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The heroine    The War        I will cut my cattle    Kansas fever        Pleas made the trail  
Abilene     The trail moves   Cattle rustlers          Butler reputation   Emmett is killed


Trail Driver and Friend

By Jim Gray

This article is from the January 2002 issue of "The Kansas Cowboy." This old-West history newspaper of some 20 pages is published six times a year for $19. Write to Publisher Jim Gray, 119 North Douglas, Ellsworth, Kansas 67439.   785-472-4703    His email is    Sometimes he writes of the good guys and sometimes of the bad guys. And of Chisholm Trail drives of Texas Longhorns to the Kansas railroad. Other articles on Karnes County Texas have also been published.

Kansas and Texas will forever be linked in the epic adventure that created the American cattle Industry. Kansas cattletowns and Texas Longhorn cattle were the two major elements that fed the northern states in their craving for beef following the Civil War.

One of the men who pioneered the trail driving industry was William Green Butler. Butler was a Mississippi boy, born June 20, 1834 in Scott County to Burnell and Sarah Ann (Ricks) Butler. Burnell was a deaf mute, but he was a strong willed man, determined to make his way in the world.

William's older brother, John Woodward Butler, left their Mississippi home in 1849 with Burnell's instructions to look for new land. He was 19 years old. On his second trip in 1850, he reached the San Antonio River in South Texas.

Burnell moved his wife, 12 children and seven Negro slaves to Texas in 1852 using three ox-drawn wagons and a hack with a team of horses, on a three-month trip. Young Bill Butler was 18 years old. They reached the San Antonio River at the camp of brother Woodward near Wofford's Crossing on December 24 of that year.

The family set about raising corn and cattle on the edge of civilization.

In November 1853, brother Woodward traveled to the coast to secure supplies for the family. Yellow Fever was raging through the population and Woodward fell victim to the disease on the way home. He made it to Yates Creek. The rains had returned and the creek was at flood stage. Woodward was traveling with a family slave who finally made himself heard above the roar of the water to parties across the creek. Woodward's mother, Sarah Butler, "
saddled a horse, took some extra clothing and her 'medical' supplies, and swam the treacherous river to nurse her son."

Sarah stayed with her son in an improvised camp for several days, but he was overcome by the disease. In sorrow mixed with the fortitude that frontier life breeds, she and the Negro slave buried her son. The grave can still be seen along the road from Runge to Couch, Texas.
  (His body has been moved to the Butler Family Cemetery in Kenedy.)

Miss Adeline Riggs Burris caught Bill's eye along the way and in January of 1858 they were married. The young couple set out to be one of the prominent families of Karnes County. By the time the Civil War broke out they had two little ones underfoot.

Bill enlisted in the Escondido Rifles, a company of mounted riflemen raised in Karnes County in July 1861. Adeline bore their third child just nine months afterward in April of 1862.

That year, Bill was sent home from the war to gather cattle for delivery to Confederate troops in Arkansas. Bill's younger brother, Pleasant (Pleas) Butler, was fourteen. Pleas went with his brother to the Hickok pens near Oakville, Texas. There, the cattlemen had assembled 500 head of heavy cattle. Pleas helped drive the cattle as far as Pecan Springs, near San Marcos, about 100 miles. Then he bid his brother good-bye and returned to his home.
As a member of Franklin C. Wilkes' cavalry, Bill saw action in the Trans-Mississippi Department in Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas. At the Battle of Arkansas Post, January 11, 1863, Confederate forces were taken captive. The troops were ordered to stack their arms. Butler and two others quietly walked away while the weapons were being stacked. Their escape was fraught with danger but they eventually reached Confederate lines. They were sent to a refugee camp in Pine Bluff, Arkansas before returning to service. He continued with the Confederacy till the end of the war. Butler was never wounded.

With the close of the war, Bill Butler returned home to a very different place than when he had left. A drought in 1863 cleared the range of cattle. Most had drifted away to areas where grass was more plentiful.

Rains brought a new vigor to the surrounding grasslands. But the cattle were far flung. With all the able-bodied men away at war, forty-five young boys and old men went looking for the stray cattle. Pleas was among them. Some 500 head were returned to the Karnes County ranges where thousands had grazed before.

Many of the cattle had not drifted of their own accord. Bands of thieves were traveling through the country, driving off all the cattle they could find. One of Bill's first tasks upon his return was to locate his missing cattle.

Northwest of San Antonio, Bill discovered a large herd of cattle moving through the country. He gathered some men together and returned to overtake the herd about 45 miles above San Antonio. As Bill and his party approached the herd the outlaws gathered together preparing for a fight. The leader of the band spurred his horse forward to boldly meet his pursuers. Bill did the same and the two met face to face.

Butler was known throughout the countryside as having "...the courage of a lion and nerves of steel and the most unswerving honesty and justice..."

Butler asked to "cut" his cattle, which meant he wanted to check every animal in the herd and sort his branded animals away from the others. Without hesitation the outlaw allowed the "cut".

On the way home, the Butler party met with neighbors who were also looking for cattle. When they learned of the whereabouts of the herd, Bill Butler was asked if he would return to help recover their cattle, as well. Without hesitation, Bill sent his herd on with the outfit and returned to "convince" the outlaws once again.

Bill Butler believed in "...loyalty to a friend. If you were poor or if you were rich; if you were right or if you were wrong, and you were in trouble, he was with you and for you..."

Kansas Fever struck in 1868. It wasn't a sickness, it was the word that a new market for Texas cattle had opened up on the plains of Kansas. The cattle trail was west of the settlements, making driving much easier than before and profits more predictable. Texans struck the trail for Kansas in numbers never before seen.
Bill Butler put a herd of cattle on the trail to Abilene, Kansas in March 1868 with 14 trail drivers. Little brother Pleas Butler followed as far as Gonzales, Texas, but that was enough to fire his ambition to ride the whole trail. Pleas would become one of Bill's most trusted trail bosses.

Not all of the cattle were destined for Abilene and the dinner plates of northern capitalists. T. M. Turner recalled that in 1869 he was sent to Bill Butler's ranch to drive "big jawed and crippled beeves to Rockport, where they were killed for their hides and tallow and the meat fed to hogs."

In 1870, Pleas made the trail. He recalled, "The trail then followed lay along the line from Austin to Belton, Valley Mills, Cleburne to Fort Worth, which at that time boasted of a livery stable, a court house and a store operated by Daggett & Hatcher, supply merchants, on the public square, through which we swung our great herd of cattle. At Fort Worth it was necessary to take on supplies for a month..."...we purchased flour, coffee, bacon, beans, and dried fruit, three-quarter pound of bacon and the same of flour being allotted to each man for each day."
T. M. Turner remembered Fort Worth as a little crossroads town. There they met "two shorthorn cowboys who were yelling and shooting, and we came near having trouble with them, because they turned our cattle back. Mr. Butler and I told them in a very emphatic manner to strike a high ball to town, and they struck it, and the last we saw of them was a streak of Fort Worth dust."

In Indian Territory the Butler herd met with Bob Love, a Choctaw Indian from whom the trail herds were supposed to gain passports through the Territory. He was demanding 10 cents per animal that crossed the Choctaw reservation. He eventually settled for a twenty dollar gold piece.

On the buffalo range the Cowboys had to ride ahead of the cattle to prevent the buffalo from mixing with the herd. Pleas took after them with his six-shooter. "I had little use for the sights on a gun and shot just as true when on horseback and on the dead run as when on foot." Pleas killed four of the shaggy beasts.

When the herds reached the cow camps of Abilene there was little need to maintain a large band of herders so several of the outfits threw together and sent their extra hands home. George W. Saunders was among the cowboys that hit the trail for home. There were about 50 men, 5 chuck wagons, 5 cooks and 150 horses. According to Saunders they had a lively time, "...for we had nothing to do but drive horses, make camp, eat and sometimes sleep." They crossed the Red River north of Denison, Texas. They "...rode into town and visited all of the stores and saloons. The people there were glad to see us come and glad to see us leave."

At Denton, Texas, a new law had been passed prohibiting the carrying of firearms "....we could not think of parting with our lifelong friends, so when a demand was made for us to surrender them we pulled our pistols and rode out of town shooting into the air."

Back home, Bill's and Pleas' brother, Robert Andrew Jackson Butler was 28 years old. He had suffered from a mental condition that forced Burnell to have his son committed to an asylum in Austin. That spring Robert somehow escaped and returned home. There, on April 23, 1870, he confronted his father and in a rage pushed his father over a cliff, killing him. His sister, Susan Johnson, witnessed the killing. Two days later he confronted Susan and killed her. Robert successfully eluded all attempts to track him down for nearly a month. Then, on May 20, 1870, he was recognized in Austin. Police shot Robert Butler to death on the steps of the Texas State Capitol Building.

Tragedy was commonplace on the frontier. So, life moved on. For the Butlers, the trail was life.

Pleas recalled that the trail moved west in 1871. They no longer crossed into Indian Territory north of Gainesville. The herd was turned west and crossed 75 miles above at Red River Station. An Indian by the name of Red Blanket was employed to pilot several herds through the new country. The first herd broke the trail for the following herds. The trail lay along Line Creek between the Osage and Comanche nations. Red Blanket warned the trail drivers that straying into Comanche territory would be certain death. "After this there was little discussion of which side of the creek made the best trail."

The May 1, 1873 edition of The Ellsworth Reporter listed W. G. Butler among a host of trail drivers who had arrived on the surrounding prairies. His herd numbered 2,000 cattle.  The names of the drovers were a virtual Who's Who of the trail driving industry, including J.D. Reed, L.B. Harris, J. J. Myers, Millett & Mabry, Dillard Fant, Doc Burnett, Choate & Bennett, J. L. Driskill, Mark Withers, and a host of others. It was proving to be one of the largest drives to date.
Large numbers of cattle and an economic slump in 1873 forced many drovers to change their plans. About 25,000 head of cattle wintered on the ranges around Ellsworth, Kansas. Bill Butler sought less crowded grazing in Nebraska.

The first trail herds to hit Ellsworth in 1874 arrived on May 6. Bill's cattle were among them. There were seven new herds that day. The Butler herd was the largest with 1,200 head. Six more arrived ready for market the next day, totaling 8,800 head for the 13 herds.

Lake Porter says he went up the trail once with a W.G. Butler herd. "Often I have taken my old fiddle on herd at night when on the trail, and while some of my companions would lead my horse around the herd I agitate the catguts, reeling off such old time selections as Black Jack Grove, Dinah Had A Wooden Leg, Shake That Wooden Leg, Dolly oh, Give the Fiddler a Dram, Arkansas Traveler, and The Unfortunate Pup. And say, brothers, those old long-horned Texas steers actually enjoyed that old time music."

From 1874 till 1876 Bill and Pleas operated in partnership on the range together.

Riders headed by a man name Frank Fountain passed through Karnes County, Texas, in March of 1875. They were gathering everything in sight. Their work was done at night and throughout the next day. By evening the thieves had forced some 9,000 head of cattle onto ranges in Atascosa County, some 30 miles to the west. William Irvin was a hard-nosed rancher who never shied away from inspecting the brands of cattle passing through. This he did with the large herd. After some idle words with the crew he made tracks straight for Bill Butler.

Butler soon had gathered ten men. The Fountain outfit numbered 31 men but the ranchers with Butler were determined to recover their property. Just as had happened in 1865, the thieves quietly submitted to a "cut" of the herd. The "cut" lasted two days. The men identified 4500 branded cattle belonging to Karnes County ranchers. Word came of another herd to the south. Bill took four of his ten men and returned with another 1200 head.

By the fourth day Butler's outfit had swelled to 100 men. Some of them wanted to hang the thieves, but were convinced that a "lecture" would do.

These men were no ordinary cowhands. They were the leaders of the cow industry. Men like Monroe and Bing Choate, Darius and Albert Rachel, Pleas Butler, Sam Porter, and Tobe Wood. A young man by the name of Fate Elder rode with them. He would one day be Sheriff of Karnes County.

The army of ranchers decided to go to San Antonio on their "hunt" for cattle thieves. There, they impressed upon a half dozen "suspects" that their activities would not be tolerated in Bee, Goliad, or Karnes counties. Out on the Main Plaza, six-guns were emptied into the sky
 (by Tobe Wood and Darius Rachel) and the police "scattered like wild turkeys."   (See also "The Champion of Karnes County," go to "Facing down the rustlers")

Bill often partnered on the cattle trail with Major Seth Mabry of Austin. From one to three herds were sent north annually until 1886. During those years it is estimated that 100,000 cattle carrying Butler road brands were driven up the trails. In Karnes County, Butler owned nearly 75,000 acres of land, leased another 25,000, and stocked 10,000 cattle.

Another of the Butler brothers was George Washington Butler. He was a twin to Marquis Lafayette Butler. In 1879, they were Wash and Fate and they were 28 years old.

The Butlers had a notorious, strong-willed reputation which often led to dangerous incidents. On August 4, Wash and a friend by the name of John Cooper rode into Helena, Texas, for some serious drinking and hell-raising. One thing led to another and the two men began to argue. The argument spilled from the saloon into the streets of Helena where the two men shot each other to death in a dramatic gunfight.

The Butler family was the county's richest landowner. But, that did not especially curry favor with the local Sheriff. Especially with the reputation they were generating. One of Bill Butler's sons had run afoul of the law while Bill was away on a trail drive to Dodge City.

One account says that the trouble began with a Mexican stealing horses. Another Mexican went to the Sheriff and blamed young Emmett Butler. At the Butler home Sheriff Edgar Leary and a deputy met Mrs. Butler at the door. When informed that no one was there except she and the girls, the officers insisted on searching the premises. They searched every room in the house. At one door, they asked who was in the room. Mrs. Butler replied that one of her daughters was sick and that she was sleeping in bed.

Sheriff Leary was bound to find his man. He entered the room and pulled the sheet off the girl. No one else was there. The offense was substantial to both the girl and her family. Mr. Butler and his sons were furious upon learning of the matter but the father warned his sons to stay away from the county seat of Helena. He did not want his sons involved in bloodshed.

On Friday, December 26, 1884, Emmett and a friend, Hugh McDonald, were out celebrating the holidays. By the time they rode into Helena they had already imbibed too freely in festival spirits. It was sleeting and raining off and on. They hitched their horses to a rack under an old oak tree in front of the Connolly Drug Store.

According to local legend, Helena was "the toughest town on earth." The town was also the birthplace of the "Helena Duel," in which the left hands of two opponents are tied together and each fighter is given a knife with a three-inch blade. The fight was usually to the death. It was in this atmosphere that the young men celebrated.

As they were walking down the street a shot was fired. Hearing the shot, the Sheriff rode his horse up to a storefront nearby. He started into the store when someone hollered and another shot rang out. Sheriff Leary turned to the advancing men and asked them what was the trouble. One of them made a threat, to which the Sheriff told the men that they would have to obey orders and keep the peace. The excitement drew the attention of a crowd of people.

Suddenly, Sheriff Leary pulled his pistol from under his slicker as Emmett drew his six-shooter. Emmett was hit in the leg. Leary slumped to the ground, suffering a chest wound. He called out to the surrounding bystanders, "He has killed me. Shoot him." Hugh yelled, "Run Emmett. You've killed the Sheriff!"

Emmett mounted a horse, and, charging down the street, he swerved to his left just as a barrage of shots rang out from the stable. Emmett was hit in the leg twice more and his horse fell dead in the street. Emmett got up fighting. At least 40 shots were fired until one finally hit him in the back of the head. The bullet lodged behind his eye. According to one eyewitness, "All of the top of his head was shot off."

Emmett was buried two days later on Sunday. His father arrived home on Monday from Kansas. Legend has it that Col. Butler rode into Helena with 25 men that day. He trotted up and down the main street "with a Colt on his hip and a rifle in his scabbard" demanding the name of the man who killed his son. The streets were silent. When no one would answer, he screamed, "his voice echoing from the false fronts of the stores and saloons, 'For that, I'll kill the town that killed my son!' "

His grandson Marvin Butler later claimed that William Butler was not the kind of man who would boast of what he would do, but instead he would just do it.

In 1886, Butler got his chance. The San Antonio and Aransas Pass railroad was building through Karnes County. The city of Helena was so confident that the railroad would have to build through their city that they ignored the company's request for monetary support. William Butler contacted Benjamin F. Yoakum and gave right-of-way to the railroad, thereby offering railroad officials an alternative route. Bypassed by the railroad in 1886, the town withered away.

For those who ran afoul of Bill Butler, there would be more "Hell to pay." But the many who called William Butler "friend" would stand with him against his enemies.

Sheriff Leary's deputy, Fate Elder, was elected Sheriff. A later local-option election, and destiny, would bring the Butlers and the law to a final showdown on September 6, 1886. (See the accompanying article in this newspaper, Gun Battle At Daileyville, Texas).
Had Bill forced the showdown?
No one ever knew for sure.

In later years, as Helena dwindled to an unimportant village, William Green Butler could view railroad operations from his own front porch.
He died June 14, 1912 and is buried in the family plot near Kenedy, Texas.
His stone reads "Pvt, Co. H, 24th Regt, Texas Cavalry, CSA".

Information for this article comes from 
The New Handbook of Texas Online;
The Trail Drivers of Texas,   J. Marvin Hunter;
Karnes County Texas Gunfights,    Archie B. Ammons;
Phone Interview with   Archie B. Ammons,   December 11, 2001;
The Chisholm Trail,    Wayne Gard;
A Vaquero of the Brush Country,   John D. Young & J. Frank Dobie;
and the Ellsworth Reporter,    May 1, 1873.

The above article is from the January 2002 issue of "The Kansas Cowboy." This old-West history newspaper of some 20 pages is published six times a year for $19. Write to Publisher Jim Gray, 119 North Douglas, Ellsworth, Kansas 67439.  His email is    Other articles on Karnes County Texas have also been printed.

From the March 2002 issue of The Kansas Cowboy: "The American Agriculturist, December 1878, reported from Ogallala, Nebraska that 'The principal cattlemen engaged in the Texas cattle drive are Ellison & Dewees, D. R. Fant, Seth Mabry, Capt. Littlefield, Millett Bros., and W. G. Butler'."

Also from the March 2002 issue of The Kansas Cowboy history newspaper is this letter to the editor from Charlotte Nichols of Kenedy, Texas:    First of all, let me thank you for your gift of membership in the C.O.W.B.O.Y.S.   I am most honored. I am telling everyone I am a card-carrying Kansas Cowboy. This really raises eyebrows.
Your article about Bill Butler in the January issue is fine. There is one correction. Bill Butler was born in Scott county MS, not Corinth, Alcorn county MS.
Burnell Butler is listed with his widowed mother Mary in Wayne county MS in 1820. In 1830, the family is in Rankin county MS. In 1834, Burnell buys land in Scott county, where he lives until he comes to Texas in 1852.
Adeline Riggs was born in Ohio, and traveled down the Mississippi River and on to Galveston in 1839. Adeline's father and brothers had land in Goliad and Karnes counties. Karnes was formed out of Goliad and other counties in 1854.
She and Bill Butler met here in 1858. She called Bill "My Lord of Creation."
Bill Butler was indicted for killing some 20 men. He always was no-billed because of self-defense. He did admit to my father-in-law, Dwight Nichols, that there was one man he regretted killing.
This happened on a return trip from Indianola, where he had driven cattle, and he was carrying a bag of gold. In front of him a man appeared. Bill ordered him to stop, but when he didn't, Bill shot him. Bill never knew who the man was.
Bill Butler and Monroe Choate were the two dominant trail drivers from Karnes county. Of the thousands of cattle they took up the trail on numerous drives, much of the herd would belong to 4 or 5 different neighbors.
There is a William Green Butler Reunion every five years, and the next one will be held in 2005.
I have entered both W. G. Butler and Monroe Choate in the State Builders of Texas program.
My ranch today was part of the many acres that Bill Butler owned. There is a Family Land Heritage marker on it for having been owned and worked by the same family for over 100 years. The ranch was founded in 1879.
( Editor Note ) As you can see, Charlotte Nichols is a wealth of information about Karnes county folks. Her late husband was a direct descendant of William Green Butler. The letter above has been abbreviated. She sent me the brands of all the trail drivers of Karnes County. To Charlotte, thanks so much for collecting and sharing "the goods" on these fellows. I'm impressed ! ( Editor )

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Thursday, 02-Oct-2008 13:24:42 MDT