Author: John LaRue
When William Taylor Barnes was born on December 14, 1829, in Howard County, Missouri,
his father, John, was 39 years of age and his mother, Mildred Ann “Milly” Hulen, was 36. William married Sarah Ann Blain on September 13, 1849, in
Buchanan County, Missouri. They had 12 children in 24 years. William died on February 29, 1892,
in Dixie, Walla Walla County, Washington State, at the age of 62, and was subsequently buried in the Dixie Town Cemetery.
Mr. Barnes came into this world the last of five children and his siblings were all girls. His parents owned and operated a farm in Bonne Femme Township, Howard County. William’s father passed away after William’s sixth birthday and his mother died a year later leaving their children orphans. William’s parents were considered wealthy at death and their children were heirs to a reasonable estate. The Court appointed Johnson Walker as guardian for the young boy and the guardian farmed out William to one of the guardian’s sons who lived several counties away. Farming out is a rural custom of child labor where the minor is given room and board in exchange for his labor. At the age of eight years, William was orphaned, separated from his sisters and living with strangers. This was a heavy emotional burden for any child.
Six years slowly passed before William fled his sad situation, probably staying with his mother’s relatives in Missouri. Missouri law permits a minor to choose his own guardian at the age of sixteen. William selected his brother-in-law, John Reed LaRue of Randolph County, Missouri, to represent him. Together, they filed suit against Johnson Walker in Howard County seeking to gain control of the estate of William’s parents. They found that there was nothing left of the property that William had inherited. Johnson Walker had squandered it all and then declared bankruptcy. Thus, William Taylor Barnes was left with no resources to begin his new life other than his own devices.
In 1847, during the Mexican-American War, William was employed as a teamster on an Army wagon train hauling supplies to the American troops in Mexico. This involved some danger. On 22 February of 1847, mounted guerrillas had attacked a wagon train containing some 110 wagons and 300 pack mules just five miles outside the undefended hamlet of Ramos, Mexico, which was some seventy-five miles northeast of Monterrey, Mexico. While a portion of the attackers surrounded the guards posted at the front of the column, others went directly for the wagons. During the short skirmish, the guerillas killed approximately fifty teamsters, drove off the survivors, forced the guards to surrender, and captured most of the supplies. William avoided such combat and by 1848, had returned to Missouri unharmed.
On September 12, 1849, he married Sarah A. Blain in St. Joseph, Missouri. Sarah’s parents had passed away in Missouri while traveling west leaving Sarah and her sibling’s orphans. Upon marriage William, an orphan himself assumed guardianship of Sarah’s twelve-year-old sister as well. In 1850, William made a six-month journey to Santa Fe, New Mexico on a commercial wagon train, employed by a trading company. From his accumulated savings, William was able to purchase land in Holt County, Missouri, where he took up farming.
In the spring of 1852 the extended family of William’s aunt, Charlotte Hulen Nolan resolved to move west along the Oregon Trail. With his considerable experience in wagon train travel, William was a welcomed addition to the group. William’s family packed up their possessions and made ready to travel to Oregon. Eighteen fifty-two was a particularly trying year on the Oregon Trail. Cholera and famine stocked the emigrants that summer, leaving a trail of graves along the route. William and Sarah’s first child passed away as the wagon train arrived at The Dalles, along the Columbia River in Oregon.
Arrival, in the Willamette River Valley in Oregon, did not end the emigrant’s trials, for they were poor, and provisions were scarce and expensive. That winter of 1853 potatoes sold for $8 per bushel, while poor flour was eagerly taken at $25 for one hundred pounds. Families subsisted on what they could get, and the frost-bitten, outside leaves of cabbage were not to be disdained. Bran, no longer given to the cattle, fed the hungry emigrants. Despite the hardships, William’s family settled in Forest Grove, Washington County,
and began farming.
William remained in Oregon until 1864 when new land became available for settlement in what was to become Washington State. Recent Indian hostilities had subsided, and a treaty was signed allowing Americans to own farmland. William settled permanently in Walla Walla County on Dry Creek, twelve miles east of Walla Walla City. In 1865 the Walla Walla Valley had not been settled long enough for the productivity of the farmland to be evaluated. In that year William plowed and sowed forty acres in wheat. Many of his neighbors doubted the wisdom of his decision. The result, at harvest, showed a yield of 40 bushels of wheat to the acre. Soon William and most of his neighbors became wealthy from wheat farming. Indeed, the Palouse Hills, just north of the Walla
Walla Valley boasts some of the most productive farmlands in the United States. Wheat has been cultivated there for over one hundred years with nary a crop failure. William and Sarah’s joint labors gave them a home containing 680 acres of land, 400 acres of which are enclosed and 300 under cultivation.
In politics, Mr. Barnes was a Democrat and both he and Mrs. Barnes were charter members of The First Christian Church of Dixie, Washington. This church boasts the oldest functioning church building still standing in Washington State. The surroundings and rough experience that Mr. Barnes suffered were such as would have ruined a man of weak character. That such was not the result is evidence of moral and intellectual strength born to the youth and developed in the man. William was so well respected that he was twice elected to the Walla Walla County Board of Commissioners, and in 1876, to the Washington Territorial Legislature. Unlike the Barnes family reputation in Kentucky and Missouri, in Washington State, the Barnes name is held in high esteem.
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