Helen Sewell Harbison, rancher and civic leader, fifth child of Isaac Newton and Martha (Linville) Sewell, was born in Skidmore, Missouri, on August 19, 1896. During the following decade the Sewells lived on farms and in small towns in Missouri and Kansas. When Helen was eleven, her father sold his interest in a grocery and dry-goods store in Osawatomie, Kansas, and moved his family to a farm in Texas. It consisted of 160 isolated semidesert acres, fifteen miles out over sandy trails from the little cattle-shipping community of Hebbronville. For the next 3½ years Helen worked in her family's fields, walking behind a mule and a plough, without benefit of school, church, or medical attention. Helen's education was intermittent and haphazard, but she finished high school in Alice in 1917 and went on to attend the University of Texas for a year, earning a teacher's certificate and becoming keenly interested in woman suffrage. During the summer of 1918 she taught on La Partición Ranch in southern Jim Hogg County. And when in July of that year the first primary election in which Texas women were allowed to vote was held, Helen rode horseback for thirty miles to Hebbronville to cast her vote. In the fall of 1918, she started teaching eighty first and second graders in Hebbronville. Most of her students did not speak English, but school rules prohibited her from teaching in Spanish (which she spoke). In March 1919 she left teaching to work as a temporary county and district clerk of Jim Hogg County, a position to which she was later elected, and which she held until 1923. While she was working at the courthouse she met Texas Ranger (and later sheriff) Pelton Bruce Harbison. They married on December 24, 1921. In 1928 she and "Mr. Pell" moved to a ranch they bought a few miles south of Hebbronville, where they reared one son and five daughters. In 1942 the Harbisons moved to Austin to give their children better educational opportunities, but they returned to Hebbronville a year later, dissatisfied with city life. After her husband's death on August 5, 1956, Helen operated the ranch for almost thirty years. At first she ran a successful dairy farm; in the mid-1970s she turned to raising beef. In addition, she found time to write poetry and review books, and was in demand as a speaker at community affairs in Hebbronville and Jim Hogg County. She was a staunch supporter of the Hebbronville Methodist Church, whose chapel she kept filled with blossoms from her award-winning flower garden. She died of a heart attack at the Harbison ranch on November 23, 1985.
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The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.
Maud Truitt Gilliland, Horsebackers of the Brush Country (Brownsville: Springman-King, 1968). Ada Morehead Holland, Brush Country Woman (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1988).
Ranching and Cowboys
Activism and Social Reform
Patrons, Collectors, and Philanthropists
Ranchers and Cattlemen
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Ada Morehead Holland,
“Harbison, Helen Sewell,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed May 21, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
September 1, 1995
Most Recent Revision Date:
November 30, 2019
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: