Great Grandpa


I went to the dentist this morning. Somehow the conversation got around to travel in Europe, and he asked me if my wife had ever gone, and I told him about a trip she and her sister are planning in a few months to Prague and Germany. They are half Czech but have never made it back to their maternal grandparents’ homeland before, so this is something they’ve always wanted to do. Sort of continuing on that theme he had asked me about my ancestry, and I had told him I was mostly British, so he asked whether Barney was an English name. It was not a simple question to answer so I told him I’d explain it when he was done.

After the cleaning I told him that my one line that didn’t come from England was my paternal line, which comes from Denmark. My paternal great grandfather was born there, with the name Jens Peter Jorgen Stockfisch. He and a brother named Christian emigrated to the United States, and at some point they changed their last name from Stockfisch to Barney. (So no, I’m not related to the great Mormon pioneer Lewis Barney; my surname only goes back three generations.) I’ve always been curious why they changed their name and why they chose Barney, but I’ve never been able to find that out and it remains a mystery to me.[1]

For most of my life I knew virtually nothing about this man. I never even met his son (my paternal grandfather), who died before I was born. I think great grandpa Peter Barney died in 1925. But some years ago my daughter was on a family history jag, and she discovered a treasure–my great grandpa Peter served time in prison in the Idaho State Penitentiary in Boise! Some people might be embarrassed to learn their ancestor was a criminal, but what was so cool about this is that there is an extant file there about him, including an actual honest to goodness photograph! The picture accompanying this post was taken at the prison. She was able to obtain his prison file, with about 40 pages of information. When she gave me the file that was the first I had ever seen what he looked like. But for his stay at the prison his life would have been largely unrecoverable to me (although less so to a genealogy whiz, which I am not).

He was 63 and living in Madison County (having lived in Idaho 37 years) when he was received by the prison on January 6, 1918, charged with (and pleading guilty to) grand larceny with a term of 1 to 14 years. He was born on March 31, 1854 (the prison record says in SLC, but that is incorrect, as he was born in Horsen, Vejle, Denmark, and he and his brother migrated here in 1867). His occupation was as a sawyer and he had served an apprenticeship. He was 5′ 5 7/8″, weighed 124 pounds, had blue eyes.He and his wife, Alice Lee, had 11 children (eight then living). He had received religious instruction and attended Sunday School in the LDS Church, but for “Member of what church now” the form states “none,” so presumably he no longer regarded himself as Mormon at this time. (His son Bryan, my paternal grandfather, was Mormon and so Bryan’s son/my father was raised in the faith, as was I.)

Why was Peter in jail? It appears that his crops failed two year in a row. He used his last cash to buy four sacks of seed, and then he stole 11 bushels of seed, was caught and sent to the County jail for three  months. When he got out he went to his wife Alice (who had moved from the ranch and was staying with one of the children), who said she would not live with him anymore because he had been caught stealing and served time in jail. He went back to the ranch in very cold weather without a dollar and found there was nothing there anymore, no provisions, no wood, no utensils, no bedding.  Alice had sold the cattle. But he did find a sow and nine pigs in the barn, so he sold them. But they weren’t his to sell, and that is what led to his prison stay. The file has a long typewritten letter dictated by him explaining all of this.

A lot of material in the file is correspondence relating to a parole petition. One of the letters had this hand written note: “From all I can learn of this man Barney he is a very dangerous and bad man all around and a real menace to the people who live in the same community. He was arrested at great risk to the officer who arrested him.” While I would enjoy thinking that  my g-gramps was some kind of badass criminal, the more common sentiment was along these lines: “I wish to intercede for a friend of mine Mr Peter Barney. I have been acquainted with him for 15 years and I have always known him to be on the squar with every body, why he comited the crime for which he is now doing penence is more than I can tell, unless he did it in a fit of anger. But he is getting old and in ill health, that being the case I do not think that he will ever committ another crime, and while he is humon and not dangerous, I am sure he will not hurt any one.” (Spelling in original.) He was released August 12, 1918, having served about seven months.

Then there is a lot of correspondence between Peter and his parole officer, informing him of his activities and whereabouts. He spent his time helping his friends and son with their farms; he seems to have been an Idaho farmer through and through.

So while his prison stay no doubt was considered a negative at the time, from my perspective three generations later it actually turned out to be a positive, as I was able to learn a fair bit about a man who had been an almost complete mystery to me before.

[1] I’m not the only one. I found this from another great grandchild of my same great grandparents: “Edie (11/20/99): “My maiden name was Barney. Since I was a small child my dad told us about the family was actually Stockfisch. However, he didn’t know when or how. “


  1. Elizabeth says:

    I did not find the fact my grandfather spent 15 years in San Quentin such a treasure. I believed he had died the year he was incarcerated. What a shock. The only picture I have of him is the mug shot that accompanied his record. It did give us a greater appreciation of what our dad had accomplished, in spite of a really rough start. There is a Black Sheep genealogy group you can join, should you want to, since you can prove you had an ancestor that was imprisoned. I would rather join the DAR. Such is life. Not everybody can be descended from royalty, I guess.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    A black sheep genealogy group! I never would have guessed that such a thing existed.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    The prison file is sort of unique in the depth of information it gives to the man’s physical appearance. Not only is there the picture, his exact height, weight, and color of his eyes, there is a chart showing every mole and disfigurement, exact measurements of his limbs, even his hat and boot size.

  4. I’ve always said I don’t care who my ancestors were, I just want to *know* who they were. What a treasure for you in getting to know this man!

    I had some miraculous experiences helping a friend learn about his background, and, like your case, the only photo we could find was Grandpa’s mug shot from the Nevada state penitentiary. The particular crime caused my friend to shut down the project — he didn’t want to know more, didn’t want to be connected to that man. That lasted about 24 hours, during which time my friend realized that this man was the link to generations he *did* want to be connected to. The prison record was a great help, since Grandpa had had to identify practically everyone he had ever associated with, including family, with addresses.

    I’m glad you’re not embarrassed. It’s all in the past, and no reflection on you, and, hey, forgiveness.

  5. Nice work, Kevin Stockfisch, er, Barney…

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Yeah, Hunter, that would take some getting used to for sure…

  7. it's a series of tubes says:

    Not everybody can be descended from royalty, I guess

    Have a read through “The Oxford History of Britain” or any similar volume and you’ll quickly find out that, generally speaking, you probably want to be as unrelated to royalty as possible.

  8. That is really cool, Kevin.

    About the only family history story I have about the wrong side of the law is that supposedly a great great grandmother was once visited by Butch Cassidy, who said “Bishop Whitney [her father] is a good man” and gave her silver dollar. But it’s almost certainly an invented yarn, because he was already gone by the time that this supposedly would have happened.

  9. Every family has skeletons. My grandmother is rolling over in her grave. I’ve been researching her grandfather’s exploits with glee. There is quite a bit that didn’t fit in the family sanctioned biography. For example, he left the Army because he was court-martialed.

  10. One of my LDS ancestors got his wife’s sister pregnant. The sister quickly married another fellow before the child was born.

    Our culture sometimes tells us that people in the past were so virtuous. Family history tells another story.

  11. Kevin, I wonder if there is such detailed information about his physical appearance because of America’s obsession with Eugenics at the time. They were always looking for ways that criminals were biologically degenerate.

%d bloggers like this: