Unlike Paul Bunyan, Nebraska's larger-than-life superhero, Antoine Barada, was an actual person. As Barada's feats were told and retold, facts blended into folklore to the point where it became impossible to separate fact from fiction. Even otherwise careful researchers accepted accounts that varied widely from history.
The story starts with French (perhaps Spanish) Count Michael Barada, in Paris, where a beautiful black-haired woman threw rose petals to him from a window. He returned the following day, but the woman had disappeared and all Barada could learn was that she was an Omaha Indian named Tae-Gle-Ha or Laughing Buffalo (once referred to as Laughing Water) and that she had returned to her home somewhere in the Louisiana Territory.
Barada converted his fortune into cash and set off for America, where he became a fur trapper and trader. For 10 years, he searched every Native American village he encountered before stumbling upon her and marrying her.
While serving as an interpreter for the U.S. government, Barada was instrumental in the Prairie du Chien Treaty, which created the Half-Breed Tract in Southeast Nebraska.
Their son Antoine (once found spelled Antonine) was born in 1807 at St. Mary's, Iowa, across the Missouri River from Fort Atkinson (or, in his autobiography at Carodelet near St. Louis).
In 1813, at the age of 7, Antoine was stolen by the Sioux but was ransomed for two (occasionally noted as 10) ponies six months later. To avoid future kidnappings, the boy was sent with some soldiers who promised to enroll him in West Point Academy, but he was left with his aunt Madame Mousette.
Several years later, while the younger Barada was superintendent of the Coates & Whitnell Quarries in St. Louis, he reportedly lifted a "1,700 pound (stone doorsill) clear of the ground," a feat etched in the supposedly extant stone.
In 1849, Antoine ventured to California in search of gold but returned to Nebraska (or possibly rejoined his mother's tribe).
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With the establishment of the Half-Breed Tract, he received a grant of 320 acres, becoming, in 1856, one of the first settlers in Richardson County. He died in 1885 (sometimes noted as 1886 or 1887) and was buried in a small cemetery east of the village of Barada.
Antoine Barada himself was said to be 7 feet tall, "a thick, heavy-set man of broad shoulders." As tales of his strength spread and flourished, he was said to be able to break a canoe in half with his bare hands. He supposedly pounded a fence post so far into the ground that he struck water, creating a 50 foot geyser, lifted a barrel of flour weighing 1,500 pounds, lifted wagons stuck in the mud, loaded pigs into wagons simply by picking them up, shot prairie chickens two at a time from a galloping horse, rescued slaves on the Underground Railroad by carrying them across the Missouri River and won a wrestling match with a Greek champion by pinching him with his toes and slapping him unconscious with a blow to his head.
To break the existing long jump record, Barada roped a 400-pound boulder to each ankle, spun the two weights above his head like a bola, threw them, then jumped, allowing the weights to carry him over the border into Kansas.
The village of Barada, four miles from the Missouri River in Richardson County, was named in his honor. The Barada post office opened in 1877, and the village had a population of 70 by 1880 and reached its peak of 147 in 1900. In 1941, oil was discovered nearby. The discovery promised meteoric growth but it did not meet expectations, then the canning factory closed, the bank failed and the village withered.
The post office closed in 1966, and Barada's current population is around 20. The last business remaining is a grocery store in the once two-story, now one-story, post office/photo studio.
The amazing feats of Antoine Barada are still retold today. His own autobiography is perhaps the least credible and most overblown source of material for these tales as it was obviously written many years after his death by reporters who had never even known him.
Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at firstname.lastname@example.org