One Side by Himself: The Life and Times of Lewis Barney, 1808-1894

One Side by Himself: The Life and Times of Lewis Barney, 1808-1894

One Side by Himself: The Life and Times of Lewis Barney, 1808-1894

One Side by Himself: The Life and Times of Lewis Barney, 1808-1894

Excerpt

A frontier preacher in 1831, writing from American civilization’s fringe in western Missouri, described to an eastern religious superior a strange characteristic of some who settled in his vicinity, at society’s edge. Rather than welcoming the development and civilizing effects of community-building, he said, “To live in the midst of a neighborhood thickly populated is to them very disagreeable.” From their youth this type had become “accustomed to live one side by themselves.” The preacher, characterizing the hardy lot who shunned everything urban and wrested their livelihoods from pristine landscape, could have been describing the nineteenth-century family of Lewis Barney. Barney’s grandfather and father—Luther and Charles—set the pattern in New England, New York, and Ohio, progressively moving westward in search of land compatible to their inclinations. And parroting his father’s and grandfather’s dispositions, Lewis Barney carried the trait through Illinois, Iowa, and then into the vast western interior. After nearly a half-century in the West, Barney could have claimed, before his death in southwestern Colorado, to have helped establish for settlement ten valleys in Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado. Rarely content, generally on the move, or calculating their next option, he and his family shunned the trappings of genteel society for the back edge of progress which marked Lewis Barney’s domestic practice throughout his life.

The Barneys’ preference for civilization’s perimeter does not indicate reclusive dispositions. Instead, this family lived in an age and in a land when boundaries were more abstract in both theory and reality than today. There was a significant draw to a segment of America’s populace for this terrestrial territory and landscape of the mind—the frontier. Western historian Ray Allen Billington has stated that there has been in the American past “a geographic region adjacent to the unsettled portions of the continent in which a low manland ratio” defines the region and the people who live there. Far from being a place of limitations, Billington continues, the frontier had instead “unusually abundant, unexploited, natural resources [providing] an exceptional opportunity for social and economic betterment” to those who followed its siren call. And while there were many on the frontier who found “social and economic betterment” elusive, tens of thousands gambled with that hope. “Like locusts they swarmed, always to the west,” summarized Walter Prescott Webb, “and only the Pacific Ocean stopped them.”

America’s frontier phenomenon lasted from the first of the 1600s to the last of the 1800s, roughly three hundred years. A defining feature of the concept of . . .

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