Sarah Barnes: Alabama magnate, slave holder

The Mistress’s Tools
Lynne Feeley, February 26, 2019, The Nation



By 1836, Sarah Barnes had become something of an Alabama magnate. She owned a home, land, rental properties, 10 stocks in a local bank in Mobile, and 27 enslaved people. On the eve of her marriage to Dennis Welsh, Barnes drew up an antenuptial agreement, a legal document outlining the terms of their union. In it, she stated that she would continue to have “sole, entire and exclusive use, benefit, and enjoyment” of her property. All of the rent collected on her real-estate holdings would continue to go to her, as would any potential wages earned by her enslaved people rented out for their labor. Barnes engaged a trustee, Richard Redwood, to help her manage her holdings, but he was allowed to take action only if she delivered him written instructions, produced in the presence of “six reputable persons and in the absence” of her husband-to-be. She also reserved the right to make her own will, which was to be drawn up in the presence of four people—one of whom had to be a clergyman—then signed, sealed, and published so that Dennis could not change its terms after her death.

Six reputable persons? A clergyman? What can account for Barnes’s exacting enumeration of her property rights and her palpable worry about her future husband’s meddling? She knew that when she married Dennis Welsh, she would become, in the parlance of the period, a “feme covert,” or a covered woman. She’d lose the right to bring suit, make contracts, and own property. All of it, her small empire of fields and flesh, would become his. And losing her enslaved people—this would be the bitterest pill of all, because in these people, so much of her wealth resided, and in the ownership of them, so much of her power. Her antenuptial agreement marked her refusal to give them up.

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