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The History of Helena, TX

>> Read about Mexican Immigration

Historic Towns of Texas by Joe Tom Davis

Helena: A Wild Town Killed by a Bullet

Present-day Helena stands forlorn and forgotten some seven miles northeast of Karnes City on State Highway 80. For forty years, however, the town had a reputation for shooting, fighting, stealing, and drinking far out of proportion to its peak population of 600. It was the wildest Texas town during a particularly turbulent period. Helena's brief glory days were tinged with irony: it was founded by a man trained for the ministry; a sedate academy flourished amid its many saloons and gambling halls; it prospered in a setting of outlaws and rustlers; but it died because of a stray bullet. This is the story of the rise and fall of the "Toughest Town on Earth."

A Mexican settlement named Alamita ("Little Cottonwood") was founded in 1830 at a little spring in a clump of cottonwood trees a few miles south of the Cibolo confluence with the San Antonio River. This settlement, in present Karnes County, was located at the intersection of the Chihuahua Trail, a trade route connecting coastal Texas and Mexico, and the Ox-Cart Road, the travel and freight route from San Antonio to the coast opened by Spanish conquistadors and priests, the Gutierrez-Magee filibustering expedition, Alamo hero James Butler Bonham on his two futile rides to Goliad seeking help from James Walker Fannin, Santa Anna's messenger ordering the death of Fannin's men at Goliad, the earliest German and Polish settlers of Texas, and the famed United States Second Cavalry as it moved men and supplies over the road to protect the Texas frontier. This freight route from Indianola to San Antonio was also trod by pack animals, two-wheeled ox-carts, prairie schooners, and Wells-Fargo wagons drawn by sixteen mules. In the late 1840s, stagecoach service started on the Ox-Cart Road, with the only stop between Goliad and San Antonio being the halfway station of Alamita.

In 1852, Thomas Ruckman discovered old Alamita by accident while traveling to Goliad. He saw the potential of a roadside trading post near the site. Ruckman was of Dutch descent and a native of Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. After training for the ministry and graduating from the College of New Jersey (later renamed Princeton university) in 1848, Ruckman taught school for a year in South Carolina before coming to Texas at age twenty-two, arriving at San Antonio on Christmas Day of 1850. For two years he worked as a bookkeeper for several firms, then made a fateful trip of which he later gave the following account:

"In the summer of 1852 on my way back from San Antonio to Goliad, I found a little store and blacksmith shop on the road about ten miles after I crossed the Cibolo. This little storehouse was mostly built of rough boards that had been split in the woods out of post oak trees.

The proprietor... had a little while before that time purchased of Antonio Navarra agent Ramon Musquez a two hundred acre tract out of his four league grant, for which he paid one dollar per acre.

On this tract where the cartroad from San Antonio to the Gulf crossed it, he built his store, home dwelling, and shop. Soon afterwards we laid out the town... and named it Helena...

It is a beautiful location. A mile from the river on dry elevated ground - soil partly sand so that it is never muddy about the streets, always dry underfoot... And no place in the state surpasses it for health. Eighty-five miles in a straight line from the bay, the Gulf breeze strikes it fresh."

Ruckman envisioned his town as a night stop for freighters on the Ox-Cart Road and named the trading post Helena in honor of Helen Swisher Owings, the wife of his business partner, Dr. Lewis S. Owings. The two entrepeneurs hired Charles A. Russell, Goliad County surveyor, to survey and plat the new site, and Helena was officially established as a town on November 7, 1835, the date its post office opened. (1) The partners also initiated a campaign to create a new county from parts of Bexar, Gonzales, DeWitt, Goliad, and San Patricio counties. Their efforts resulted in the state legislature creating Karnes County on February 4, 1854, named in honor of the late Texas revolutionary hero, Henry Wax Karnes, with Helena as the county seat. (2) On February 27 the first election for county officials was held on the porch of the Ruckman-Owings Store, which provided the tables, paper, pens, and ink for the voters. The two-story courthouse built at Helena in 1856 was of frame clapboard construction; the lower floor was used as a courtroom and for church services while the upper level served as a Masonic lodge room for the Alamita Lodge No. 200. A tornado leveled that structure in 1863, and the two-story stone courthouse that replaced it in 1873 still stands today (1991). (3)

The pioneer store owners evidently had some early "cash flow" problems, as is indicated by the following notice in The Western Texan of San Antonio, dated November 25, 1854:

"All persons indebted to the undersigned are respectfully informed that they will do well to call and settle, or their accounts will be left in the hands of a proper officer for collection, as we are very much in need of money.

Our terms hereafter are NO CREDIT - Goods Cheap for Cash.


Owings & Ruckman Helena, Texas November 9, 1854"

That same day, The Western Texan carried an advertisement of Owings and Ruckman telling of new fall and winter goods just received from New York and Boston. This assortment of merchandise was not to leave the store unless paid for and included such items as fancy and staple dry goods, ready-made clothing, boots, shoes, hats, caps, hardware and cutlery, crockery and glassware, stationery and perfumery, family groceries, oils and paints, umbrellas, clocks, violins, Yankee notions, and all of Dr. Janes's patient medicines.

The Ruckman-Owings partnership proved to be short-lived. In November 1854, Dr. Owings started a new venture, a stageline of four-horse mail coaches from San Antonio to Victoria via Helena and Goliad. After being appointed the first governor of Arizona Territory, he left Helena for good in 1857. Thomas Ruckman, on the other hand, was just beginning to lay down roots in his new town. Soon after marrying Miss Jeanie Long, he was visited by an itinerant brick maker from Kentucky in the spring of 1856. Once the craftsman determined that the soil along the banks of the San Antonio River contained the right proportion of clay and sand for high-quality bricks, the two men struck a deal: Ruckman would set up a hand mill and kiln along the river; the brick maker, in return, would provide the material for Ruckman's new home. About 90,000 of these new bricks went into the galleried, two-story, brick-and-cottonwood house that Ruckman built along the river in 1857. This double-walled structure was modeled after Ashley Hall at Princeton University. Within six months, a work force of twenty Polanders, hired from nearby Panna Maria, turned out some 300,000 bricks from the Ruckman kiln. Ruckman also built a large gristmill for mealing corn and a sawmill along the riverbank. his sawed lumber cut from the native trees growing along the river was much cheaper than pine lumber imported from Florida. These additional enterprises of Ruckman were to provide the brick and lumber used in building most of the stores, homes, cabins, and fences of early Helena.

Thomas also enlarged his store as the scattered farmers and ranchers in the area became regular customers. In addition to founding the town and becoming a leading merchant and banker, he also served as the Helena postmaster from 1854 until 1857, was both the principal and a teach of the Helena Academy, and found time to write some poetry and fiction. He and Jeanie had only one child, Eudora, who married William Cathey Butler in 1882, and had five lovely daughters. Ruckman's love for the county he created is revealed in a handwritten manuscript dated June 1890 and titled "The Census Taker: A Complete Description of the County of Karnes in Southwest Texas." Rather than dryly reciting a litany of facts and figures, he utilized his census assignment to promote the county; in fact, the document has a Chamber of Commerce flavor.

Among the highlights of his life was a nostalgic homecoming trip back to Pennsylvania in 1901. Ruckman maintained a lifelong correspondence with his alma mater, and Princeton compiled a large file concerning his accomplishments. After Thomas Ruckman died at Helena on December 2, 1914, and was buried in the town's Masonic Cemetery, his obituary appeared in the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

When he first settled in Helena, Ruckman invited his younger brother, John, and his three sisters - Lizzie, Rachel, and Rebecca - to come from Pennsylvania and live with him. John Ruckman arrived in Karnes County in 1857, and quickly achieved a position of prominence as a Confederate lieutenant, postmaster, banker, store merchant, farmer, and rancher. In 1867, John married Eliza Dickson, whose family had moved to Helena from Arkansas. They would have eight children, with the youngest three being born in a showplace three-story, six-bedroom mansion John built in 1878. The house was constructed of Florida cypress shipped by Schooner to Indianola, then transported to Helena by wagon and team. This family residence was the town's social center; circuit preachers always stayed there, and the largest room in the Ruckman house, the family dining room, was usually full of out-of-town guests and ranch hands. After John Ruckman's death in January 1913, home ownership was transferred to his four unmarried children. (4)

The calm of Helena was shattered in 1857 by the Cart War, a series of attacks by Texas cart drivers on Mexican teamsters along the Ox-Cart Road. After San Antonio merchants tired of paying Texas drivers three dollars per hundred pounds to haul freight from Indianola, contractor George Thomas Howard imported hundreds of Mexican drivers and carts who would haul freight cheaper and work for lower wages than the Americans. As a consequence, Mexican teamsters were monopolizing the Ox-Cart Road by 1857. Texas cattlemen also became aroused when the Mexican drivers obtained a free beef supply by stealing and butchering their grazing herds along the road. Yet another point of contention was the suspicion that the Mexicans were helping runaway slaves to escape to Mexico.

The Cart War began when jobless Texas freighters sneaked into the Mexican

camps at night and cut the spokes of the cart wheels, causing the wheels to collapse at the first turn the next morning. However, such pranks quickly escalated into guerrilla warfare near Helena and Goliad. A series of six attacks were made on Mexican cartmen. In 1857, seventy-five Mexican drivers were said to be killed by a masked secret organization. The decisive battle occurred on Cibolo Creek in Karnes County, when the Texan and Mexican drivers formed two great hallow circles and shot it out. As the bloodshed increased, San Antonio merchants began to demand that Maj. Gen. D. E. Twiggs, in charge of the Department of Texas, provide federal military escorts for the Mexican convoys. In mid-November 1857, Governor E. M. Pease sent an emergency company of Texas Rangers to protect the freight wagons and drivers.

This violent labor dispute took a new turn when prominent and influential men at Goliad began to hang Texas bad men who were raiding Texas carts driven by Texas drivers. The vigilantes' "Hanging Tree," where up to five bodies at a time were left dangling, stands today on the courthouse lawn at Goliad. Finally, on December 4, 1857, a public meeting at Helena passed eight resolutions. In Number Six, the citizens of Karnes County resolved that the continued presence of "peon mexican teamsters" on the Ox-Cart Road was an "intolerable nuisance" and requested that the citizens of San Antonio withdraw them and substitute other drivers. By this time, however, the Mexican drivers had returned to Mexico, Texas teamsters were back on the road, and the war was over.

Just prior to the Civil War, the population of Karnes County was 2,171; Helena was its largest town, with possibly 600 residents. The tax rolls listed only 255 slaves in the county. When the Secession Convention met at Austin on January 28, 1861, Karnes County was represented by John Little ton, a stockman who owned two slaves and voted for the ordinance of secession. The county was to provide six volunteer companies for Confederate service, including the "Helena Guards." This company of fifty-seven men was organized on May 4, 1861, with Charles A. Russell elected as captain, John Ruckman as first sergeant, and each man providing his own arms and equipment. The Helena Guards was among the units that participated in the Rio Grande campaign.

During the war years, Helena was called upon to provide several thousand bushels of corn for Confederate troops stationed along the Rio Grande. The town also had a Confederate post office, with David W. Dailey serving as postmaster from 1861 until 1863. Helena was one of only seven texas towns to issue its own privately printed stamps during the war; this gold-colored, ten-cent stamp could be cut in half for five cent postage (currently it is valued at $3,000 by philatelists). The town was on the lifeline road used to transport contraband goods to and from the neutral port of Matamoros, Mexico. Much of the Confederate cotton bound for Mexican ports was routed through Helena, and it also served as a receiving station for smuggled food, clothing, medicines, arms, and ammunition.

In the postwar years, Karnes County developed a reputation as a "Bad Man's Paradise," a refuge and hideout for rustlers, outlaws, and gunfighters from other states, while Helena became the self-proclaimed "Toughest Town on Earth." Since the county was in the center of the "Cattle Kingdom," it attracted more than its share of rowdy drovers gathering herds of Longhorns to trail to Abilene and Dodge City, Kansas. Rustling cattle and looting the great freight wagons carrying goods from Indianola to San Antonio were everyday occurrences. Horse stealing was also a regular line of business, as outlaws found a ready market across the border. Cart drivers would stop at Helena to rest, carouse, and dissipate at one of the four saloons, where whiskey could be bought by the keg. The drinking problem became so acute that 105 of the permanent, law-abiding residents, including twenty women, sent a petition to the state legislature requesting legislation to prohibit the sale of intoxicating liquors within five miles of Helena.

The first jail in town was a wooden structure in the northwest corner of courthouse square. (5) It apparently lacked bars and cells; locals recalled that the sheriff would take his prisoner to a blacksmith shop, fit him with shackles, then chain the jailbird to some immovable object within the building. Justice was often summary in Helena. Late one evening, five suspected horse thieves were put in jail; the next morning they were found hanging from the limbs of two nearby live oak trees. The lawlessness and bloodshed associated with the town gave rise to the infamous "Helena Duel" in which two duelists would be stripped and have their left wrists lashed together with buckskin. Each was then armed with a razor-sharp knife having a three-inch blade, a weapon too short to reach a vital organ or cause a single fatal stab. After the combatants were whirled around a few times, they slashed away at each other until one bled to death from the accumulation of cuts and stabs. Crowds of blood thirsty spectators viewed this gory, gruesome spectacle and even bet on the outcome.

Helena was a rowdy but prosperous town with over 300 residents by the late 1870s. Townspeople could boast of two civilizing influences - a church and an academy. The Helena Union Church, built in 1866, was used by Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists, who alternated holding services there. (6) In 1867, Charles Russell, A.J. Trueman, and John Ruckman organized a joint stock company for the purpose of creating a coeducational college, the Helena Academy, by private subscription. Fifty-five citizens contributed twenty-five dollars each or donated livestock rather than cash. The two-story rock structure housing this "male and female institution of the highest order" was completed in 1872 and soon enrolled thirty-five girls and even more young men. Males and females were taught on separate floors. The college operated until the mid-1890s, then the old rock structure was used to store corn for a few years before burning down. (7)

W.K. Hallum started publishing The Helena Record in 1879 with a motto of "Don't Tread on Me." By this time, the town had six general stores, four saloons, two hotels (the American Hotel and the Butler House), a drug store, blacksmith shop, boot shop, saddle and harness shop, livery stable, and a hanging tree in the plaza. The stores were located directly across the street from the courthouse on the old Ox-Cart Road from Indianola (now FM 81). The September 5, 1879, issue of the Record advertised the services of four lawyers - T.S. Archer, L.S. Lawhon, L.H. Brown, and John Bailey - and of a physician and surgeon, Dr. J.W. Harmon. Proprietors Hoff and Meyer of the Pearl Saloon ran the following ad that day: "Keeps constantly best kind of liquors and segars (sic). With polite and attentive barkeepers, Recherche Liquors and Cigars that are Bon, we cannot but please the taste of the ton." General store owner Max Cohn boasted of a new addition, a furniture store, which had "long been wanted in Helena." The little city was also a chief stop on the stagecoach route connecting San Antonio, Goliad, and the Gulf COast with four-horse stages passing through town daily.

On Friday, December 26, 1884, a killing took place that was to spell the doom of Helena. At 4:00 that afternoon, a gang of drunks shot up a saloon, and one of their stray bullets killed a man on the street. The hapless victim was Emmett Butler, the twenty-year-old son of Col. William G. Butler, the county's richest rancher with large landholdings south and west of town. Colonel Butler buried his boy on Sunday, then rode into Helena the next day with twenty-five armed ranch hands. Riding up and down the nearly deserted main street, he shouted to the store owners to produce the killers. By then most of the rowdies had left town, so the colonel's shrill demands echoed on the silent street. Finally, the anguished, frustrated father shouted as he rode away, "All right! Then I'll kill the town that killed my son!"

His revenge was not long in coming. When the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railroad started building through Karnes County in 1885, the citizens of Helena summarily rejected paying a $35,000 bonus and refused to donate the right-of-way for a rail connection. Colonel Butler, however, seized the opportunity and contacted the traffic manager, Benjamin Franklin Yoakum, a pioneer railroad builder. Butler was quick to offer Yoakum a free right-of-way through his range land, subject to one condition: the rails had to be laid far to the west of the San Antonio River and Helena. By then Judge Ruckman had frantically raised $32,000 but to no avail. Yoakum had accepted Colonel Butler's offer. Within a year the line was built on the other side of the river, seven miles southwest of Helena. After the railroad came through the county in 1886, the Ox-Cart Road was abandoned, and two new towns, Kenedy and Karnes City, soon sprang up on the line. In 1887, Kenedy became a roundup station for cattle grazing on the open range. It was first located four miles from its present site and named for Mifflin Kenedy, a financier of the railroad. In 1892, Karnes City became a railway shipping point on the new line and was the largest town in the county within a year.

Colonel Butler's curse of Helena became a reality as stores, businesses, and homes began to move to Karnes City and its rail connection. On December 21, 1893, a countywide election was held to choose a county seat. Karnes City received 862 votes, while only 120 people wanted the county seat to remain in Helena. On January 2, 1894, the Commissioners' Court ordered the county records moved from Helena to Karnes City.

Losing the election was a bitter blow to the angry residents of Helena, who refused to turn over the records. A group of Karnes City men decided that the safest way to carry out the mandate of the court was to literally steal the county seat under cover of darkness. They thus brought twenty horse-drawn wagons into Helena one night and made off with all the county records and files. As a face-saving gesture, a solitary guard from the now-ghost town resigned himself to riding "shot-gun" on one of the wagons.

The new county seat had a population of 600 by 1900. Helena, however, eventually was left with only an empty rock courthouse back in the mesquite, a deserted church, and a main street once ridden by COlonel Butler but reclaimed by scrub and cactus. Today there are only five lonely reminders of the boisterous, busy town that once was Helena. The old courthouse and post office, the Ruckman House, the Carver-Mayfield store, and the adjacent Masonic Lodge are still owned by the Karnes County Historical Society. The unsuspecting tourist who stops at the Helena service station at the intersection of FM 81 and SH 80 is in for a treat if he bothers to read the nearby state historical marker. What awaits is a tour of an historic ghost town with a fascinating past.

1. The Helena post office was originally a part of the John Ruckman General Merchandise Store. After both were blown down by a storm in 1942, the post office was rebuilt three years later using the same lumber. Postal service was discontinued in 1951, and the old post office building is now on the Courthouse Square.

2. Henry Wax Karnes, a native of Tennessee, was sixteen when his family moved to Arkansas. One of his friends and neighbors there was Lewis Owings. In 1853, Karnes came to Texas and was serving as overseer on Jared Groce's Bernardo plantation on the Brazos River when the Texas Revolution began. He joined the Texas army at age twenty-three and saw duty as both a scout and spy for General Sam Houston. After taking part in the Battle of Gonzales and the Siege of Bexar, Karnes led an infantry company at the Battle of San Jacinto. He then served as an Indian agent for the Republic of Texas before joining the Texas Rangers in 1838. Karnes saw considerable action as an Indian fighter; many Indian enemies regarded him as being supernatural due to his flaming red hair. In August 1839 he was severely wounded in hand-to-hand combat with a Comanche chief and was not fully recovered when he contracted yellow fever and died at San Antonio on August 16, 1840. His heroic exploits in Texas inspired his old friend, Dr. Owings, to suggest in 1854 that this new county be named after Karnes.

3. After the decline of Helena, the courthouse was used as a county schoolhouse from 1896 until 1946. A bell and belfry were added for school purposes. The historic structure now serves as the Karnes County Museum.

4. Hester and Margaret Ruckman lived in the mansion until 1958. In 1967, the two deed the house and eight surrounding acres of land to the Old Helena Foundation, since merged with the Karnes County Historical Society, the home's present owner. The Ruckman House was restored in 1984 by the Society and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

5. It was later replaced with a rock building which was eventually torn down and moved to Karnes City, rebuilt, then used as Jauer's Store for many years.

6. The old church was blown down by a hurricane in 1973, was then carefully dismantled, and the pieces stored for future restoration.

7. Some of the original rock from the academy building is still on display behind the old stone courthouse. In November 1937, an article titled "Reminiscences of Helena Academy" appeared in the 50th Anniversary Edition of the Karnes County News. The article was based on an interview with Mrs. Eudora Ruckman Butler, the only child of Thomas Ruckman, who recalled the following funny experience related by classmate Callie Mayfield: "One day a very jealous and strict sort of old father came to the Academy to see how well his daughter was doing in school. Her teacher called up the Latin Class and asked this girl to conjugate the verb "Amos." "Amo, amas, amat, amamms, amatis, amant," the apt pupil glibly called out. "All right, no translate the forms," the teacher said, very proud of her pupil. "Amo, I love," the girl began to translate. "Amos, you love; amat, he loves; amamms, we love; amatis, you love; amant-." But this was too much for the very careful father, and he began to rave, "Love, love, I love, you love, he loves. Love, love. All you teach here is love. I sent my girl here so she wouldn't fall in love so soon. I want to educate her, not make a lovesick fool of her. Come on. You are going home!" And he took the bright pupil at once.

Davis, Joe Tom. Historic Towns of Texas. Austin, TX: Eakin Press, February 1992.

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