Posts Tagged 'general theodore h. barrett'

“This is America; if the people are true to themselves, no room for force is necessary in this contest.”

I mentioned finding the speech General Theodore Harvey Barrett made to the National Farmers’ Alliance in 1887. I don’t have all of the historical context, but this passage seems eerily prescient and applicable, and I offer it as my last post before Thanksgiving:

Back of all this machinery which penetrates every corner of the continent — nay, every quarter of the globe, sit a few men in numbers, constantly growing less — who directs its operations. They are men of power. In their offices are key-boards, and from the keys wires have been strung into all the habitable zones and under all the oceans. By a touch of the keys they may influence the fortunes for good or evil, of vast numbers of people on more continents than one.

No men, however honest or capable they may be, ought to be entrusted by a free people with such tremendous power.

Nor can a people who, under such circumstances, quietly submit to the abuses which have been heaped upon the people of many sections of the country for the last few years, long remain free. The machinery of a great republic and all the forms of freedom may for a time remain; but unless the people look well to the future, the substance will have gone out to return no more. In this changing civilization… let not the people be deceived, it is liberty that is at stake. The institutions which our fathers made are able to protect the people in this new crisis if they shall be able to resist that corruption, degarding influence which whispers its serpent hiss into the ears of every many whom it desires to control. This is America; if the people are true to themselves, no room for force is necessary in this contest. They can lawfully combat and tramp beneath their feet this last, and if unchecked, soon to become to greatest, most perfect, most dangerous system of centralized power that civilization has yet produced. The father would have no kings — no House of Lords — they said in so many words “There shall be no nobility.” In the hands of the great body of people they left the political power… It is for this generation to complete the work.

– General Theodore H. Barrett, Address delivered before the National Farmers’ Alliance at its Seventh Annual Meeting Held in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Tuesday, October 4th, 1887.


In which the footnote to history perhaps gets its own body paragraph

There are times when people question why I have a blog. Particularly in the early days, my wife wavered from not understanding why anybody would ever have one to actively resenting the existence of the entire medium from time to time. Some fellow academics have (correctly) warned that you have to be very careful about what you post lest a journal down the road decide that you’re the person they’re going to take a hard line on with respect to how “previously published” is defined. Particularly in those moments when I feel burdened by a lack of time to put up posts, there are times when it just seems it would be better to take it down. Then, at other times, I realize that it’s very useful as a way of developing writing discipline, a way of spitballing certain kinds of ideas (even if it’s best to not fully develop them here), and that even if I’m not Rod Dreher and can just put up five 3,000 word essays a day before I’ve even finished my first cup of coffee, there’s a utility to keeping it up, even if I do so irregularly.

Then, every so often, there are other things that happen that make me glad that I have the blog.

Earlier this week, I got an e-mail from one Michael Kukowski, who had come across my earlier post on my great-great-grandfather, General Theodore H. Barrett. He believed he was in possession of a letter written by Theodore, dated 22 July 1871 from Fort Arbuckle, “Indian Territory” (now Oklahoma). The letter is requesting equipment for the effort of the initial survey of the Territory, making the document a witness, as Michael put it, to “the literal birth of Oklahoma”.

Initially, however, it seemed like perhaps there had been a mistake. The letter was actually signed “T. H.”, not Theodore, and a timeline to Oklahoma history that Michael pointed me to referenced the survey work being done by Thomas Barrett, not Theodore. A quick Google search did turn up mentions of “Theodore Barrett” as the surveyor, but it was enough to generate questions. I had also never heard of Theodore doing any surveying, so I wasn’t quite sure what to do with all of this.

So, like the good historian I aspire to be, it was time to check my sources. As it happens, I have in my possession a scan of a different letter that we know was written by Theodore in 1889, so there was a handwriting sample against which Michael’s letter could be compared. I also knew that I had seen a fairly extensive obituary for Theodore at some point, but since my dad, uh, appropriatedall of the stuff his aunt Frances sent me all those years ago (“What are you doing with that? She must have meant to send that to me, not you. Why would she send it to you? I’d like it back, please.”), I didn’t have recourse to it. I started to see if there might be an electronic version of it anywhere, and curiously, I came up with — of all things — an listing for a publication called “Gen. Theo. H. Barrett: Address Delivered before the National Farmer’s Alliance At It’s Seventh Annual Meeting Held at Minneapolis, Minnesota, Tuesday, October 4th, 1887”, AKA “Address to the American People”, published in an undated (but no earlier than 1900) “memorial edition” by the Morris Tribune of Morris, Minnesota. I remembered this being referenced in Frances’ materials, and it seemed like it might be worthwhile to track down. Amazon listed it as, surprise of surprises, “Presently unavailable”, but it occurred to me that if Amazon listed it, maybe WorldCat might be able to find it, in which case I might be able to get it via interlibrary loan.

WorldCat listed two libraries in the world that have a copy: The Minnesota Historical Society Library, and — wait, what? — yes, no kidding, Indiana University.

Two libraries in the whole world. Sometimes, I tell you, it’s just clear to me that there are no accidents.

Within 24 hours, I had IU’s copy of the booklet in my hands. I appear to be the first person to have ever checked it out. It was just waiting for me.

The pamphlet is prefaced with a biographical sketch of Theodore, and it contains the following helpful information:

[Barrett] taught school for a short time and at the age of 19 [~1854] went to Wheeling, Virginia, where he engaged at surveying. He came to the then territory of Minnesota in 1856, and engaged in the practice of his profession, surveying, until 1862… [Following the Civil War,] General Barrett was mustered out of the service on the 19th day of January 1866 at which time he was brevetted Brigadier-General of the United States Volunteers, to take rank from March 13, 1865. After he was mustered out of the service he returned to Minnesota, and was for several years engaged in surveying the Government lands in Minnesota, Dakota, Canada, Oklahoma, Texas and the Indian Territory (emphasis mine).

So, there you have it. The other part of the happy ending is that Michael sent me a scan of his letter, and the handwriting on the two letters matched. So, yes, no question it’s the same Theodore. My great-great-grandfather invented Oklahoma.

The address is actually a fascinating little document on several levels. I plan on scanning it before returning it to the library, and I’m also really curious to contact the Morris Tribune (which still runs) to see if they have either any archival copies or any documents related to its publication. There seems to be a particular historical circumstance that he’s responding to in his speech, and I don’t feel like I know enough about what it is, but much of what he says seems applicable to present circumstances. I will perhaps more to say about that later.

In any event, while I’m definitely not a Civil War historian or an American historian by any means, I’m still a historian, and there’s part of me that is curious to see if there’s enough here for an article, particularly given the raw deal the history books have given Theodore when they do see fit to make mention of him. Michael wants to put the letter in a museum, possibly in Barrett, MN, and while I don’t know that they’ll have the right kind of facility for it, it would be great if it could wind up there. We’ll see.

In any event — these are the kinds of things that make me glad I write a blog. Thanks very much, Michael!

Feeling Minnesota: In which the author discusses being the descendant of a footnote to history

Sometime around 1990, I got to meet my dad’s aunt Frances. He hadn’t seen her in about thirty years; we met her in Edmonds, Washington at the condominium of my grandmother Irene (affectionately known as “Mimi”). I remember the evening very clearly; she talked a lot about writing her memoirs, and about my great-great-grandfather, Theodore H. Barrett, who had commanded a battalion of African American soldiers for the North in the Civil War. (Not having seen it yet, we briefly wondered if perhaps the movie Glory had been about him.) It turned out that a small town in Minnesota had grown up around the ranch Theodore had built after his military service, and was named for the general. Shortly thereafter, Frances passed away, but I never forgot that evening.

Seven years ago, on my way from Seattle to Bloomington, Indiana to re-start my junior year at the IU School of Music (it wasn’t yet called “Jacobs”), I made it a point to pass through Barrett. It’s about two hours or so west of the Twin Cities, and somewhat off the beaten path, but as I had never had a reason to go to Minnesota before and wasn’t sure when I would have another, I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to connect somehow with my family’s past.

There wasn’t exactly a ton to see, particularly since it was past business hours and getting dark, but I was able to get a picture taken of me in front of the post office. I had always been curious to know if I had any relatives still in the area; the phone book didn’t show any Barretts still nearby. I would have stayed there for the night, or at least stopped and had dinner there, had there been any places open that offered that kind of service, but alas, nothing seemed to be operating.

Over the years, I tried digging into the other branches of the Barrett family to see if there was anybody out there to try to connect with; General Theodore had three children, two sons and a daughter, but I only knew about children that my dad’s grandfather, Theodore Sedgwick Barrett, had had. A copy of an obituary for the other son, Richardson Damon Barrett, indicated that he had stayed in Minnesota and had had a son, Roger, but there were no other details mentioned. The daughter, Georgia Barrett, was a mystery — no details about her seemed available at all. I discovered through a Google search that General Theodore was actually something of an infamous figure for Civil War historians, having led the North (and lost) in the Battle of Palmito Ranch, the last battle of the Civil War — fought some five weeks after Appomattox. I briefly mentioned this to a friend who is a Civil War buff, and he smiled and said, “I know exactly who your great-great-grandfather is. Pleased to know a descendant of General Barrett!”

A couple of weeks ago, I discovered that Barrett, Minnesota had a website. It didn’t mention anything about the history of the town, but links concerning the Old Settlers’ Reunion and the Historical Photo Project piqued my curiosity. I sent the city office a note identifying myself as a descendant of the general’s, asking if they were going to have any exhibits about Theodore or his life, and if they had any information about other descendants.

I got a very nice reply from Marita Rhude in the city office, and she put me in touch with Patricia Benson of the Grant County Historical Society. She sent me a scan of a handwritten document provided by none other than my dad’s Aunt Frances that detailed everything about Theodore’s descendants, as well as several photos — of him, his estate, and some of the tribe. One thing that was immediately clear is that the reason why I wasn’t finding out much about Barretts in other branches of the family is because, well, there wasn’t really much to know. Richardson Damon’s son Roger had a daughter, Deborah; Theodore’s daughter, Georgia, had no children. Theodore Sedgwick’s three children were my grandfather Jack, my dad’s aunt Frances, and then another son, Theodore Sylvester. Frances married and had two sons and a daughter; Theodore had no children. The sons of Jack’s sons, that is, myself and my uncle George’s sons, represent the last generation of Barretts descended from Theodore. There is no “greater Barrett family” outside of those of us descended from Jack.

One of the pictures Ms. Benson sent me that was remarkable is from 1959 — it’s my dad’s grandfather, Theodore Sedgwick, his son Theodore Sylvester, and Richardson Damon’s son Roger. What strikes me about it is that Roger and Theodore Sylvester both unquestionably look like Barrett men to me. Roger looks a lot like the pictures I’ve seen of my grandfather Jack, and certainly bears a strong resemblance to my dad and my uncle George. My dad’s senior picture is posted here so that this might be obvious. Theodore Sylvester also has that going on, and curiously enough he also looks a lot like my aunt Pip, the youngest of my dad’s sisters.

Dick Barrett as a high school senior

I’m in the processing of circulating all of these photos to my family — my dad says that he only met his grandfather Theodore once, when he was around 13 years old. He was already blind, and he thought that Dad was my uncle George. Georgianna, Theodore’s wife and my dad’s grandmother, had died when she was still quite young, and none of the kids ever met her. Beyond that, it seems he never knew or heard about any of these people. It sort of makes me wonder how intentional that may have been — did Jack head up to Alaska to get away from his family? Hard to say, and I’m not sure there’s anybody left alive who can help fill in the gaps.

I’d really like to thank Marita Rhude in the Barrett city office and Patricia Benson of the Grant County Historical Society for their generosity and their time, and I’d also like to encourage anybody with a mind to do so to help out with the Historical Photo Project. If you stumble across this blog post and discover that you know anything more about these people or this place, I’d love to hear about it; drop me a line at rrbarret (AT)

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