Thursday, June 27, 2019

Captain Jack Helm -- Terror Behind A Badge

Badge of the Texas State Police
John Jackson "Jack" Helm was born in Missouri between 1836 and 1839. His parents were George Washington Helm and Ruth Mayo (Burnett) Helm. The Helm family relocated from Missouri to Texas in October of 1841. By February 7th, 1842, the Helm family settled on a 640 acre piece of land in Lamar County. 

On October 14, 1861, after the outbreak of the Civil War, Jack Helm who was in his twenties by then, enlisted for a twelve month stint with Company G of the Ninth Texas Cavalry commanded by Capt. Lorenzo D. King at Camp Reeves. He deserted on April 14th while in Des Ark, Arkansas. 

In 1862, though he was a Confederate deserter, Jack and his father were part of a group that tried and hanged five men for being Union sympathies. I couldn't find out if the hanging was stopped or went through.

There is some speculation that Jack Helm may have worked for Abel Head "Shanghai" Pierce as a cowboy at the end of the Civil War, but I was unable to confirm that. It is known that Jack Helm had married Margaret Virginia Crawford in DeWitt on December 28th, 1868. 

Let's not forget that Federal forces, the U.S. Army, was in control of Texas after the Civil War. Colonel Joseph Jones Reynolds took command of the Department of Texas, the 5th Military District, in Texas during the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War. Reynolds was originally from Kentucky. He was a West Point graduate and served with General Zachary Taylor's occupation army in Texas from 1845 to 1846. So it's believed that he was familiar with Texas.  

During the Civil War, Reynolds became a Colonel and was in command of Indiana's Camp Morton which was a muster encampment at Indianapolis. His 10th Indiana Volunteer regiment was sent to western Virginia, where his regiment is said to have played a decisive role in repulsing General Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army at Cheat Mountain. 

Though by then a Brigadier General, Reynolds resigned in January 1862. But then he resumed training Indiana regiments at Camp Morton until November 1862. It's said that he did that without an official Army commission. While that may or may not have been the situation, as it seems strange that the Army would allow something like that to take place, that didn't last long because he was again pressed into service as a Colonel of the 75th Indiana volunteers. 

After that, he was again promoted to Brigadier General with orders to build a depot and field works in Carthage, Tennessee. Then he was promoted to Major General of U.S. volunteers and commanded a division of XIV Corps, Army of the Cumberland, at Hoover's Gap and Chickamauga. 

Later, General Reynolds was transferred to the Gulf of Mexico, where he led a division of XIX Corps which garrisoned in New Orleans, Louisiana. He then commanded XIX Corps, and then commanded VII Corps in Arkansas. 

After the Civil War, Reynolds remained in the Regular Army, but was reverted to Colonel which makes me think his General rank was a "brevet" promotion. A "brevet" officer was a military commission conferred on those who displayed outstanding service. It was an officer who was promoted to a higher rank without the corresponding pay. I believe it was a temporary promotion. 

As a Colonel of the 27th U.S. Infantry Regiment, he was assigned command of the Department of Arkansas. He was later transferred to take charge of the Department of Texas, 5th Military District, in Texas during the Reconstruction Era.

It's interesting to note that when military rule in Texas ended in 1870, Col. Reynolds was put in command of the 3rd United States Cavalry Regiment which was part of the Black Hills War from 1876 to 1877. In fact, he is said to have led the Big Horn Expedition out of Fort Fetterman, Wyoming Territory, on March 1st, 1876. That was the campaign in search of "hostiles" under Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

On the morning of March 17th, 1876, Col. Reynolds led six companies of the 2nd and 3rd United States Cavalry Regiments to attack a village of Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne Indians on the Powder River. What took place there would become known as the Battle of Powder River. 

Reynolds' soldiers attacked Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne Indians camped on the west bank of the River in southeastern Montana Territory. But it was not a swift engagement and instead was a battle that lasted for five hours. Of his roughly 379 men, 4 of his men were killed and 6 were wounded, and 66 were said to have had frostbite. Though the loses seemed light, he withdrew his men from the battlefield and retreated south. 

Reynolds was subsequently court-martialed and was found guilty of all of the charges. He was sentenced to suspension of rank and forfeiture of pay for one year. Instead of staying in the army, Reynolds decided to resign from the United States Army on June 25th, 1877.

About now you're wondering what Col. Reynolds have to do with Jack Helm. Well, while still in charge of Texas during martial-law there, Col. Reynolds appointed Jack Helm as a "special officer," a deputy, to assist Capt. C. S. Bell during the Taylor-Sutton Feud. The Taylor-Sutton Feud is believed to be the longest running feud in Texas. Fact is, there's a good chance that it's also the bloodiest feud in the history of Texas .

Using his status as a "special officer," Jack Helm went to Austin and soon became the leading figure in the group of "special officers" known as "Regulators." During July and August of 1869, he and other Regulators carried out a reign of terror in Bee, San Patricio, Wilson, DeWitt, and Goliad counties. 

Describing the work of Helm and the other Regulators, The Galveston News reported that they "killed twenty-one persons in two months and turned over only ten to the civil authorities." 

Jack Helm parlayed his position as a Regulator to get himself elected sheriff of DeWitt County on December 3, 1869. He took his oath of office on April 27, 1870, but soon sought a second badge as well. That badge was one of a Texas State Police officer. That came about when on July 1st, 1870, Texas Governor Edmund J. Davis formed the Texas State Police to replace the Texas Rangers who Davis felt had too many former Confederates in their ranks. Helm saw the Texas State Police as a better opportunity and immediately joined the Texas State Police while still DeWitt County Sheriff. And to no one's surprise, Helm was appointed one of the four captains. 

So why were the Texas State Police so hated by most folks in Texas? Well, the Texas State Police was a permanent force with the authority to overrule local law enforcement officials anywhere in the state. This created a great deal of problems as the Texas State Police used their authority to violate the rights of Texans. The Texas State Police was also disliked by a majority of Texans because a large portion of the force consisted of former slaves. Also, the force was used to put down demonstrations that opposed Reconstruction policies. Texans didn't like being treated like second class citizens, and the Texas State Police ran herd on the people in ways that Texans resented nor accepted. 

As for violating the rights of Texans? Here's an example of how bad things got down there. On August 26, 1870, Captain Jack Helm and his Texas State Police detachment arrested brothers Henry and William Kelly who sided with the Taylors during the Taylor-Sutton Feud. Their arrest was on trivial charges to begin with, but Helm didn't care and wanted to squeeze them for information. When they refused to give him any information, Helm had both of the brothers shot dead. 

Henry Kelly and his brother William were ranchers and farmers. They were assassinated while their mother, wives, and children looked on. The crime and outrage that followed were so much that even Governor Davis could not ignore it. He suspended Helm in October, and then fired Helm in December. 

His firing did not stop Jack Helm. Since he still wore the badge of the elected Sheriff of DeWitt County, Helm continued to use tactics just as infamous as the criminals that he was sworn to apprehend. And frankly, as a lawman, he was brutal as he ran roughshod the folks of DeWitt County. With the support of the Texas State Police who still supported their former Captain, he was known to be worse than any outlaw of the time. 

Things turned sour for Helm in April of 1873 when the Texas State Police was abolished and he lost his support. This made Helm give up being a lawman, and move to Albuquerque, Texas. 

There is a story that says Helm worked to perfect a cotton-worm destroyer. He supposedly received patent no. 139,062 on May 20th, 1873, for a new and improved version of the device. Even if that's true, he wouldn't live long enough to enjoy the royalties of his design.

In Albuquerque, Gonzales County, Texas, that same year, former sheriff Jack Helm was known as an inventor. He used John Bland’s blacksmith shop to work on his designs. Though he was a man with more enemies than most, Helm felt comfortable at Bland's blacksmith shop. He felt so comfortable there that he was known not wear a gun there. He carried a bowie knife, but not a gun.

A man with so many enemies should have never gotten so comfortable that he opted for a knife instead of a gun. On July 18th, 1873, Jim Taylor and John Wesley Hardin showed up in Albuguerque to pay him a visit. It was then that Captain Jack Helm was shot dead by Jim Taylor and John Wesley Hardin right there in Bland's blacksmith shop. Some say it was the one good thing that John Wesley Hardin ever did.

Helm was buried in McCracken Cemetery in Wilson County.

Tom Correa

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