John Jackson “Jack” Helm was a Texas cowboy, Confederate soldier, gunfighter, and lawman. After becoming involved in the Sutton-Taylor Feud in DeWitt County, he was tracked down and killed by Jim Taylor and John Wesley Hardin in July 1873.
Jack Helm was born in Missouri in 1839 to George Washington and Ruth Mayo Burnett Helm. In October 1841, the family relocated to Texas, soon settling on 640 acres in Lamar County. After the Civil War erupted, he enlisted in Company G of the Ninth Texas Cavalry under Captain Lorenzo D. King in October 1861. The following year, he participated in a vigilante group that hanged five men for Union sympathies. It was also reported that he killed a black man just for whistling a Yankee song. He deserted on April 14, 1862, in Des Ark, Arkansas, and soon returned to Texas.
He then worked as a cowboy for cattle baron Abel Head “Shanghai” Pierce. When the war ended in April 1865, many Texans returned to find their farms and ranches neglected and their cattle running wild and unbranded. Federal troops sent to occupy Texas in June 1865 could not control the Reconstruction Period’s widespread cattle thieving and general lawlessness.
Subsequently, General J. J. Reynolds, commander of the Federal forces, appointed Jack Helm as a special marshal to the Goliad area in June 1868. Helm soon captained a vigilante band of 50 men, mostly local ranchers, known as the Regulators, who pursued criminals with vigor and often with cruelty. They ordered known and suspected lawbreakers to leave the state within ten days. Those who defied the warning were shot without the benefit of a trial.
In 1869, he became a captain in the Texas State Police and was tasked with aiding the Union forces in Reconstruction. In this capacity, he soon got caught up in the Sutton-Taylor Feud in DeWitt County and began attacking members of the Taylor Faction. In the summer of 1869, Helm and his men carried on a reign of terror in Bee, San Patricio, Wilson, DeWitt, and Goliad counties to such a degree that the Galveston News reported that they had killed 21 persons in two months, but handed over just ten men to civil authorities.
In December 1869, he was also elected as the DeWitt County Sheriff. Helm continued to ambush and kill until a public outcry caused him to be discharged from the State Police in December 1870.
However, he continued to serve as the Sheriff of DeWitt County, killing more members of the Taylor Faction. Helm later moved to Albuquerque, Texas, but was tracked down by Jim Taylor and John Wesley Hardin and was killed on July 18, 1873 (some sources show May 17, 1873).
Helm was buried in the McCracken Family Cemetery in rural Gonzales County.
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated November 2022.
Reconstruction After the Civil War
Find a Grave
Nash, Robert; Encyclopedia of Western Lawmen & Outlaws; De Capo Press; New York, NY, 1994
Texas Historical Marker
Texas State Historical Association