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Visscher Barnes

Early Probate Judge, Vice-President of the Temperance Society, and first director of the school board in De Smet.

“Oh, he’s going in for politics, I guess,” said Pa. “He acts that way, affable and agreeable to everybody…”. – Little Town on the Prairie, Chapter 8, “Fourth of July”

Visscher Vere Barnes was born February 11, 1851, in Rensselaer (Albany County) New York, eldest child of Samuel and Catherine (Hale) Barnes. When a young boy, Visscher’s family moved to Kenosha County, Wisconsin. He graduated from the normal school in Oshkosh, and taught school in Wisconsin prior to attending Oberlin University in Ohio. He graduated with honors from Yale Law School and did post-graduate work in Chicago.

The Settlement of De Smet. In September 1879, Visscher Barnes filed on a homestead near De Smet, the SW 28-111-56, located just south of Eliza Jane Wilder’s claim. Although forty acres of Barnes’ homestead was platted as Barnes Addition to the town of De Smet, it has remained as farmland to this day.

When Charles Ingalls wrote about the settlement of De Smet, he included the following: “V.V. Barnes came about the 12th of March 1880 with some lumber for a shanty on his claim 1/2 mile west of De Smet. He put up his shanty and went to bed in it. He had blankets with him and a thermometer which he hung up by the head of his bed. in the morning when he awoke and looked at the thermometer it was 12 degrees below zero. I well remember seeing him coming across the prairie towards the [surveyors’] house and you may be sure he did not come slow.”

Visscher Barnes was one of the charter members of the Congregational Church in De Smet, he conducted Sunday school classes, and he served as deacon. He was the first school board director of the De Smet town school, and later served as its clerk, resigning in 1883.

As Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote in Little Town on the Prairie, Visscher Barnes did indeed “go in for politics.” He was appointed probate judge of Kingsbury County at the first meeting held in 1880, and served as city attorney for De Smet. He was a member of the Dakota Territory house of representatives and served as a member of the provisional senate of South Dakota. He was also United States commissioner for South Dakota. Barnes was appointed by the attorney general of South Dakota to prosecute cases under the prohibition law.

After moving to Illinois in the 1890s, Barnes served as city attorney for both Lake Bluff and Zion City. He ran for governor of Illinois in 1900 and was Zion City town judge from 1904-1907. Visscher Barnes continued to practice law until his death.

Visscher Barnes was married three times and had two children born in Dakota Territory: Mary “Mamie” Barnes (1879) and Paul Barnes (1883). In her Pioneer Girl memoir, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote that she sat with Mrs. Barnes’ baby so that she could attend Sunday evening church services. Mrs. Barnes during the Little House years was the former Mary LaBelle Evans (born 1852), daughter of Mary Ann (Mason) and Henry Evans; she was born in Williamsville (Erie County) New York. Mary and Visscher were married January 13, 1876. She died in New York in 1895.

Visscher Barnes died in Waukegan, Illinois on September 27, 1924, and was buried at Kenosha, Wisconsin. His obituary in the De Smet News read:

V.V. Barnes Dies; Lived at Zion City. / Death at Waukegan, Illinois Follows Operation. / Was Noted as Attorney. Founder of Zion City; Later Private Practice.

V.V. Barnes, pioneer of De Smet, and an attorney at Zion City since leaving here, died September 27 at a hospital in Waukegan, Ill., following a surgical operation. He was 73 years of age and had been in ill health for some time.

Mr. Barnes attained some prominence thru acting attorney for the Zion City leader, John Alexander Dowie, from the founding of the city to the death of Mr. Dowie.

V.V. Barnes came to De Smet in 1880, taking as a claim the present F.P. Hardy farm. Later forty acres of it was platted as Barnes addition.

In 1882 Mr. Barnes was elected as probate judge and he resigned in the fall of 1883 owing to ill health. His brother, Will Barnes, was appointed in his place. Mr. Barnes was a very active worker in the local Congregational church, of which he was a charter member and an early deacon. He served in the territorial legislature before division of the two Dakotas.

Going to Zion City with Mr. Dowie, Mr. Barnes served as legal advisor to him, and in 1903 was appointed city judge, said to be the first city judge in Illinois. After the death of Dowie, Mr. Barnes remained in Zion City in private practice, but had not been in harmony with the present leader and had fought him on many points.

An interest in his old home kept the De Smet News on Mr. Barnes table recent years and it was not long ago that he wrote of early days for publication in the paper.

Surviving the former De Smetite are his brother, Will J. Barnes of El Cajon, Cal., his widow, Mrs. Anna M. Barnes; two children, Attorney Paul Barnes of Boise, Idaho, and Mrs. Mamie Brunson of El Cajon, Cal.

Funeral services were held at Zion City Tuesday and burial was at Kenosha, Wis.


Visscher Barnes (LTP 8, 19, 21; THGY 4; PG), see also William Barnes
     Mrs. Barnes (PG)