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Across The Fence: Antoine Barada – larger than life


Folks in Arizona tell their tales of Boastful Bill and Lone Star, Texas cowboys have been bragging about their tallest of tall tale heroes, Pecos Bill ever since that first Longhorn maverick was roped and branded.

From the Pacific Northwest the legend of Paul Bunyan, and his blue ox Babe, have grown to gigantic proportions. And not to be outdone, Nebraskan's have immortalized Febold Feboldson, who was created by Wayne Carroll writing for a Gothenburg, Neb., newspaper in the 1920s.

But there are some legends that grow from the flesh and blood of living men whose exploits seem to rise above the feats of ordinary men. Most of us have grown up with the names and the stories of those men, men such as Davy Crockett and his contemporary rival Mike Fink. From West Virginia we have the tragic story of John Henry and from Nebraska, our very own Buffalo Bill Cody.

But there was another whose extraordinary deeds were so remarkable that the facts became obscure in their exaggerated telling.

Published in 1961, Mari Sandoz wrote in Love Song To The Plains, "For a region less than a 100 years this side of the buffalo and the Indian, there are remarkably few tales of great duelings with the aborigines, practically none except for Buffalo Bill's purported kinife-to-knife combat with Yellow Hand. Not that the Plains lacked strong men; every section has stories of muscle exploiters, with Antoine Barada perhaps the strongest of all."

Antoine Barada's grandfather – and his namesake – was born in Gascoigne, France, in 1739. It is said that the family was of French royalty, although other accounts claim the family is of Spanish origin. Also, the Senior Antoine is briefly mentioned as one of the first settlers of St. Louis, Mo. If it is correct that Antoine I settled in St. Louis, his son Count Michael Barada apparently made at least one trip back to France, for it was there that he met his future wife.

No matter what the real story might be, the story of love at first sight and the resulting transcontinental search is worthy of retelling. Supposedly Michael Barada was taking in the sights of Paris when he chanced to pass by a live exhibit of American Indians that included a young maiden. The gleaming black hair and onyx eyes of the beautiful maiden entranced young Michael and he was held, transfixed in her gaze. She smiled at him and tossed to him a handful of rose petals that fluttered against his breast and tumbled to his feet on the sidewalk. Michael must have been struck dumb by Cupid's arrow for although he was smitten, he simply walked away.

No doubt the memory of the maiden haunted the young man for he eventually returned to see her again, but she was gone. Through his persistent inquiries he discovered that she had returned to America where her brother was a chief of the Omaha tribe. Her name was Tae-Gle-Ha, meaning "Laughing Buffalo" or perhaps "Laughing Water." The love-struck Michael was soon crossing the Atlantic toward America where upon his arrival he began the search for his dark-eyed prize. It is told that he searched for twenty years before finding her in the village of her brother, and they were soon married.

Mari Sandoz considers this romantic telling as nothing more than an embellishment of the likely facts. She writes, "Any Indian girl he might have seen in France in the early eighteenth century would have been very easily traced."

However long or short the pursuit, courtship and nuptials took, Michael and Laughing Buffalo welcomed a son in 1807. They named him Antoine, in honor of his grandfather. At that time, the family was living on the eastern banks of the Missouri at a settlement that was then called Saint Mary, and was near what today is probably Hamburg, Iowa.

Antoine's father was a trapper with the French-American Fur Company and also served as an interpreter among the tribes in that region. In 1812 Michael Barada moved his family up the Missouri River to Fort Lisa in the Louisiana Territory, north of present day Omaha. The following year, at six years of age, the Lakota kidnapped young Antoine. It took his father most of the next six months to negotiate a return of the boy in exchange for a ransom of horses. Some accounts say that the ransom was two ponies; others claim it was ten horses in exchange for the boys' release. However many horses were ransomed, fearing for his son's safety, Michael sent Antoine back east, to Saint Louis where he stayed with his aunt Madame Mousette.

In 1816, Antoine returned to the Plains with a group of Indian hunters. How this was arranged and by whom is uncertain and how long he stayed in unknown. No doubt, in his youth Antoine learned the trade of his father and the ways of his Omaha mother. But it appears that he also went frequently between the sparse settlements of the Plains and the busyness of the city in Saint Louis.

Antoine grew to be a man of formidable size and strength. It is said that he towered well over 6 feet in height to perhaps as tall as 7 feet. His stature equaled his height and his strength was said to be super-human. When a barn was being built, Antoine was called upon to help with the raising. He could lift a support beam by himself and hold it in place while others secured it. When shipping hogs no loading chutes or holding pens were needed for Antoine would simply pick up a hog and set it in the wagon. He could lift a bogged wagon up and out of a mud hole and carry a load that no other man could budge. It was told that he once broke a canoe in half with his bare hands.

While working as a superintendent for the Coates & Whitnell Quarries in St. Louis, it's told that he lifted a quarried stone slab weighing more than a half-ton. His name and the date of the feat is etched on the slab and is said to be still in existence in that Mississippi River city.

Supposedly, Antoine married as a young man and there were children, however I found three different names of wives though he only married once. The names given in differing accounts are: Marcellite Vient, Josephine Veien, and Elizabeth Robidoux.

In 1849, Antoine ventured to California along with the thousands of others who hoped to find their fortunes in gold, but he soon returned to Nebraska Territory and joined his Mother's people.

Antoine and his family finally settled in the far southeastern corner of Nebraska where the Village of Barada bears his name. Living on the route of the Underground Railroad, it's said that Antoine Barada helped runaway slaves escape, by carrying them on his back, across the wide Missouri so they would not drown in the crossing. Antoine remained in southeast Nebraska until his death in 1885.

The stories of his Herculean strength eventually grew to Bunyanesque proportions as evidenced in the telling of a tale captured and recorded by Louise Pound in "Nebraska Strong Men." Mari Sandoz had said that as a young girl she often heard the Barada stories told by families who came from the Half-Breed Strip in southeast Nebraska. The following is referred to as the Sandhills Version:

For The Sun-Telegraph

Antoine Barada

"Antoine Barada was a hurry-up man, always rushing, rushing, can't wait for anything. One time he got tired of watching a pile driver working along the Missouri with the hammer making the up-down, up-down, the driver yelling "Git up! Git up! Whoa! Back! Back! Whoa!" and then all of it over again and the piling going down maybe a half inch. So Antoine he picked up the d--- thing in his bare hand, throws it high and far so it lights clear over the Missouri where it bounce and bounce leaving the ground tore up for miles and miles and making what the greenhorns call "Breaks of the Missouri." But at last it stop and if you dig down in them high ridges you find it is the d--- pile driver with grass growing over him, a little poor soil, you understand, but it seems to satisfy them that ain't ever crossed the Missouri and don't know no better.

When Antoine had disposed of the Johnny Jumper hammer he sees that the piling that is left stands a mile higher than the rest, so he gives it a lick with his fist and it pop down into the ground so deep it strike a buried lake, the water flying out like from a bung hole 50 feet high and like to drown out the whole country if Antoine he did not sit on the hole first."

M. Timothy Nolting is an award-winning Nebraska columnist and freelance writer. Email him at


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