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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published January 31 2010

Barnes family helped pioneer law, politics in North Dakota

Three male members of one family were pioneers in many legal and political matters in North Dakota.

The patriarch, Alanson H. Barnes, held the first territorial district court hearing in Bismarck and established the judicial seat for the district court in Fargo. His son-in-law, Alfred D. Thomas, became the first U.S. District Court judge from North Dakota. Another son-in-law, Evan S. Thomas, became the second mayor of Fargo and came within three votes of becoming the first governor of North Dakota.

On Nov. 7, 1873, the acting governor of Dakota Territory, Oscar Whitney, reassigned Judge Barnes from Yankton to Pembina but, under federal orders, rescinded the order on Dec. 11. On Jan. 10, 1874, the Department of Interior reinstituted Whitney’s original proclamation.

Instead of going to Pembina, Barnes located the federal court for District 3 in Fargo. There was no courthouse in Fargo, so the trials were often held in business establishments.

In addition to court sessions in Fargo, Barnes held quarterly hearings in Bismarck. The first U.S. District Court to meet there began on June 18, 1874.

While in Bismarck, Barnes met an employee of the Northern Pacific Railroad who appeared to command the respect of those around him. Barnes recommended his appointment as Burleigh County sheriff. County commissioners followed Barnes’ recommendation and helped launch the political career of Alexander McKenzie.

In December 1874, Alexander McHench, a Fargo legislator, successfully pushed a bill through the territorial Legislature that officially transferred the court from Pembina to Fargo.

Barnes had a nice home built in Fargo at the corner of Adams Avenue (now Second Avenue) and Eighth Street and sent for his wife, Sarah, and youngest daughter, Clara, to live with him.

For major trials and appeals in Dakota Territory, Barnes traveled to Yankton to meet with the other two justices of the Supreme Court. He also had to travel to Deadwood to conduct trials in southwestern Dakota Territory.

Because of this, Barnes was a major proponent of dividing the territory into North and South Dakota. During a session of the Supreme Court in 1875 in Yankton, he stated: “The people of the northern Dakota want a division of the territory because they are so far removed from southern Dakota that they do not feel any identity of interest.”

Enos Stutsman, a noted lawyer and legislator of early Dakota days, started the separation movement, but died in 1874.

On Feb. 14, 1877, Clara Barnes married Evan S. Tyler, mayor of Fargo and a successful businessman. Barnes and his son-in-law began buying land in Cass, Clay and LaMoure counties. The following year, Lucian Barnes, the youngest son of the judge, moved his family from Wisconsin to manage the 1,000 acres of land Tyler and Barnes bought four miles southwest of Fargo.

On March 15, 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes reappointed Barnes to another term as a justice of the Dakota Territory Supreme Court. When his second term ended on May 4, 1881, Barnes was replaced by Sanford A. Hudson. Barnes returned to Delavan, Wis., where he died on May 10, 1890.

Besides Clara and Lucian, Barnes had two other children: Dwight and Fanny. Dwight remained in Delavan, where he became a successful attorney.

In October 1864, Fanny married Alfred Delavan Thomas, a former law partner of her father in Wisconsin. Thomas eventually joined the Barnes law firm. In February 1877, he visited Dakota intending to set up a law practice in Fargo.

In June 1878, he traveled to the Black Hills, where he met George Hearst, owner of the Homestake Mining Co. Hearst, the father of William Randolph Hearst, also owned mines in California, Nevada, Utah and Montana. He was so impressed with Thomas he offered him the position of attorney for his corporate holdings.

Thomas served in this capacity for three years and returned in 1881 to Fargo, where he set up a law practice with John D. Benton.

Charles Amidon, the principal of Fargo High School, was a close friend of Thomas. Thomas convinced Amidon that he should study law at the office he shared with Benton. In 1886, Benton was elected sheriff of Cass County and Amidon joined Thomas as his law partner.

With the territorial split into North and South Dakota, President Benjamin Harrison picked Thomas to become the first district court judge in North Dakota on Feb. 25, 1889.

Thomas served until he became ill during a trip to New York in the summer of 1896. The illness continued to worsen and Thomas died in Fargo on Aug. 8, 1896. Amidon was chosen to replace Thomas on the court.

Next week we will conclude our series about Judge Barnes and his family as we examine the remarkable life and career of Evan S. Tyler.


“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.