Helena Dill Berryman: The First Anglo Child Born in Texas

The Texas Story Project.

It takes a heap of living and a house to make it a home. And the old house at Forest Hill Plantation has had a heap of living in its 159 years. Today it lives again and we can mingle in the pride that went into its early days, the home of the first Anglo child born in Texas, Helena Dill Berryman. School textbooks say Jane Long's baby was the first Anglo child born in Texas, but she was born several years after Helena. Helena's place of honor is noted due to her being officially recognized by the State of Texas as the first Anglo child ever born in what is now Texas and to the glorious legacy instilled in Texas history.

Maria Helena Dill was born September 8, 1804, at Nacogdoches, Coahuila de Tejas. She was the daughter of James Dill and Helena Kimble. The Dill family was living in Nacogdoches in 1804 where in 1802 James had applied for a grant of four leagues of land west of the Angelina River and north of El Camino Real. In 1821 he was elected municipal magistrate, or "alcalde," for the Nacogdoches territory, the first Anglo American to be so honored. There is now a Texas Historical Commission marker on the site of the original Dill homestead in Nacogdoches. It reads, "[Captain James Dill,] born in Pennsylvania in 1770. Pioneer Indian trader. Recognized by the King of Spain as a public-spirited citizen. First alcalde of Nacogdoches under the Mexican government in 1821."

On November 21, 1825 James died after falling from his horse. In July 1828 his widow, Helena obtained title to the land he had applied for. After the death of Captain Dill, Mrs. Dill resumed her maiden name, Helena Kimble, which was according to Spanish custom. On July 26, 1828 the Mexican government put Helena Kimble in formal possession of the four leagues of land for which her husband had petitioned in 1802. She pulled herbs, threw stones to solemnize the event according to Spanish custom, drove down stakes as landmarks, and paid the treasurer $30 for each of the four leagues granted to her. Soon after gaining title to the land, Helena married William Nelson.

She died in 1848 and is buried about 2 1/4 miles east of Alto on the north side of the Old San Antonio Road, out in the open field under a drooping cedar tree, which stands alone. In the years that followed, weeds covered this ground, the tombstone was cracked, and the fence surrounding the grave toppled.  She rests in a tiny spot in the vast estate of 18,000 acres granted to her by the Mexican government in 1828.

James and Helena Dill's daughter, Helena Dill, met Captain Henry Newton Berryman when she was attending school in Louisiana. She married Captain Berryman on April 23, 1823. He started his military career when he was assigned to West Point by President James Monroe, a cousin to his mother. After their marriage, they were stationed in New York. From there they moved to his home in Virginia and by 1835 they were living back in Louisiana where their children were born.

In 1847 he resigned his commission due to health problems and the couple came back to live at the Dill homestead in Texas, settling on a league of land Helena had inherited from her mother located in what is now Cherokee County. Berryman used enslaved labor to clear the land and build a two-story log residence. They named their place, located near Alto, Forest Hill Plantation. The couple planned to build a large stone house, similar to the one where they had lived in Virginia. Helena was busy making this house into a home. It was fun doing things with her family and her sister's family. In the evenings they would sit on the porch and sing the old songs.

"Home ain't a place that gold can buy or get up in a minute;
Afore it's home there's got t' be a heap o' livin' in it"

Helena and Henry had five children, but only three reached adulthood. They had lived in the home for two years when one of their daughters took a fever and died.

There was such a lonesome place in the home now, perhaps that was when the first orphan was invited. Eventually, 30 orphans found a home there. Later, Helena was the first benefactor of the R. Buckner Orphans' Home. In 1858 Captain Berryman became ill. The doctor bled him for his fever and he died from loss of blood. He was buried at the family cemetery at Forest Hill.

Ye've got t' weep t' make it home, ye've got t' sit an' sigh 
An' watch beside a loved one's bed, an' know that Death is nigh

Helena took responsibility over this large plantation. Then came the Civil War. The two sons were to go to West Point as had their father, but the Civil War intervened. When the two boys came home from the war, they brought another orphan to live at Forest Hill, the final one to join the family.

The house had been sad for several years, but then their son, Waters, and his wife had it singing again. There were socials, sing-alongs, and many weddings held there. Waters furnished the music with his fiddle.

Ye've got t' sing an' dance fer years, ye've got t' romp an' play,
An' learn t' love the things ye have by usin' 'em each day
Within the walls there's got t' be some babies born, and then 
Right there ye've got t' bring 'em up t' women good, an' men

In an old autograph album belonging to the Harrison family there is a page written by Helena Dill Berryman on March 13 ,1886. It reads: "Dear Sam, you have been kind and respectful to me for which I do feel grateful and if my prayers are answered you will be happy both in time and eternity. I am going to make departure and write in your album about myself as I think in years to come it may be a satisfaction to you to tell to others that you were acquainted with the oldest, white native born Texan in the state. I was born on North Street in Nacogdoches on September 8, 1804. May God's mercy preserve thee, his power protect, his goodness uphold thee, his wisdom direct. Your grandma, Helena Berryman." Mr. Harrison was not a grandson but he affectionately called her "grandma," as did everyone.

Helena Berryman lived until March 13, 1888. She was buried in the family cemetery at Forest Hill. A historical marker erected in 1969 notes her enduring claim to fame, "First Anglo child born in Texas."

Forest Hill remained in the Berryman family until 1957. It eventually become the property of the Whitman family, descendants of Zachary Taylor, an old friend of Captain Berryman. But the house will still live on. Today the curtain is up, the lights are on, we are standing amid Helena's dreams and Captain Berryman's realities. Truly, Forest Hill is a home that had a heap of living in it.

Poetic verses from "Home" by Edger Albert Guest

Joan Petty Bounds was inspired to research and contribute this Texas story by her granddaughter who completed a school history project on Helena Dill Berryman. Her husband is related to the Berryman family.

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