happy and prosperous one. At the time he set Helaman apart, President Taylor told him that he was called until death released him, that he was to become a Mexican citizen and take part in the government. Helaman accepted the call and all its ramifications.

Victoria and Dora, in Salt Lake City, received the news of Helaman’s new calling in a letter he sent to them. To Dora he wrote: “I think it would be well if you were to come at once and bring your children. You can come as far as Deming by train, and I will meet you there with a covered wagon and we will go on to Juarez together.”

To Victoria he wrote; “It would be safe if you were to stay there until after the baby is born. I want you to have every care you can get, so that you can come down here feeling well and prepared to meet the difficult problems ahead. When you are strong enough, and ready to come, let me know and I will meet you in Deming, and will bring you to your new home.”

Victoria and Dora followed Helaman’s suggestions and Dora, with her five children, left immediately for Deming. Helaman met them with a covered wagon and took them on the Colonia Juarez. The trip was a happy one and Helaman laughed and joked with the children all the way. It was the first time they had an opportunity to get acquainted with their father for four years. When they arrived in Juarez, they camped out in the covered wagon and in a tent that erected by its side until Helaman could finish the house that he had started before leaving to get them.

It was a nice house, but they did not live there long, for Helaman, through some connection he had with Luis Terrazas, who owned most of the land in Chihuahua, bought a 3000 acre ranch about fifty miles up in the mountains. There, he built two large log cabins, one for Dora and one for Victoria, and it was into one of these cabins that Victoria moved when she arrived from the states.

When she arrived, Victoria expected to see four bare walls, but, instead, to her surprise, it was attractive and homelike. Helaman and Dora had done their best to make it so. As Victoria entered, her eyes rested on the large fireplace that nearly covered one end of the room. There she would cook. There she would sew by the firelight. Here she would heat water in her iron teakettle to wash dishes, to wash clothing, to take the icy coldness off the bath water for her children. By it she would snuggle up close to keep warm on chilly night. On the hearth were two dutch ovens filled to the brim with venison and onions. Then her eyes fell on the old flintlock hanging over the fireplace. She was afraid of guns, but she knew that without a gun there could be no venison cooking, and so she was content.

On the wall opposite the fireplace, shelves were built on which cheeses were placed to ripen. She knew Dora was an expert cheese maker and since there was a good market for cheese in Mexico, she also would learn to make cheese and put them on the shelves to ripen. In the corner by the shelves, she saw a string bed, covered with a nice soft feather bed mattress. A long table made of split pine logs stood in the center of the room. Two peg-leg benches were on each side of the table.

Even though Helaman’s ranch was fifty miles away from Juarez, he was very much involved in helping the colonist get settled and established new towns. He worked diligently and faithfully in helping them secure land, to secure titles to their land, to establish water rights, constructedn roads, sidewalks, ditches and canals.

To Helaman, the ranch was a dream come true. There he could rise cattle for market, but more important he could raise horses, purebred horses with impressive pedigrees. And this he did. It was not long until Helaman was known throughout Mexico to have the finest of horseflesh. He was known also for his cheese. Porfirio Diaz gave him a gold medal and a certificate stating that he made the finest cheese in Mexico.

Before he was known for the excellence of his cheese, he took a load to Chihuahua City, and the officials there threw him in jail, saying that he had stolen the cheese. There was no provision made for having anyone enter the jail or any means of getting communications out. But Helaman made friends with the jailer. He got him to take a letter to his friend, Luis Terrazas. When Mr. Terrazas found out that Helaman was in jail, things started to happen. He came in person and got him out of the prison, and Helaman was able to sell his cheese.

Helaman always carried his flintlock whenever he went out on the range. One night, the cows were making a terrible noise. He took his flintlock and went out to the corral. He found his herd out of the corral and the calves in the center. A bear was trying to get to the calves. When Helaman saw that it was a bear that was causing the trouble, he shot at it but didn’t kill it. The bear started toward him, and Helaman backed off and as he did he fell backwards over a large log. He landed with his feet straight up in the air. He lay there for a minute expecting the bear to pounce on him. When it didn’t, Helaman got up and looked around. He saw the bear running down the canyon and he concluded that, when the bear saw his feet sticking up in the air, it frightened him away.

Sickness was not a stranger to the colonists. AT one time it was reported that there were sixty cases of typhoid fever in Juarez. The mortality rate was high and the people were frantic. Nor did those living on the ranch escape the ravages of disease. Aurelia and Parley, Victoria’s two oldest living children, came down with diphtheria, as did Dottie, Aunt Dora’s oldest daughter, Dottie lived, but Aurelia and Parley died within five days of each other. Victoria was frantic. What was to keep Rey and Carl and Leon from getting it?

It was at this time that a Mexican lady came to Victoria’s door and handed her a handful of the manzanita root. “Boil these,” she said, “and give the broth to your children, as much as they can drink.” Victoria did as she was told. The three children did not get the disease. It was not known then, nor is it now, whether the root had some special curative power, or if it was the boiled water that worked the magic.

Victoria had by then lost her four oldest children. Always in her mind was the question, why had she lost four children and Dora not any? It was hard when she buried her two babies, each less than a year old, but harder yet to bury Aurelia and Parley, who were so nearly grown, Aurelia being seventeen and Parley sixteen. And to bury them within five days of each other, Why?

Her inability to resolve this question drove her deeper and deeper into her sorrow. She had a beautiful voice but she could not sing. She loved laughter, but she could not laugh. She loved young people, but the sound of their youthful voices tore at her heart. Rey, Carl, and Leon looked on with puzzled expressions. They tried to comfort her, as did Helaman, but she shut them out. Then, one day, she saw their sad faces and awoke to the realization that it was she who was causing that sadness. “These, my children, are entitled to my smiles,” she said to herself. She then called them to her and said, “let sing ‘Nigger, Nigger Never Die.'” It was an old song that they all knew and smiles covered their faces as they ran and threw their arms around her. Only then did she realize the sorrow she had caused them. She said, “It is finished. I will have no more of this grieving. We will pick up the pieces and have joy in this house.”

Then came the miracle. At an age when it was thought that Victoria was past the childbearing age, she gave birth to a little girl. They called her Gladys. All the love that Victoria had longed to shower on Lona May, Aurelia, Helaman, Jr. and Parley, she showered on Gladys. The boys and Helaman did the same, and Victoria said that she was sent in recompense for those chidden that she had lost. Victoria started to sing out in public again. She had parties and invited townspeople to her home. She served fabulous meals and served them with a delicate air. Her mashed potatoes were pure fluff and melted in your mouth. With the birth of Gladys, Victoria was reborn.

Helaman turned the ranch over to his three oldest sons. Rey, Carl and Ira (Dora’s son). They called it the “3P Ranch” and were very successful in its operation. Soon after Rolfe was born in 1904, Carl got sick. They said he had consumption. Carl had never been entirely well, but was never confined to his bed. Carl was so kind and sensitive to everybody’s needs that everyone loved him. This was especially true of Gladys, and she felt a keen loss when he died. Rey took Carl to his mother’s home and there, she, with the help of Dora, nursed him. When he died, Dora took full charge of preparing his body for burial. When he was nicely laid out, she said, with tears rolling down her cheeks, “I gave him his first bath and now I have given him his last.” Victoria put her arms around Dora and said, “What would I ever do without your. Thank you.”

For the most part, Mexicans worked on the big haciendas. Very few owned any land in their own right. Helaman was disturbed because their wages were so low that they could hardly buy enough beans and rice for one meal a day. Each hacienda had a commissary and the Mexicans were not allowed to buy anything anywhere else. They could charge what they bought at the commissary but they could not quit their job until the bill was paid. This made the Mexicans virtually slaves. Helaman knew this and he tried to help them by paying off their bills. Then they were free to work where they wanted. Many worked for him. Helaman’s children jokingly used to say that he bought more land to hire more Mexicans. And this had a grain of truth in it for Helaman was always buying more land.

When Rey was seventeen years old. Helaman brought his families to Colonia Juarez so they could associate with the young people and go to school there at the Academy. Then he went on to Colonia Dublan, a settlement that was then being colonized, and bought a large farm. He took Dora and her family there and left Victoria in Juarez to care for the children who would be going to the Academy. The next year Victoria moved to Dublan. Helaman built her a nice brick home next to Dora’s.

Dublan was the hub of Helaman’s farming activities. He bought the cows down from the ranch and let them stay in Dublan for the winter. Dora and Victoria used the milk from his one hundred head of cows to make cheese. The children who were old enough to go to the Academy would rent a house and board themselves.

When Helaman was released from the City of Mexico Mission and was called to help colonize the colonies, he was not well. In addition to having malaria, he had trouble with his stomach and heart. He worked hard in his public work as well as in providing for his family until he was finally confined to bed in 1909. He knew that his condition was serious and he asked that his children be called to his bedside that he might give than a few words of advice. Victoria and Dora were keeling at his side and the children were standing around the bed. A group of priesthood holders were holding a prayer circle in the adjoining room. He uttered a few words and then apparently passed away. The brethren came in from the other room, all in great sorrow. Finally, after several minutes, his eyelids began to quiver and his lips began to move. Dora and Victoria arose to their feet as Helaman spoke.

“I am all right,” he said, and then continued speaking. “My spirit left my body and was in the upper part of the room when I was met by Erastus Snow, my dear friend. Brother Snow said, ‘Brother Helaman, go back and take up your body. Your mission is not yet complete.'” Helaman answered, “Brother Snow, my stomach and heart are completely worn out. I cannot go on.” Brother Snow said, “You still have a great work to perform. Go back and take up your body and your stomach and heart will be made whole.”

For some time, Helaman was careful of his eating habits, but soon recovered his strength and was a well man. He lived sixteen years after that, during which time he was called to the Stake Presidency of the Juarez Stake. He also took a third wife, Bertha Wilcken, who was Dora’s sister and, with her, parented three more fine boys.

Dublan was on the prairie. The Casas Grandes River ran through the center of Dublan and during the rainy season, it used to flood. Because the water had no place to go, it was lost. On the east were natural lakes and Helaman conceived the idea of harnessing the floodwaters by building a canal from the river out to the lakes so the water could be used in the dry season for irrigation purposes.

The whole town was enthusiastic about the project and worked hard until its completion. When the canal was finished, the town had a big celebration. Everyone took their dinner to the church house and spread it out on the floor. Everyone ate in their own family group. After the dinner was over they had a program and dance for the children. Helaman let the grand march with his grandchildren. At night, they had a dance for the adults. Dora and Victoria went to the dance but Helaman didn’t want to go. “I am too tired,” he said. Bertha stayed home with him.

The next day was Emerson’s eighth birthday and Helaman was going to baptize him in the lake. Also he had the tradition of giving each of his boys a female horse on their eighth birthday, the foals of which were to help with their schooling and missions, and Helaman and Bertha talked about which horse they would give Emerson. After they had talked for awhile, Helaman evidently went to sleep. Quite unexpectedly, during the middle of the night, Bertha heard Helaman give a funny little noise. She lit the lamp and the beads of perspiration were on his feet. He was seemingly unconscious. Bertha ran to Dora’s room and said, ” Come quick. Helaman is very sick.” When Dora came she took hold of his hand. He closed his hand over hers. She did not know whether he was conscious or not. It might have been a a reflex action. Bertha went over and got Victoria. Helaman did not know anything from that time on. Three hours later he gave a funny little noise again and he was gone. It had been sixteen years almost to the day since Erastus Snow appeared to him and told him his work was not finished. Now it had ended. There was not a task he had not completed.

After Helaman died Dora and Bertha lived on in the old home until they were driven out by the revolutionists. They returned when the situation permitted and stayed in the house until Dora died. Bertha then went to live with her son Harold. Helaman’s children honored his name. Rey and Harold both became Mission Presidents of the mission over which he himself had presided. All the other children have been honorable men and woman and have added luster to his name.

[Stalwarts South of the Border, Nelle Spilsbury Hatch and B. Carmon Hardy, ed., 1985, 543-52]

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