Biography of Thomas Jefferson Barker

Thomas Jefferson Barker. The history of Kansas is a generalization of the histories of thousands of individuals whose character and activities made the state what it is. Hardly one of those individuals came into closer touch with the adventures and exciting realities of pioneer times than the late Thomas Jefferson Barker, who was a pioneer of old Wyandotte and for many years one of the leading business men of Kansas City, Kansas. Mr. Barker died at his home in Kansas City, Kansas, August 4, 1913, and was then nearly eighty-five years of age.

He was born in Bedford County, Virginia, December 11, 1828. The Barkers were early settlers in the old Commonwealth of Virginia. His great-grandfather James Barker was one of the Virginia colonials who followed Washington as a somewhat despised contingent of the British regimentals under General Braddock into the western wilds of Pennsylvania, and was present at Braddock’s defeat at the hands of the French and Indiana. It is believed that this same James Barker afterwards fought with the colonial troops in the War of the Revolution. Mr. Barker’s grandfather was Jacob Barker, a native of Richmond, Virginia, and the father was William A. Barker, who was born in Albermarle County, Virginia, March 14, 1796. William A. Barker was a soldier during the War of 1812. William A. Barker married Sarah Hobbs, who was born in Bedford County, Virginia, in 1800 a daughter of James Hobbs who came from England to Virginia about 1794. James Hobbs had fought with the English troops in the East Indies, but after becoming an American citizen enlisted to serve in the American army during the War of 1812. William A. Barker and wife had seven sons and one daughter, among whom Thomas J. was the sixth.

These children were reared in conditions closely approximating poverty. The parents were poor, and it not infrequently occurred that the children went without shoes when snow was on the ground. William A. Barker from 1818 to 1823 was employed as a slave driver for Captain Ed Pate. In 1823 he suffered paralysis from his hips down, and he lived an invalid until his death in 1837. Thus he left his widow and children to make their own way in the world.

Thomas J. Barker when his father died was only nine years of age. All the schooling he ever had could have been covered in six months time. Nevertheless he made wise use of books, his opportunities to mingle with men and affairs, and in his later life was accounted well read and well posted.

After the death of the father the family removed to Mercer County in what is now West Virginia. That first year was one of poor crops, and Thomas J. Barker at the age of eleven left home to make his own way and also contribute something to the expenses of the household. He was employed at wages of $4 a month by Anderson Peck, and during the second and third years worked at $8.33 a month. Leaving his old locality he went down the Kanawha River to Kanawha, Virginia, and there found employment with Augustus Peck at wages of $25 a month and board. He worked in Mr. Peck’s store. Mr. Peck had various stores in that vicinity and young Barker was employed in the one located at Big Coal in Boone County, and also had charge of the postoffice. Later he was made manager of the store in Brownstown.

While thus engaged he reached his twenty-first birthday. About that time he was advised by a friend to go to the gold fields of California, where wages as high as $10 a day were paid. With this in view he set out, going by the Panama route. At Chagris, Panama, he was taken ill with fever and returned to the States. He spent some time in recuperating in his old home at Brownstown.

In April, 1855, he again started West, and again his destination was California. His companion was John Stanley of Mercer County, Virginia. They engaged passage on the steamboat Salem at Brownstown, proceeded down the river to Cincinnati, thence took a boat to St. Louis, stopping at the Virginia Hotel. There Mr. Barker found on the register the name Henry Clay Pate. He proved to be the son of the man for whom his father had previously worked. Introducing himself and his friend to Mr. Pate, it was soon found that Mr. Pate and party were on their way to Kansas for the purpose of swelling the emigration from the South and making Kansas a slave state. Barker and Stanley were requested to go along, and consequently the trip to California was abandoned and the entire party embarked on the Golden State, a large side wheeler which carried them up the Missouri River to what is now Kansas City. There Mr. Pate and party left the boat, but Stanley and Mr. Barker continued on to Weston, Missouri. There he applied for employment with a Mr. Byrnes, but he having nothing to offer, they continued on to Fort Leavenworth. From there they went to Leavenworth, which was then a town of about 1,000 population, and the main distributing point for Kansas. Here Mr. Barker secured work as cook with a party of United States surveyors under Col. Charles Manners, who had the contract to survey part of the Kansas-Nebraska line. Mr. Barker remained with that surveying party from April to December, 1855. Others in the party were John Stont, William Manners, brother of Colonel Manners, R. L. Reem, Jr., Norman Deifendorf, Mr. Wiley, Mr. Garland, Mr. Hoyt, Mr. Cunningham, Mr. Keller. The party left Leavenworth about May 4th with two teams and wagons. Part of the equipment carried was a cast iron monument which was to be placed at the point previously selected by Gen. Robert E. Lee for the United States Government. Crossing the river at Weston they proceeded up the Missouri side through St. Joseph and Oregon, then recrossed the river on the ferry run by an old Indian where White Cloud is now located. Two miles below that point they set up the monument, which is still standing. That was placed on May 10, 1855. Colonel Manners, who had been an old sea captain, took great pains to be accurate in all his measurements and observations. He spent two days in getting the east and west lines both by sun observations and by comparisons with the north star. From there the party proceeded at the rate of three miles a day, and arrived at a point sixty miles west on June 2. From there they returned to Leavenworth for supplies, and on the return some of the party quit, and their places were filled by others. On the 7th of June they reached the meridian and there began work running a line twenty-four miles north, thence to the Missouri River, then again returning to the guide meridian and proceeding north another twenty-four miles and again east to the river. That took them to a point about a mile and a half north of where Nebraska City now stands. In the meantime Mr. Barker became afflicted with malaria fever, and after recuperating took the stage for the month of Platte River. While there he heard that a party of Pawnee Indians had surrounded and killed about half of the surveying party while the remainder had returned to Nebraska City. He joined his old comrades at Nebraska City, and on organizing and returning to the spot where the other half of the party were reported to have been killed by the Indians, they found the report only partially true. The Indians had surrounded them, but the surveyors were as yet unharmed. About the 10th of September Colonel Manners finished surveying the third parallel to the mouth of Platte River, then again returned to the guide meridian, and crossed the Platte a few hundred feet below where the fourth parallel started. About that time twenty-seven Pawnee Indian chiefs demanded that the colonel stop surveying, since he was on Indian land, which the chiefs could not allow him to steal. Colonel Manners persisted in carrying out his instructions, when 500 Indians suddenly sprang up as if by magic and again demanded through interpreters that the work must cease at once, otherwise the chiefs could not be responsible for the actions of their younger men. The Indians were so thoroughly aroused and hostile, that the surveying party took discretion as the better part of valor and desisted from their task and returned to Omaha. Here Colonel Manners called upon the Indian agent of the Pawnees, and then with two wagons loaded with provisions, lead and powder, and the Indian missionary, they all hurried back to the Pawnee village. An Indian council was held and the agent informed the chief that the Great Father considered buying their lands and had sent this party merely to look it over, measure and value it, and promised that otherwise no disturbance of Indian rights would be made. The chiefs were mollified, and the surveyors finished the work of the fourth parallel, which reached the Missouri River eight miles above Omaha.

Again Mr. Barker was taken ill, and he then had to give up work with the surveying outfit altogether. His next position was digging potatoes for a Mr. Byers, who was also a surveyor. Mr. Byers treated Mr. Barker very kindly and promised him some work in subdividing land. He finally, however, determined to rejoin the surveying party, and started on foot, reaching Colonel Manners and his party at Decatur. On the 30th of November, 1855, the last cornerstone was set, and on top of it was planted a United States flag. Then on the first of December they all started south again, and reached Council Bluffs. From there Mr. Barker, Mr. Wright and Edward Kelly continued to Leavenworth and after many delays and difficulties caused by snow and ice arrived opposite Fort Leavenworth on December 18th. On the 27th of December, 1855, Mr. Barker reached the old Town of Wyandotte, with the ground covered by two feet of snow. Here he was paid off and given his discharge from the surveying work. For a time he remained with the old hotel keeper, Brown, and in January engaged to cook in the Brown Hotel, having two Wyandotte Indians for assistants. This hotel was a log house on Fourth and State streets, and bore the name Catfish Hotel, owing to the preponderance of that fish on the menu. Later Mr. Barker assisted Mr. Jenks as chainman in the work of subdividing three fractional townships in what is now Wyandotte County. He then returned to his hotel work, and afterwards joined Mr. Stuck, who had a contract to subdivide several townships in Johnson County. He was leaving to take up that work when a letter arrived through the postoffice informing him of the death of his brother-in-law. Mr. Stuck then released him and he spent several weeks in looking after the needs of his sister.

Again he was at work as a cook at $1 a day, and it was a long day, from six in the morning until ten at night. On one occasion six Indians under the influence of liquor were at the table, and in a melee which ensued Mr. Barker was struck on the head with a barrel stave and left for dead. In spite of extreme suffering he lived, and had the best of care from his many friends. Before he fully recovered he was engaged as a cutter of wood patterns for Isaac Zane, the noted blind inventor of Kansas City, Kansas, who was experimenting on perpetual motion machines. Leaving that employment he became a wood chopper and cleared up the ground where the high school now stands in Kansas City. Not long after that he visited his old home in Virginia, and on returning was again engaged by Mr. Brown in the hotel and also drove an ox team. His next employer was Izaha Walker, who had been instrumental in saving his life when the Indians attacked him in the hotel. Mr. Walker owned the store and ferry at Wyandotte, and Mr. Barker became clerk in the store. In 1856 he bought a half interest in the business, and the postoffice was kept in the same building and he had to handle the mail. That old landmark is still standing, 328 Nebraska Avenue.

On April 7, 1857, Mr. Barker was appointed postmaster under President Buchanan. The postoffice was then known as Wyandotte, Leavenworth County, Kansas Territory. The mail was carried on regular routes only as far as Kansas City, Missouri, and from that point it was brought to Wyandotte by trustworthy citizens coming and going between the two towns. In 1858 a stage coach was put in operation between Kansas City, Missouri, and Leavenworth, and that brought the mail regularly every day to Wyandotte. For the first six months the contents of the mail bag was about twelve letters received and sent and about the same number of newspapers. In the fall of 1858 Mr. Barker built a structure at the southeast corner of Third and Nebraska streets and moved the postoffice to that point. In 1861 he was recommissioned postmaster by Montgomery Blair, the postmaster-general in Mr. Lincoln’s cabinet. He filled that office until April, 1863, when R. B. Taylor was appointed and took the office. In those early years the receipts of the local postoffice ran between $200 and $480 a year. In fact so meager was the amount of mail that Mr. Barker frequently carried it about in his hat and delivered letters as he found the addressees on the streets.

The Quindaro Townsite Company had built a steamboat named the Otis Webb for the purpose of navigating the Kaw River, from Quindaro as a base. This plan failed, and the boat was subsequently wrecked on the Platte River. In 1863 Mr. Barker bought the wreck and started to remove the machinery, but soon found the machinery had been sold to another man, and Mr. Barker was therefore reimbursed for his original outlay.

He was one of the defenders of Kansas against the Price raid during the war. A short time before that raid was made he went to Leavenworth and drew out what money he had on deposit in the bank, and on his way home was followed by two men who evidently had intentions of highway robbery, but he managed to clude them. During 1864 he found employment in clearing up wood and getting out ties for the Missouri River Railway, now Missouri Pacific Railway. During the war he was a member of the Twenty-third Kansas Militia, serving as quartermaster sergeant in Company A under Izaha Walker and also under Captain Chenault.

In 1865 Mr. Barker married Mary Ellen Hall, daughter of Capt. John L. and Frances (French) Hall. Mrs. Barker was born in New Hampshire and had come to Kansas with her parents in 1857. Her father was a steamboat captain and he and Mr. Barker were associated in a number of business enterprises. To Mr. and Mrs. Barker were born three children, one of whom died at the age of eight years. The two still living are Thomas J. Barker, Jr., and James Edward Barker.

Not only through the pioneer activities already outlined but in many other ways Thomas Jefferson Barker was one of the most influential upbuilders of Kansas City, Kansas. After Wyandotte County was set off from Leavenworth County he served as one of the first county clerks. He was a democrat politically and was elected a member of the State Legislature on that ticket to represent Wyandotte County, at first in 1866 and again in 1880. He was in the Legislature when the prohibition law was passed and he was a strong advocate of that measure. For a time he was also deputy county treasurer and a member of the school board. Every school and every church established during his time in Kansas City, Kansas, was an institution in which he took a keen interest, and many times he was directly an aid to such improvements. Personally he was a man of modest demeanor, quiet and resourceful, and never sought any of the conspienous honors of politics or public life.

The foundation of his business prosperity was laid as a lumberman. He conducted a sawmill at Indian Springs, and from its operation he made the money which enabled him to invest in steamboat lines and in extensive tracts of land. At one time he owned a thousand acres of laud and a great amount of city property in and around Wyandotts. He was a man of wonderful generosity, an excellent judge of human nature and benefited many men by the employment which he furnished and also by assisting many in getting a start in the world. At one time he was president of the Argentine State Bank, and was also president of the Wyandotte National Bank and was otherwise prominent in financial affairs. In 1875 he engaged in the real estate business and subsequently took in his sons as partners, making the firm T. J. Barker & Sons, one of the oldest and most reliable firms of that kind in Kansas City. One of the last improvements he made was the construction of a building on Minnesota Avenue next to the postoffice, erected in 1906.

At the time of his death he was the oldest member of the Masonic Order in Kansas, having been elevated to the Master’s degrees in 1857. Mrs. Barker is still living.

Both the sons were liberally educated, having finished their education in Vanderbilt University at Nashville, Tonnessee. Edward Barker studied law in Kansas. Thomas J. Barker, Jr., after completing his education took up a business career, was bookkeeper and assistant cashier in the Wyandotte State Bank, and in 1908 joined his father in business. Thomas J. Barker, Jr., married Catherine C. Rogers. They are the parents of four children: Thomas J., Roger Lee, Clara Beatrice, now Mrs. Alvin Evans of Kansas City, Kansas; and Edward Delbert.

Edward Barker, who married Caroline Mott, is one of the prominent lawyers of Kansas City, Kansas. He was appointed commissioner on the water board by Major Guyer in 1909 and rendered a valuable service in rehabilitating that plant after it came under municipal ownership. Both sons are active Masons, and Thomas J., Jr., has attained the thirty-second degree of the Scottish Rite, and belongs to the Mystic Shrine at Leavenworth. Thomas J. Barker and wife and his mother are active members of the South Methodist Church, and he is a steward and since 1899 has been treasurer.



Connelley, William E. A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans. Chicago : Lewis, 1918. 5v. Biographies can be accessed from this page: Kansas and Kansans Biographies.

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