Entrepreneurs Thomas Ruckman and Dr. Lewis Sumpter Owings founded Helena in 1852 on the site of an earlier Mexican trading post called Álamita (“little cottonwood”). Their settlement straddled the long-standing road between San Antonio and Goliad (formerly La Bahía), known alternately as the Chihuahua Trail or Ox-Cart Road, as so much freight passed along it in oxcarts.
Ruckman opened a mercantile store and gristmill, and the partners named the settlement for Owings’ wife, Helen. Town status came in 1853 with the opening of a post office in the mercantile store. Ruckman served as first postmaster.
Freight wagons and stagecoaches en route to Goliad or San Antonio stopped regularly at Helena, while cowboys herding Longhorns from the grassy northern rangelands to the Brownsville stockyards patronized Helena’s several saloons. Rapid growth prompted Ruckman and Owings to help organize Karnes County in 1854, with Helena as the county seat.
Owings served in the Texas House of Representatives in 1855. After failing to win reelection, he moved to Mesilla, New Mexico Territory. (At the outset of the Civil War he was elected provisional governor of the Confederate Arizona Territory.)
Thomas Ruckman’s brother John arrived in Helena in 1856, opened his own business and later served as postmaster, as his brother had done. His large two-story home remains a town landmark.
In 1857 violence erupted between white freighters and those of Hispanic descent, whose services were often faster and cheaper. Masked raiders attacked the Hispanic freighters, prompting murders, several hangings and the intervention of the governor before the Cart War subsided that December.
Despite holding a low number of slaves prior to the Civil War, the residents of Karnes County largely supported secession, in part due to pressure from the pro-slavery Knights of the Golden Circle. During the war itself Helena operated a Confederate post office and mustered a Rebel company called the Helena Guards.
By 1867 Helena boasted a courthouse, a jail, two hotels, several churches, several saloons and a range of stores. Five years later the coeducational Helena Academy opened in a newly built two-story rock building.
The Helena Record, the town’s first newspaper, began publishing in 1879, followed by The Karnes County News in 1887. In its 1880s heyday Helena’s population approached 300.
This frontier town full of transients experienced growing pains and some trouble, especially in and around the saloons and gambling houses. The San Antonio Express called Helena “a mean little Confed town, with…any amount of lazy vagabonds laying around, living by their wits.” Helenites are said to have originated a savage type of knife fight called a “Helena Duel,” in which opponents were bound together. That and other violence, often involving local wealthy rancher William G. Butler and associates, earned Helena the moniker “Toughest Town on Earth” (see “Gunfighters & Lawmen,” P. 18).
When the San Antonio & Arkansas Pass Railway bypassed Helena in 1886 (aided by a bitter W.G. Butler), the town began a sharp decline. Absent the reliable freight route, commerce withered. When voters made Karnes City the county seat in 1894, the Helena courthouse turned into a school, and most businesses moved to Karnes City or elsewhere. Helena’s school closed in 1945, its post office in 1956, and the population continued to dwindle through the 20th century. By 2000 it stood at 35.
Today Helena is a flyspeck on the map at the junction of state Highway 80 and FM 81. Historical markers highlight its history, and the courthouse holds a worthwhile museum.
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.