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J. Neilson Barry


Biographical Sketch

John Neilson Barry was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, on November 26, 1870.  He was one of seven children born to Major Robert Peabody Barry, a Union veteran of the Civil War, and Julia Kean Neilson Barry.  The family left Wilmington when he was 3 years old, and Barry spent most of his childhood in Norfolk and Warrenton, Virginia.  His early education included twelve years in private schools and academies in Virginia.  Barry then worked for two years as a clerk in the cotton business in Norfolk before attending the Virginia Theological Seminary and the General Theological Seminary in New York City.  He was ordained an Episcopal priest in New York in 1895.

Although he became a clergyman, his days in the cotton business were to prove important to him.  He credited them with giving him the "training and experience (that) qualified me for a Registrar in the Church."  For fifteen years, in addition to his regular duties as an Episcopal priest, Barry worked as a registrar for the missionary districts of Spokane, Washington, and Eastern Oregon, compiling both current and historical church records.  His historical interests expanded to include the Pacific Northwest as a whole, and upon his retirement from the church Barry began devoting his full attention to the pursuit of accurate historical detail.

J. Neilson Barry did not believe in taking the easy route through life.  Upon being ordained an Episcopal priest he asked "where was the weakest part of our Church, and got go there."  "There" was Holy Trinity in Palouse, Washington, and for many years Barry divided his time between regular parochial work on the East coast and missions in the West.  He built one church, two rectories, and three parish houses during the course of his ministerial career.  In addition to serving in Palouse from 1895 to 1899, Barry served at St. Agnes Chapel of Trinity Parish in New York City (1899), Trinity Church in Spokane, Washington (1899-1904), Trinity Parish in Charles County, Maryland (1905-1906), St. Columba in Washington, D.C. (1906-1907), St. Stephen's Parish in Baker, Oregon (1907-1912), and St. Thomas Church in Washington, D.C. (1912-1913).

Barry's desire to serve where he felt he was most needed led him to retire from parochial work in 1913 in order to do volunteer work among prisoners in the city jail at Spokane, Washington, and to serve as a special probation officer for that city.  One Spokane newspaper called him "a friend to every down-and-outer who has had the misfortune to land in the city jail."  During World War I he took time out to serve in France with the YMCA.  He officially retired from the Episcopal Church in 1922.

After leaving the ministry Barry settled in Portland, Oregon, where he built a home on Greenleaf Drive he named "Barrycrest."  Historical research became the primary focus of his retirement years in Portland.  “What…caused my interest in early history is the variation, and often contradiction between the valid, authentic primary sources and the secondary literature,” he wrote in 1960.  His goal was to "ferret out valid, authentic, verifiable primary sources" and bring them to light.  By 1933, he claimed to have studied 106 journals and memoirs of the early travelers in the Pacific Northwest. In addition to documentary research, he was able to talk or correspond with many of the pioneers of the region. “When I came to this country from New York for the first time…I dined with Mr. Henry Spalding, son of the pioneer, and boarded with one of the survivors of the Whitman massacre,”  he wrote to the president of Whitman College in 1933.  Barry was a life-long student, and in addition to taking advanced courses at Columbia University and the University of Oregon, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in History at age sixty from Albany College in Oregon.  He taught American History for one year at Hill Military Academy in Portland and was the author of about three hundred historical articles for newspapers and journals.  He co-authored one book of historical tales for children, entitled Redskin and Pioneer (1932), and wrote an unpublished book on the trails of Idaho.  He was a longtime member of the Spokane Historical Society, Oregon and Washington historical societies, Sons of the American Revolution, and, in the 1920s, was the secretary and guiding force behind the Trail Seekers, Inc., an organization that encouraged historical research and writing by young people.

J. Neilson Barry married Mildred Eldridge Pegram in New York City in 1899.  They had one adopted son, Eldridge Dighton Barry.  Mrs. Barry died in 1955, and after her death J. Neilson Barry moved to the Park Heathman Hotel in Portland.  He died in Portland on February 26, 1961, at the age of ninety. 

An article on J. Neilson Barry and three other historians of the Columbia River, entitled "Creating the Columbia: Historians and the Great River of  the West, 1890-1935," was published in the Oregon Historical Quarterly, Fall 1992.  His work on Champoeg was cited extensively in J.A. Hussey’s Champoeg: Place of Transition (Oregon Historical Society, 1967). 

                   --Don P. Haacke (1977)
                      Alan Virta (2006)


     Biographical sketch in The Centennial History of Oregon (Chicago: S.J. Clarke, 1912)
     Obituary, Sunday Oregonian (Portland) February 26, 1961
     Autobiographical notes in the collection (Box 1, Folder 1)
     Letter to Eloise Ebert, 13 January 1960 (Folder 1016)
     Letter to Charles Laurenson, 15 October 1933 (Folder 572)
     Letter to Stephen B.L. Penrose, 8 November 1933 (Folder 1233) 

See also the online exhibit, Plotting the Course of Lewis and Clark Through Idaho, with documents from the J. Neilson Barry Collection

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