Biography of John C. Helfenbein of Arago

John C. Helfenbein, a lifelong resident of Richardson County, Nebraska, was born on February 22, 1866, in Arago precinct. His parents, John and Lena (Buck) Helfenbein, emigrated from Germany and were among the earliest settlers of the county. John C. Helfenbein grew up on the family farm and later established his own 110-acre farm in Arago precinct, where he made significant improvements. On April 21, 1892, he married Mary Miller, with whom he had four children: Leila, August, Edna, and Ernest. Active in his community, Helfenbein was a Republican and a member of the Evangelical Lutheran church.

John C. Helfenbein, proprietor of a fine farm of one hundred and ten acres in section 22 of the precinct of Arago, this county, was born in that precinct and has lived there all his life, having thus been a continuous resident of Richardson county since territorial days. He was born on February 22, 1866, son of John and Lena (Buck) Helfenbein, natives of Germany, who were among the earliest settlers of this county and whose last days were spent here, the former living until June 10, 1912, he then being in the eighty-fourth year of his age. His wife had preceded him to the grave about four years, her death having occurred in 1908, she then being seventy-nine years of age. They were the parents of four children, namely: Mrs. Amelia Klink, of Missouri; August, deceased; John C., the subject of this sketch, and Ernest.

John Helfenbein, who was an honored veteran of the Civil War, was born in Hessenstadt on September 22, 1828, and had come to this country in the days of his young manhood, settling in Illinois, where he remained until 1858, when he came over into the then Territory of Nebraska and located at the site of the old village of Arago, first county seat of Richardson county, helping in the construction of the first house that was erected at that historic point. He bought a tract of land in the immediate vicinity of Arago, broke the soil with an ox-team and there farmed for a good many years, later moving to the southern part of the precinct, where he and his wife spent their last days. During the Civil War John Helfenbein served valiantly as a member of Company B, Fourth Missouri Cavalry, with which command he enlisted on March 13, 1862, and with which he served until his final discharge on March 22, 1865. During this service he nearly lost his life, receiving a serious wound when three horses fell on him during a desperate cavalry scrimmage. Some years before his death Mr. Helfenbein wrote an interesting narrative relating to his experiences as a pioneer of Richardson county and as a participant in the frontier warfare carried on out here during the Civil War period, which narrative has so much of historical interest that it is presented below:

“I came to the present site of Fargo, formerly Arago, Nebraska, in 1858. At that time there were no buildings of any kind at that place. During the following three years twenty-three families arrived and proceeded to erect dwelling houses and such other structures as they needed in a wild country.

“When the Civil War broke out there was on the opposite side of Arago, across the Missouri river, a small village called Marietta, which had a postoffice, school house and a horse-power saw-mill. The Rebels raised the rebel flag at Marietta. We at Arago raised the Union flag; the flags being but one mile apart. The Rebels and those who sympathized with them threatened to come to Arago and pull down the Union flag and burn every house, but they never did. On March 13, 1862, I, with twelve others, went to Forest City, Holt county, Missouri, where we enlisted in Company B, Fourth Regiment, Missouri Cavalry. We remained three weeks in the vicinity of Forest City, scouting in Atchison, Holt and Nodaway counties; also pulling down rebel flags and taking them to headquarters and compelling them to swear allegiance to the Union.

“On April 1, 1862, our regiment met at St. Joseph, Missouri, where we entered on police duty, also scouting throughout Andrew, Buchanan and Platte counties. From there we moved to Kansas City, Missouri, and were camped there fourteen days; scouting in Lafayette, Johnson and Jackson counties. We lost two men of our company by Quantrell bushwhackers on Blue river, at Westport. From there we marched to Greenfield, thence to Springfield and then to Granby, Missouri, where we met the Rebels and fought them. We killed two and took seventeen prisoners. Then we went to Neosho, Newtonia and Mt. Vernon; thence back to Springfield. From there we were ordered to Lone Jack to reinforce the First Iowa, which had had an engagement with the Rebels commanded by Coffee and Range. We were in the saddle for twenty-seven days, during which time we scarcely found any food, either for man or beast. The Rebels lost one barrel of sugar, which we were fortunate to get and which was doled out to us one cupful a day as long as it lasted. On June 21, 1862, we espied some cabbage in a garden, to which we helped ourselves. We also found one barrel of molasses and three pieces of bacon, of which our dinner consisted. On June 27 we overtook the Rebels at Neosho and captured their cannons, after which they retreated.

“We participated in the battle of Newtonia, Missouri, September 13, 1862, and at Cassville, September 21, 1862. Before we went into the engagement at Newtonia, Kelly, our major, made something like the follow­ing speech: ‘Soldiers: Again you are called upon to advance on the enemies of your country. The time and the occasion are deemed opportune by your commanding general to address to you a few words of confidence and caution. Your movement being in co-operation with others, it is of the utmost importance that no effort should be left unspared to make it successful. Soldiers, the eyes of the whole country are looking with anxious hope to the blow you are about to strike in the most sacred cause that ever called men to arms. Remember your homes, your wives and your children, and bear in mind that the sooner your enemies are overcome the sooner you will he returned to enjoy the benefits and blessings of peace. Bear with patience the hardships and sacrifices you will be called upon to endure. Have confidence in your officers and in each other. Keep your ranks on the march and on the battlefield, and let each man earnestly implore God’s blessing and endeavor, both by his thoughts and his actions, to render himself worthy of the favor he seeks. With clear consciences and strong arms, actuated by a high sense of duty; fighting to preserve the government and the institutions handed down to us by our forefathers—if true to ourselves victory, under God’s blessing, must and will attend our efforts.’

“At Huntsville, Arkansas, three hundred of our men made battle on twenty-five sheep in a forty-acre pasture. The sheep were all killed, of course; no prisoners taken. At Fayetteville we captured a goose, which, after being equally divided, we prepared for dinner by immersing in a pot of hot water; each his portion according to command. We participated in the battle of White River, then we spent two days on Osage Mountain. On December 2, 1862, we surprised the Rebels on Horse creek, between Ft. Scott, Kansas, and Greenfield, Missouri, capturing ninety-three horses and saddles and all their firearms. On April 7, 1863, we marched to Sedalia, Missouri, and were compelled to swim the Grand river, which was then bank full and about a half mile in width. From 1863 to 1865 the were pursuing Quantrell and Jesse James, spending many nights in the forest trying to capture Jesse when he would be going courting his sweetheart at Dover, Lafayette county. On August 21, 1863, the captured a man of Quantrell’s command who confessed to having killed a woman and throwing her and her baby into a burning building at Lawrence, Kansas. He was court-martialed and shot, on October 13, 1863, we fought Joe Shelby at Arrow Rock. On October 23, 1864, we fought General Price at Jefferson City, Missouri, and pursued him to Blue river, near Kansas City. In this engagement the lost our captain, Alvin Blair. My fastest riding was between the Blue river and Lexington, where I was commissioned to carry a dispatch through the enemy’s lines. I was pursued by them, but succeeded in getting away. We participated in numerous other bushwhacker skirmishes not necessary here to mention.”

John C. Helfenbein was reared on the pioneer farm on which he was born, in the precinct of Arago, and grew up there thoroughly familiar with pioneer conditions of living. He received his schooling in the district schools of that neighborhood and from the days of his boyhood was a valuable factor in the labors of developing and improving the home place. He later began working as a farm hand, at a wage of fifteen dollars a month, and in 1884 he and his brother August began farming together, an arrangement that continued until his marriage in 1892, after which he bought an eighty-acre farm in the precinct of Ohio and there established his home, remaining there until 1896, when he sold that place and bought his present farm of one hundred and ten acres in section 22 of Arago precinct, where he has since made his home and where he and his family are very comfortably and very pleasantly situated. Since taking possession of that place Mr. Helfenbein has built a new house and barn, planted all orchard and made other substantial improvements, now having one of the best farm plants in that part of the county. In addition to his general farming he has devoted considerable attention to the raising of high-grade stock and has done very well. Mr. Helfenbein is a Republican and has ever given a good citizen’s attention to local political affairs, but has not been included in the office-seeking class.

On April 21, 1892, John C. Helfenbein was united in marriage to Mary Miller, who also was born in Arago precinct, December 30, 1870, daughter of Jacob and Lelia (Gebhard) Miller, the former an Alsatian and the latter a native of the city of New York, who became pioneers of Richardson county, and here spent their last days. Jacob Miller was born in the then French province of Alsace on September 23, 1834, and was ten years of age when he came to this country with his parents in 1844, the family settling in Erie county, New York, moving thence in 1855 to Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, where he remained until 1859, when he located in St. Charles county, Missouri. A year later, in the spring of 1860, he came over into the then Territory of Nebraska and settled in this county, becoming engaged in farm labor in the neighborhood of Williamsville. In the fall of that same year he leased a half section of land from a Mr. Pickard, in Arago precinct, seven miles northeast of the present city of Falls City, and that winter split rails and built a log cabin, which is still standing. Mr. Miller was thus engaged in developing his pioneer farm when the Civil War broke out and on June 13, 1861, enlisted at Omaha for service in the Union army and went to the front as a member of Company B, First Regiment, Nebraska Volunteer Infantry, with which he served until mustered out at Omaha on August 25, 1864, and during which service he participated in numerous important engagements, including the battles of Shiloh, Cape Girardeau and Clarington. Upon the completion of his military service Mr. Miller returned to this county and in 1865 bought the quarter section he had leased and after his marriage in 1870 established his home there, remaining there until 1886, when he moved to Sheridan county, this state, but a year later he returned to his home farm and remained there until the fall of 1903, when he retired from the farm and he and his wife moved to Falls City, where both spent their last days, the latter dying on September 9, 1906, and the former on January 3, 1917. It was at Barada, this county, March 17, 1870, that Jacob Miller was united in marriage to Magdalena Gebhard and to this union nine children were born, those besides Mrs. Helfenbein, the fourth in order of birth, being Henry F., of Happy, Texas; Fred W., who is operating the old home farm; Mrs. Anna Zorn, of this county; Mrs. Ida Bertram, of Minnesota; Mrs. Ella Gerlt, of this county; Mrs. Lizzie Hunker, also of this county; Mrs. Minnie Bertram, of this county, and Mrs. Louisa Zorn, who died on February 12, 1912.

To John C. and Mary (Miller) Helfenbein four children have been born, Leila, August, Edna and Ernest. The family are members of the Evangelical Lutheran church and take a proper part in church work, as well as in the general good works and social activities of the community in which they live, helpful in promoting all movements having to do with the advancement of the common welfare thereabout.


Edwards, Lewis C., History of Richardson County, Nebraska : Its People, Industries and Institutions, Indianapolis : B.F. Bowen, 1917.

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