Mary Helm, pioneer teacher, the daughter of John Hutchinson and Janet (Henderson) Sherwood, was born on July 3, 1807, in Herkimer County, New York. She began teaching at the age of sixteen and was teaching in a district school when she became reacquainted with her former teacher, Elias R. Wightman, who had recently returned from working as a surveyor for Stephen F. Austin and Green DeWitt in Texas. After a short courtship the two were married, on October 26, 1828. The Wightmans gathered a group of approximately fifty to sixty colonists, a majority from New York, and on November 2, 1828, set out for Texas. They traveled by wagon to the Allegheny River and from there down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans. There they chartered the schooner Little Zoe and set out on December 26; bad weather and difficulty in sailing through Matagorda pass kept them from landing at Matagorda until January 27, 1829. The Wightmans lived in a small fort for several months until they were able to obtain material with which to build a crude cabin.
They founded Matagorda, where they owned a salt works and much of the surrounding land. Mary taught both day school and Sunday school in a log schoolhouse in Matagorda from about 1829 until 1832. The Wightmans also received some land on Caney Creek, in what is now Matagorda County, which they farmed with the help of several slaves. During the Texas Revolution Mary, her sister, an orphan girl, the Wightman slaves, and several neighbors tried to flee from the Mexican army by sea. The group was stranded in Galveston and after much hardship finally got back to Caney Creek.
In 1841 the Wightmans moved to Covington, Kentucky, in search of a more healthful climate. Elias died there on October 26. About 1845 Mary married Meredith Helm, who helped found Connersville, Indiana, where they lived until Mary's death. Mary Wightman Helm was a member of the Episcopal Church and an honorary member of the Texas Veterans Association. In 1884 she published Scraps of Early Texas History, a compendium of history, personal reminiscences, religious dogma, and a number of her first husband's essays on the geography of Texas. The book includes lucid and detailed accounts of her experience in Texas, including the Runaway Scrape, her perceptions of the Karankawa Indians, the hardships of daily life and life during a revolution, and comparisons of various cultures. She died on May 10, 1886, in Connersville, Indiana.
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Jo Ella Powell Exley, ed., Texas Tears and Texas Sunshine: Voices of Frontier Women (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1985). Mary S. Helm, Scraps of Early Texas History (Austin: Warner, 1884; rev. ed., Austin: Morrison, 1985).
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Founders and Pioneers
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Jo Ella Powell Exley,
“Helm, Mary Sherwood Wightman,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed June 27, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
Most Recent Revision Date:
November 30, 2019
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