Eugene C. Barker, historian, was born near Riverside, Walker County, Texas, on November 10, 1874, the son of Joseph and Fannie (Holland) Barker. Shortly after his father's death in 1888, his mother moved the family to Palestine, where fourteen-year-old Eugene found employment in the Missouri Pacific railroad shops. In the months that followed, he became a fine blacksmith while working during the day and attending evening school in the home of Miss Shirley Green. He entered the University of Texas in September 1895 and thus started an association that continued until his death.
Despite financial handicaps in his job as night mail clerk on the Missouri Pacific Austin-to-Houston run, Barker received the B.A. degree in the spring of 1899 and the M.A. in 1900. He served the university history department as tutor (1899–1901), instructor (1901–08), adjunct professor (1908–11), associate professor (1911–13), professor (1913–51), and professor emeritus (1951–56)–almost six decades altogether.
On August 6, 1903, Barker married Matilda LeGrand Weeden. In 1906 he took a leave of absence to complete his graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania, where, after a brief interval at Harvard, he received his Ph.D. in 1908. On the death of George P. Garrison in 1910, Barker became chairman of the University of Texas Department of History, a position he held until 1925. When the title of distinguished professor was inaugurated in 1937, Barker was among the first three distinguished professors chosen.
He did the bulk of his scholarly work during the thirty-eight years of his full professorship. His first major research project, inherited from Lester G. Bugbee and George P. Garrison, was on the life of Stephen F. Austin. Before finishing the classic biography of Austin, Barker collected, edited, and published The Austin Papers, a collection of correspondence that covered the years from 1789 to 1837 (published by the American Historical Association, 1924–28, and the University of Texas Press, 1927). The Life of Stephen F. Austin was published in 1925 and republished several times. Barker's other major publications included Mexico and Texas, 1821–1835 (1928); Readings in Texas History (1929); The Father of Texas (1935); in collaboration with Amelia W. Williams, The Writings of Sam Houston (1938–43); and a series of public school textbooks for Row and Peterson done in collaboration with William E. Dodd, Henry S. Commager, and Walter Prescott Webb.
Barker served as managing editor of the Southwestern Historical Quarterly and director of the Texas State Historical Association from 1910 until 1937. During that time he not only edited the Quarterly but contributed numerous articles to the publication, most of them on some aspect of Texas or Mexican history. Through his articles Barker showed the effect that Texas history had on the history of the American West. In this connection he exploded some of the earlier myths that had gained widespread acceptance among American historians. He explored and corrected misconceptions, among them the "conspiracy theory" of the conquest and annexation of Texas and the war with Mexico; and the idea that the Texas Revolution and Mexican War were solely the fault of the Mexicans.
Barker was a lifetime member of the American Historical Association. Also, along with Clarence V. Alvord and others, he helped establish the Mississippi Valley Historical Association (now the Organization of American Historians, publishers of the Journal of American History) and served this organization as its president in 1922–23. During his later years he challenged Professor Charles A. Beard's economic interpretation of the Constitution of the United States.
Barker was instrumental in the origin of the Latin American Collection (now the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection) and the Littlefield collection of source materials on the history of the South, both important components of the University of Texas libraries. Barker's greatest contribution to the university, however, was in building the history department, which, during his career, came to rank with the best in the state universities of the nation. After the Ferguson controversy of 1917–18 (see FERGUSON, JAMES EDWARD) Barker exercised a remarkable influence as one of the leaders of the university faculty. As the years passed he became a legend on the campus; one of the great intangibles of his long and fruitful career was his influence on the thousands of students who sat in his classes. When the University of Texas named the Barker Texas History Center (dedicated in 1950) for him, it was the first time that such an honor had been accorded a living member of the faculty. Barker died on October 22, 1956, and was buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Austin.