“Richard Gibbons: Arizona Pioneer,” Ensign, Sept. 1982, 60
Richard “Dick” Gibbons was twenty-one years old in 1879 when his family received the call to move from Moencopi, Arizona, where they had worked with the Hopi Indians, to what would become St. Johns, Arizona. Moving was not new to the Gibbons family; family tradition holds that Dick’s father, Andrew S. Gibbons, planted nine peach orchards after leaving Nauvoo before he was able to harvest fruit from any of them. Dick’s parents had known the early persecutions of the Saints in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, the hardships of the trek across the plains, and of settling a new land. Dick was one of fifteen children born to his parents.
Andrew had been called as a missionary to the Lamanites in many areas of southern Utah and northern Arizona and had taken his family with him whenever possible. They were among the first to arrive at the selected site for a new Arizona community on the Little Colorado River. The community eventually established was called St. Johns.
By 1886 when his father died, Dick, then twenty-eight, had established himself as a sheep rancher—a profitable livelihood, though sometimes dangerous. Large cattle ranches in the area tried to prevent sheep from grazing on the same range where they ran their cattle. Many times up to two thousand sheep were driven off steep cliffs by cowboys.
For these and similar reasons, the life of a sheep rancher called for many lonely hours standing guard over the animals. Dick filled much of his time reading, studying Spanish, and searching the scriptures. His testimony deepened, he grew closer to the Spirit, and his desire to share the message with others intensified. Since he had not yet found a wife, he decided to serve the Lord by accepting a mission call to New Zealand in April 1888.
The trip aboard the ship Alameda from San Francisco to Auckland, New Zealand, took twenty-five days. The missionaries traveled as steerage passengers, which meant their quarters were on the third deck close to the cargo hold. The stench of rotting vegetables and the smell of animals in the hold, along with seasickness, made the voyage almost unbearable.
The first Sunday Dick was in New Zealand, the missionaries joined with members and held sacrament meeting. He found the meeting a little different from those he was accustomed to in St. Johns:
“Having no benches, they all lay down on the floor. The deacons all had long sticks in their hands and were stationed around among the congregation. If one of them should go to sleep, a deacon would punch him in the ribs and wake him up.”1
Dick and his companion were sent to work in Poverty Bay near Gisbourne, New Zealand, where they built themselves a house. Elder Gibbons would often stop working and write the new Maori words he had learned in a small notebook he carried with him. He loved the Maori people and was intrigued by their customs and language. He tried to turn every experience into an opportunity to learn Maori.
The work was slow, and many of the missionaries were easily discouraged. But they continued to bear their testimonies often and worked toward having the Book of Mormon translated into Maori.
Following his mission, Dick returned to Arizona and sheep ranching. On a warm summer’s evening in late July 1890, as Dick was bedding down his sheep, he was attacked and bitten by a skunk. There was no doubt in his mind that the animal was rabid, and he knew that the dreaded disease of hydrophobia could take anywhere from a few weeks to several months to show itself.
Unable to provide him with the newly developed anti-rabies serum, local doctors advised Dick to go to the Pasteur Institute in New York City. He caught the next train to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he could make arrangements to travel east.
Watching the countryside race by the train’s window, he felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up into the face of Jesse N. Smith, president of the St. Joseph Arizona Stake. President Smith was on his way to Albuquerque to conduct personal business and to meet some visitors coming to the St. Joseph Stake conference.
In Albuquerque, Dick inquired about the schedule of trains going to New York City. He found that he would have a three-day layover if he was going to catch the fastest train to New York. There was nothing for him to do but check into his hotel and wait.
That evening while Dick and President Smith were dining, President Smith received a telegram from Salt Lake City informing him that the scheduled conference visitors had been delayed, but that someone else would be arriving in their place. No mention was made of who the substitute visitors would be.
President Smith and Dick retired to their own rooms, but sleep would not come to Dick. He was uneasy about the trip to New York City. His mother and brothers had encouraged him to go wherever needed to take the treatments; still, he felt the answer to his problem lay closer to home. He knelt by his bed and prayed for an answer to his problem. Putting his trust completely in Heavenly Father, he retired with a feeling of calm reassurance.
The next morning, both men went to the train depot—President Smith to check the incoming train from Salt Lake City, Dick to purchase his ticket to New York. The ticket window was closed, so Dick went with President Smith to meet the conference visitors. As they approached the train, they were amazed to see Presidents Wilford Woodruff, George Q. Cannon, and Joseph F. Smith, the First Presidency of the Church, climbing down the steps of the train.
An informal meeting was held in President Woodruff’s room. Many items were discussed, among them Dick’s reason for being in Albuquerque. Dick expressed his mixed feelings about traveling to New York. Each man advised him to go on to the Institute for treatments. The meeting adjourned in time for lunch, but all were invited back to President Woodruff’s room at 2:30 in the afternoon.
Dick went again to the train station to purchase his ticket to New York City, but was informed that he had just missed the ticket agent and that the window would be closed until ten o’clock the next morning. Angry and disappointed, Dick went back to his hotel room and knelt in prayer. He felt once again the calm, peaceful reassurance that his answer was not in New York City.
Two-thirty found him back in President Woodruff’s room meeting with the others. Dick’s skunkbite was mentioned again, and he related his difficulty in obtaining a ticket to New York. He also described the feeling that had come over him as he had knelt in prayer in his room. He later recorded the following in his journal:
“President Joseph F. Smith looked at me and said, ‘Brother Gibbons, I promise you that you will be all right if you can put this problem from your mind and not worry about it at all. The Lord will bless you and it won’t be necessary for you to travel to the east.’ This advice suited me fine, and I asked the brethren for a blessing. …
“August 15, 1890—I got up this morning feeling quite refreshed and good.”2
Dick returned home that same day and was never bothered again with the skunkbite, nor did it ever trouble his mind.
Time passed, and Dick’s life settled into a comfortable routine. Then, troubled because he was not married, he began the search for a companion. On 4 July 1892, at the age of thirty-three, he took Clarissa Wilhelm to be his bride.
Clarissa was the daughter of Bateman Haight and Lydia Draper Wilhelm. Her Grandmother Clarissa Harding Wilhelm had come west in 1851 as a widow with three children, working as a wagon train cook to pay their passage. The Drapers came to the Salt Lake Valley in 1848 and settled at Willow Creek, later called Draper.
Both the Drapers and the Wilhelms were called to settle Long Valley in southern Utah, and it was there that Clarissa’s parents met and were married. Clarissa was born in Rockville, Utah, in 1870, the third of seven children. Nine years later, in 1879, her father was called to serve as bishop and preside over the new settlement of Concho, Arizona.
Dick and Clarissa were married under a bowery in Pinetop, Arizona, by President George Q. Cannon. Eight years later, Dick, Clarissa, and their three children traveled to Salt Lake City where Clarissa was endowed and the children were sealed to them.
Dick was a quiet man, but he was a natural leader. He also had the ability to express himself well in writing, perhaps as a result of the time he spent studying to fill lonely hours in sheep camp. Books were valued treasures to him. One day he spent the entire morning retracing his steps looking for a book bag which had fallen from his saddle. He eventually amassed one of the largest personal libraries in Arizona at that time. When debating became popular at MIA gatherings in St. Johns, Dick and his library were often called upon in helping both sides prepare their presentations.
It was his quiet strength that the community and family members turned to in times of trouble and turmoil. By 1900, when most of the United States was fairly well settled and civilized, Arizona was still a wild and dangerous frontier. The people in St. Johns were fair game for rustlers and other outlaws, and the law offered little protection from these attacks. It was generally up to local ranchers to form posses and try to bring the offenders back to trial.
After one such attack by rustlers in March of 1900, Dick Gibbons and several other St. Johns residents, including his nephew, Gus Gibbons, were called out to form a posse. The sheriff instructed them to search a specific area, but they found nothing. All of the posse returned safely except Gus Gibbons and Frank LeSueur, who were ambushed and murdered by the rustlers. It was a severe blow to the small community of St. Johns.
Bill Gibbons, Gus’s father, was crushed by his son’s death. Dick and other family members tried to comfort their brother, but he grew bitter. One night Gus appeared to his father in a dream and admonished him not to grieve, reminding him of the blessings that had been given to their family. He testified that he was preaching the gospel in the spirit world to their ancestors.
When Bill sank further into despair, Gus visited his father a second time and again admonished him to put his bitterness aside because he was in danger of having the Spirit completely withdrawn from him. Bill was never heard to lament his son’s death after that time.
Meanwhile, Dick had been active in local government and had served as Apache County assessor for several years. At the encouragement of his family and friends, he ran for a seat in the territorial legislature of Arizona. He was elected in September 1900, after campaigning for the creation of a special force of rangers to bring law and order to the Arizona frontier. It was during this session of the territorial legislature, which convened in January of 1901 in Phoenix, that the Arizona Rangers were organized—a group credited with bringing lawlessness under control and opening the way for Arizona statehood.3
In addition to his civic leadership, Dick Gibbons was active in the Church, serving as a high councilor in the St. Johns Stake for several years. It was during his tenure as a high councilor that he accepted a call to serve a second mission—this time to the southern United States.
On 27 November 1901, just six weeks after the birth of his fourth child, Dick left for the mission field. It was an extremely difficult time for his wife, Clarissa; yet she knew the work of the Lord depended on men like him. He promised her that she and the children would be protected and that all would be well at home if she would put her trust in Heavenly Father.
The baby, Howard, was sickly and lay near death on several occasions. One night both mother and baby were near the point of exhaustion. He apparently had an ear infection and had cried for two days and nights without sleeping. Clarissa knelt in prayer, asking for relief for the baby and herself. As she arose, she was prompted to put a small amount of chloroform in the baby’s ears. She was not certain whether it was the right thing to do—but she was ready to try anything.
On her way to the cupboard to get a clean spoon, she hesitated; then she turned to the table where a spoon lay that she had used earlier to put sweet oil in the baby’s ears. She picked up the oily spoon, put a few drops of chloroform in it, heated it over the lamp, and put a drop in each of little Howard’s ears. Within minutes he was sleeping soundly.
The next morning the doctor stopped by to check, and Clarissa told him what she had done. The doctor cautioned her that it was all right to use chloroform in extreme cases such as theirs had been, but that it must always be used with oil. Chloroform used in the ears without oil would burn them and cause permanent loss of hearing.
For Elder Gibbons, work in the Southern States Mission was slow and discouraging. The people were often hostile to the elders and those who befriended them; many times friends of the Church would provide a place for the elders to stay, but often these friends would be turned out of their homes by the landlord. Too often, missionaries were forced to sleep under trees on cold winter nights without protection from the elements. Such treatment soon took its toll on Dick’s health, and he began to lose his hearing. After eighteen months in the mission field, he was forced to return home. Recurrent infections rendered him partially deaf the remainder of his life.
Ten years later Dick decided that riding the range was meant for younger men. In 1913, at age fifty-five, he retired from sheep ranching and moved his family to the warmer climate of Mesa, Arizona, where he started farming. He felt that he had been blessed with an abundance of life: he had seven children (four sons and three daughters), a good wife, and no more cold winters to spend on the open range. Three years later his oldest son, Edward, was called to serve in the Mexican Mission under President Rey L. Pratt. Dick was elated.
The family sent Edward off with the excitement and expectancy that goes with all missionaries. They looked forward to receiving letters from him, and soon he was corresponding with his father in Spanish. He learned the Spanish language with ease, and he was a model missionary. Then suddenly he became ill with influenza and died within five days. A missionary companion wrote the family, saying Edward had expressed a desire to preach someday to the spirits beyond the veil.4 Even so, Edward’s death was a difficult thing for Dick to accept, but his experiences in life had taught him faith in God and patience in trial.
Time and again the faith and testimonies of Dick Gibbons and his family were tested. Yet in the end, these faithful Saints came to understand that growth follows adversity—and that a loving Father in Heaven is ever mindful of his children.
Dick spent the rest of his life farming 160 acres in Mesa. He loved working with the soil, but occasionally he would miss the freedom of riding the open range herding sheep. He spent many hours in the evenings reading and studying and expanding his knowledge of the gospel. He taught the adult class in the Alma Ward Sunday School for several years.
In September of 1923 he started having trouble breathing and went from doctor to doctor seeking help. His problem was diagnosed as asthma, but everything he did for the affliction only seemed to make it worse. Finally on New Year’s Day, 1924, he became extremely ill and died of heart failure about nine o’clock that evening.
Richard Gibbons, pioneer, had gone home.
Information in this article came from Helen B. Gibbons, Saint and Savage, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1965; Richard Gibbons, unpublished journal history in possession of author; A Turning of Hearts, Orem, Utah: William Davidson Gibbons Family Organization, 1981; James McClintock, Arizona—The Youngest State, vol. 2, Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1916; James McClintock, Mormon Settlement in Arizona, Phoenix: Manufacturing Stationers, Inc., 1921; Ogden Tanner, The Ranchers, Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1977.