The U.S. Army's forts on the northwestern frontier of Texas were bound tightly to the ebb and flow of warfare with the Plains Indians. As each post outlived its purpose and was abandoned, civilians who had congregated nearby faced an uncertain future. Fort Griffin in its heyday spawned one of the liveliest and most notorious settlements in the West. The fort was the longest continuously-occupied post in the region, but the town that took its name barely survived the Army's departure in 1881.
The scant architectural remains of both the fort and town belie the brief, but significant, life of each. The fort's bakery and powder magazine have been restored, and partial walls of the administration building and sutler's (post trader's) store still stand, along with a chimney from one of the officers' quarters. Foundations of numerous other buildings are visible on the grounds. Reconstructed frame buildings represent the size and style of enlisted quarters and mess.
Even less remains of the town below the hill, known primarily as "The Flat," but also as "Buffalo Town, "Fort Griffin," and, simply, "Griffin." The townsite is on private property, but is accessible by county roads. Its sole surviving building is its first all-stone structure, the Masonic lodge and school house, built in 1878 and restored by the current owner. Foundations of other buildings are visible, and a number of them flank the current county road running from the base of Government Hill to the place where the old Fort Richardson road crossed the Clear Fork. This road was "Griffin Avenue," the main street of the town, in the late 1870s.
The last military engagement involving troops from Fort Griffin occurred on April 9, 1877. A band of Quahadi under a leader sometimes known as Black Horse left the Fort Sill reservation to hunt buffalo and to make war on white buffalo hunters. Among the camps attacked was that of Pat Garrett, later to be sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico, and killer of "Billy the Kid." A company of 10th Cavalry "buffalo soldiers"â€"black enlisted men commanded by white officersâ€"tracked the band to Lake Quemado in the Texas Panhandle, where a sharp fight resulted in the deaths of Sergeant Charles Baker and four Comanches. The soldiers captured 69 horses.
By that time, the slaughter of the southern buffalo herd was well under way. The Texas Plains were hunted out largely between 1874 and 1878. The hide business at Fort Griffin gave up its status as an economic engine with the advent of cattle trailing through the Clear Fork country.
The region had been instrumental in the development of the Goodnight-Loving cattle trail, which sent cattle from the northern Texas frontier to the southwest along the old Butterfield stage route, then north along the Pecos River into Mexico and Colorado. That trail, and Chisholm Trail, which passed by Fort Worth on the way to Abilene and Wichita, Kansas, had been the preferred routes for sending Texas cattle to northern markets. The Westernâ€"or "Dodge City"â€" trail opened in 1875, and by the end of the 1870s had surpassed the Chisholm Trail as the preferred route of drovers from south Texas. The Western Trail passed near Fort Griffin, and the town became the last important supply point on the route to Kansas and points north.
"Cow town," "hidetown," "scabtown"â€"the village on "The Flat" between Fort Griffin and the Clear Fork became a frontier boom town of hunters, cow men, a village of Tonkawa Indians who served the Army as scouts, and a variety of merchants and predators. But, like many such towns, it could not sustain itself after the boom. Local ranchers began to avoid the rowdy village, and nearby Albany won the contest to be the seat of government for Shackelford County. The town of Fort Griffin would begin to wither away after the Army left and the closest railroad spur stopped at Albany.
With the Comanche and Kiowa confined to the Fort Sill reservation, the purpose of the northwestern frontier posts was accomplished. Fort Richardson was abandoned in 1878. Fort Griffin had been periodically recommended for abandonment since 1873, and departmental commander Christopher Auger had characterized the post as "unfit for human habitation." The Army had invested comparatively little in Fort Griffin, and in the performance of its mission it had been a bargain. It concluded its service on May 31, 1881, when the last remaining infantry company lowered the nation's flag and marched away.
Although it is practically a ghost town today, its beginning was most auspicious, and for many years it was the most important city between San Antonio and Goliad. Since Spanish colonial times the La BahĂa Road, later to be called the Chihuahua Road or Ox-Cart Trail, ran from San Antonio to La BahĂa (now Goliad) and the Texas coast. Along this road was carried the rich trade with Mexico and points west. In 1852 Thomas Ruckman and Lewis S. Owings founded Helena at the site of an earlier Mexican trading post called Alamita. They renamed the town in honor of Dr. Owings's wife, Helen. Entering into a business partnership, they envisioned a metropolis arising at this important road stop. Ruckman opened a mercantile and built a gristmill. In 1853 a post office was established, and Ruckman served as first postmaster. The population in and around Helena increased so much that the two partners successfully promoted the organization of Karnes County in 1854, with Helena as the county seat. The first election of county officials was on the gallery of the Ruckman-Owings store. Much traffic of wagon freight and gold bullion traveled the trail, and Dr. Owings operated a stage line of four-horse coaches from San Antonio to Victoria via Helena and Goliad. The main incidents of the Cart War occurred in and around Helena.
By 1857, the growing and prosperous community had become the heart of the "Cart War", when Texas freighters, fearful of prices being undercut by Mexicans, began a series of attacks on Mexican freighters. By November, 75 people had met their death and governor Elisha Pease sent a company of Texas Rangers in to end the conflict. By then, most of the Mexican freighters had changed their routes anyway, and, finding little or no action, the rangers were reassigned by December.
During the Civil War Helena had a Confederate post office with its own stamp and mustered a company called the Helena Guards on May 4, 1861. Much cotton destined for Mexican ports passed through town. During its heyday, Helena had a courthouse, a jail, a church, a Masonic lodge, a drugstore, a blacksmith shop, two hotels, and several saloons and general stores. Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches were organized in town. In 1867 citizens started a coeducational school, Helena Academy, and its two-story rock building was completed in 1872. Two newspapers were published in Helena — the Helena Record, first published in 1879, and the Karnes County News, first published in 1887. In the 1880s the town's population reached a high of between 250 and 300. Though some accounts of the town stress its gracious living, others accent the first syllable of its name ("Hell"). According to local legend, Helena was "the toughest town on earth."
The Toughest Town on Earth
The town had always been violent, famous for such atrocities as the Helena Duel, in which two combatants would be bound at one wrist. To the cheering of many spectators like those in an ancient Roman coliseum, the two hacked at each other with short bladed knives, short enough to miss any vital organs, until one or both had bled to death in the streets.
On these streets the hooves of horses beat the dirt before heading cattle north to the Kansas rail, John Wesley Hardin and numberless other gunfighters walked and prowled, and seldom came a dawn when the sun had not uncovered another dead in the streets. Once there had even been an attempt to end alcohol in the town, but the town's several saloons had ample business and the customers would have none of it. The proposition was defeated. In them, the troubles of many were brought on another through drink, and it was in these that the gunfights were spawned and death lingered. Helena had become associated with death in many ways, so much that she, too, was destined to die.
On the afternoon of December 26, 1884, Emmett Butler, the 20 year old son of Colonel William Butler, the area's richest rancher, and a friend named Hugh McDonald were drinking in one of the several saloons and became quarrelsome. Noticing that the two were armed, Sheriff Edgar Leary disarmed them and tried to arrest them. From his coat Butler pulled out a hidden revolver and shot the sheriff through the heart, killing him. It was a gunshot the town would never forget. Butler ran from the saloon and mounted his horse and ran away at full speed, only to be chased by a mob of angry townspeople. As many as forty shots were fired at the boy, and he fell from his horse wounded with three shots. He died early the next morning.
Legend tells that: Colonel butler rode into town two days later with a posse of 25 armed cowhands. Astride his horse, he demanded in a loud voice to the startled Helenans who had killed his son. In that moment the streets of Helena were silent as they are today. Colonel Butler looked around, but no answer came. Reluctantly he turned his horse but not before vowing to the silence "I will kill the town that killed my son."
Apparently he contacted Benjamin F. Yoakum and gave right-of-way to the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway, thereby offering railroad officials an alternative route after Helena citizens flatly refused to raise money for a railroad through the town. Bypassed by the railroad in 1886, the town withered away. In 1894, after a hotly contested election, Karnes City became the county seat, after which the courthouse at Helena was made into a school. Most businesses moved to Karnes City or Runge.
By 1904 the population had fallen to 181 and by 1933 to 100. It increased to 200 by 1939, and Helena had seven businesses by 1952. Its school was closed in 1945, and its post office was discontinued in 1956. In 1990 Helena had a population of thirty-five. The 1873 courthouse, the old post office, the John Ruckman Home, the Sickenius farmhouse, and the jail have been restored as museum pieces.
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