Thomas Ruckman and Lewis S. Owings named the settlement it in honor
of Dr. Owing's wife, Helena, in 1852. The settlement grew into a
town that grew into a county, Karnes
County, in 1854. Helena was the county seat and boasted a courthouse,
jail, church, Masonic lodge, drugstore, blacksmith shop, two hotels,
two newspapers, a school, a slew of saloons and Methodist, Baptist
and Presbyterian churches. By the 1880s, Helena
had 300 residents and a lot of visitors. It also had a reputation.
Though many of the town's 300 residents were law-abiding citizens,
many were not and they were the ones who gave Helena
a reputation as the "toughest town on earth." The town was famous
- infamous - for the "Helena Duel," a barbaric piece of business
in which two opponents fought each other with three-inch knives
while their wrists were tied together. The idea was to make it impossible
for one man to kill the other with a single stab, but to bring about
death by a thousand cuts, or however many it took for one or both
of the opponents to bleed to death.
That brings us, in a roundabout way, to William G. Butler, who came
to Karnes County
in 1852 with his parents and 12 siblings when he was 18 years old.
He married, served the Confederacy during the Civil War and was
one of those who cashed in on the vast herds of cattle roaming Texas
in the war's aftermath. He and his partner Seth Mabry of Austin
combined to send an estimated 100,000 cattle to northern markets.
In due time he owned 75,000 acres in Karnes
County, leased another 25,000 and owned about 10, 000 cattle.
According to accounts that have filtered down from J. Frank Dobie
and others, Butler was a man to be reckoned with. The town of Helena
would soon learn that.
are several stories about how Helena
went from a thriving center of commerce and debauchery to ghost
town, but the most popular one places the beginning of the end as
occurring on Dec. 26, 1884 when somebody shot and killed Butler's
son, Emmett, in the streets of Helena.
His father rode into town the next day, demanding justice and an
answer to the question: "Who killed my son?" When no one came across
with the information Butler vowed to "kill the town that killed
Butler did that, the story goes, by contacting Benjamin Yoakum,
general manager of the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway, and
offering free right-of-way to the railroad, thus providing an alternative
route around Helena.
The townspeople believed the railroad needed Helena
more than Helena
needed the railroad. The citizens were wrong. A new city, Karnes
City, came to be by the railroad tracks. In 1894, after a ferocious
City became the new county seat. Helena
There are a lot off variations and alternatives to that story, but
whether William Butler killed Helena
or simply assisted in its suicide, it's just as gone.
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
November 17, 2017 column