But he faced the fight of his life in another Karnes County town.
Pioneer rancher William Green Butler made good in Karnes County, Texas. In 1868 Bill and younger brother Pleasant “Pleas” Burnell Butler began trailing herds, first to Abilene and then Ellsworth, Dodge City and other Kansas railhead towns. By the early 1870s Bill, also known as W.G., owned about 75,000 acres, leased another 25,000 acres and stocked some 10,000 head of cattle. But despite being one of the wealthiest and most influential men in the county, W.G. Butler couldn’t keep his family from trouble or tragedy, especially when they went to town—namely Helena, Texas.
On August 4, 1879,W.G.’s brother George Washington, or “Wash” (who had a twin named Marquis Lafayette, or “Fate”), and Wash’s friend John Cooper went to Helena for some carousing. Too many drinks in a local saloon made the pair combative. They took their fight to the street and shot each other dead. Wash was the first of two Butlers whose blood ran on the dust-choked streets of Helena.
Born in Mississippi on June 20, 1834, W.G. was 18 when he came to southeast Texas with his parents. He developed his own spread not far from Helena and in 1858 married Adeline Riggs Burris. In July 1861W.G. enlisted in Karnes County as a private in the local Escondido Rifles and later served with Company H of the 24th Texas Cavalry Regiment. He fought for the Confederacy in Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana, drove cattle in 1862 to help the cause, was captured at the January 1863 Battle of Fort Hindman in Arkansas but soon escaped and served through war’s end without sustaining a wound. Once back in Karnes County he continued to build up his ranch and face down rustlers. He and Adeline had nine children. He advised his five sons never to visit Helena without him. The old Mexican trading post was named county seat in 1854 and had grown into a rowdy crossroads community. Disputes sometimes ended in a “Helena Duel”— a knife fight in which the opponents were bound hand to hand, each bearing a knife in his free hand. Bad blood had developed between W.G. and Karnes County Sheriff Edgar Leary when the sheriff, while supposedly searching for a horse thief, barged into the bedroom of one of W.G.’s daughters as she lay sick.
On December 26, 1884, 20-year-old Emmett W. Butler disregarded his father’s advice and went to Helena on a bender with ranch hand Hugh McDonald, 22. A drunken McDonald soon picked a fight with a local man, shots rang out, and Sheriff Leary and a deputy intervened, relieving Butler and McDonald of their Winchester rifles. Emmett then yanked a revolver from beneath his coat and fired point-blank into Leary’s chest. Dropping to his knees, the sheriff got off one shot and gasped to his deputy and bystanders: “He has killed me. Shoot him!” Leary then fell dead. “Run, Emmett!” shouted McDonald. “You’ve killed the sheriff!” Butler fled on horseback, but the crowd opened fire, dropping first Emmett’s horse and then him. Two shots hit Emmett in the right leg, while a third struck him in the back of the head. He died the following morning.
An inquest confirmed the obvious: A bullet fired from Emmett Butler’s gun had killed Edgar Leary, and Butler, in turn, had been killed by a person or persons in the crowd. On Sunday, December 28, Emmett became the first Butler buried in the family cemetery in Kenedy. Fate Elder succeeded Leary as sheriff, but tensions lingered, as W.G. Butler was said to have suspected Elder of shooting at Emmett. Newspapers editorialized that the town needed a ban on guns, and some went so far as to suggest that lawless Karnes County be dissolved, its land divided among surrounding counties. A legend persists that after hearing of Emmett’s death, W.G. rode into Helena waving a
Winchester and demanding to know who killed his son. When he got no answer, he reportedly vowed to kill the whole town. Days after the shooting Butler did lead a group of armed ranch hands into town, only to be met by Texas Rangers, who eased tensions and closed the saloons. Within a year, however, W.G. Butler had his opportunity to do in Helena—but not with gunplay. In 1885 the San Antonio & Arkansas Pass Railroad was laying tracks toward town, which would give Helena a major boast. Instead, the SA&AP, thanks to W.G.’s generous offer of a right-of-way and monetary support, bypassed town to the southwest through the Butler ranch. The new railroad junction on W.G.’s land spurred growth of Karnes City, which voters named the county seat in 1894. Helena had become obsolete.
Meanwhile, bad blood remained between the Butlers and Sheriff Elder, who appointed brother Bud as deputy sheriff. Each side thought the other was out to destroy it. Complicating matters was the 1877 marriage of Mary, the sister of Fate and Bud, to Newton Butler, W.B.’s eldest son. Recently, Newt had been accused of assaulting a man in Kenedy, and Fate Elder took the side of the victim. A townsperson later testified in court, “The Elders and the Butlers were sooner or later going to have a difficulty, because the Elders were so abusive toward them that a fight would be the result of it.”
On September 6, 1886, a county election was set to determine whether the southern part of Karnes County should allow saloons, and among the voting locations was C.P. Dailey’s general store in Daileyville, a tiny community between Helena and Karnes City. Tensions were high, because Daileyville was in Sheriff Elder’s jurisdiction, and he was one of the “dries,” while the Butlers were “wets.” Around noon, with Fate seated outside the store whittling and brother Bud inside, W.G. Butler’s son-in-law, Andrew M. Nichols, pulled up in a hack across the street. With him were seven of the Butler clan, including W.G., and 10 of their ranch hands. Two of them, Juan Coy and Epitacio Garza—said to beW.G.’s bodyguards —were carrying rifles, even though it was illegal to be armed on election day. What’s more, Coy had murdered a black man in Floresville a few weeks earlier, and Fate Elder had been searching for him.
Sheriff Elder stopped whittling and pulled his revolver as he walked across the road toward the Mexicans. Coy ordered the sheriff to stop, and when he didn’t, the wanted man fired an errant shot. The sheriff tried to shoot back, but his revolver misfired. As he retreated behind a live oak, the other Butler cowboys produced guns (though they’d claimed to have left their firearms outside of town), and several of them shot at Elder. Someone, likely 20-year-old Sykes Butler, another of W.G.’s sons, got behind Fate and put a bullet in the sheriff’s head.
Sheriff Elder’s deputy, Jack Bailey, was on the scene but did no shooting. “Oh, Lordy, Lordy, don’t shoot me!” Bailey cried out as he fled for cover. “I never done nothing.” A member of the Butler faction, however, saw him running and shot him down. “Don’t shoot me again!” pleaded the deputy. His words went unheeded. As Bailey lay on his back, the Butler gunmen fired a couple more shots at him, shattering his left leg, which required immediate amputation. He died the next morning.
As his brother Fate went down, Bud Elder came out of the general store and fired twice at W.G. Butler, true to his earlier statement that if a gunfight ever broke out with the Butlers, he would “go for the old man.” He managed to only graze W.G.’s ear. W.G. and his men then opened fire on Bud, wounding him at least a half-dozen times while the game deputy kept triggering his empty revolver. Finally, someone walked up and shot Bud in the head. Two bystanders, brothers Hiram and Henry Pullin, were killed by stray bullets. Thomas Nolan Pullin saw his father, Hiram, mistakenly killed. (Thomas was the great-grandfather of Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan.) Also caught in the crossfire were County Attorney F.R. Graves and store keeper C. P. Dailey, the latter struck in the foot by buckshot from a shotgun fired by deputy V.O. “Vivvy” Barfield from inside the store (which he wisely never left). The Daileyville gunfight tallied five men dead and three wounded.
Authorities brought murder charges against W.G. Butler and Sykes Butler. Changes of venue moved the trials to Wilson County in October 1886 and then Dewitt County in March 1887. In January 1888 a jury acquitted W.G. on the grounds of self-defense, as witnesses testified Elder had fired first. W.G. did end up paying a $25 fine for carrying a weapon on election day. At Sykes’ five-day trial in December 1888 the jury found him not guilty. Coy, also charged with murder, vanished before his trail. A California saloonkeeper shot him down in 1892.
That was not the end of W.G. Butler’s troubles. In all, he was reportedly indicted for 20 killings but each time escaped conviction by pleading self-defense. He was also held responsible for Helena’s decline. He died on June 14, 1912, and is buried at the family cemetery in Kenedy.
The author is indebted to Archie Ammons of Karnes County for background material. Ammons is a descendant of both the Butler and Elder families.
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.