the Barrets A Tough Task, Says Mann
In Talk On Family That Faded From Memory
You never know where research will...or won’t take you.
Even with years of experience under his belt, historian Curtis Mann, manager of the Sangamon Valley Collection at Lincoln Library in Springfield at first found little to whet his interest in researching James A. Barret and his family. By the mid 1800s, the Barrets were among the cream of Springfield’s society but by the late 1800s wound up in relative historical obscurity.
Mann, speaking to a packed audience at the Society’s November 19 meeting at the Elijah Iles House, came across Barret while doing research on Springfield breweries and also spotted the name on an 1858 map of Sangamon County.
“At the beginning, I must admit that I myself could not muster enough details to make the subject exciting to me,” but he more he probed, the more interesting Barret became…and the more difficult it was to track what became of the once wealthy landowner whose lawsuit against the Alton and Sangamon Railroad helped propel attorney Abraham Lincoln to prominence.
Tracking Barret’s post-Springfield years hasn’t been easy, the result of families like the Barrets making wide use of first names over and over. “One of the pitfalls in doing research on James A. Barret is that he had a cousin by the name of James A. Barret. This particular cousin got himself into trouble for being the leader of the Missouri chapter of the Order of American Knights and was accused of conspiring against the government during the Civil War. It took some time for me to figure who he was.”
The Springfield James A. Barret, explained Mann, was the son of James Winston Barret, who moved to this area from Green County, Kentucky, possibly at the urging of his brother, Richard F. Barret or his wife Maria’s family, the Allens, who had already moved to Springfield..
“Many families living in Green County were settling in the area around New Salem,” Mann said. The senior Barret purchased farmland in Island Grove in an area west of Berlin. Within a few years, Barret became active in Sangamon County politics, running unsuccessfully for state representative in 1840. After his defeat, he went to work as the agent for the State’s fund commissioner, his brother Richard, and, said Mann, “was involved in various internal improvement projects going on in the state including the Illinois and Michigan Canal and the Northern Cross Railroad. In 1844, he was defeated in a bid for state senator but a few months later was appointed by President John Tyler as the new register of the Springfield Land Office,” recording purchases of federal land.
The Barrets had nine sons and three daughters, some whom died young, Mann said. In 1840, William, the oldest son, married Elizabeth E. Butler, a niece of William Butler who was an early friend of Abraham Lincoln when he first arrived in Springfield from New Salem.
The eldest Barret daughter, Elizabeth, married Philip C. Johnson in 1840, a wealthy Easterner. Caroline Owsley Brown, a contemporary who chronicled the period, noted in her journal that “the wedding was a notable society event for its time.” The couple was married by a Presbyterian minister in the Barret’s home about three miles from Berlin, followed by an elaborate wedding breakfast. Johnson died in 1852 and in 1853, she married Pascal P. Enos. She died six years later.
Daughter Mary married a merchant, William Fondy in 1851. “Fondy served in the same company and regiment as the Barret brothers during the Mexican War in 1846, so they must have been well acquainted.” The three Barret brothers—William, James, and Richard—enlisted together in the Fourth Illinois Regiment commanded by Edward Baker. “Richard was appointed the quartermaster, while his brother William received an appointment as the first lieutenant. James began his military career as a lowly private,” said Mann.
After capturing the city of Vera Cruz, members of the Fourth Regiment battled Santa Anna, capturing the Mexican general’s artificial leg during his retreat. James was wounded in combat and was later promoted to lieutenant and assistant quartermaster. With just a month left of their year-long enlistment, the Fourth returned to New Orleans and where the Barrets were discharged.
In 1850, Richard married 26-year-old Sarah Rickard, the daughter of early settlers of Gardner Township. Sarah Rickard’s sister was married to William Butler and, said Mann, according to a letter to William Herndon when he was gathering material for a book on Lincoln, the man who would become president had earlier proposed to Sarah. In the letter, she explains that the reason she refused Lincoln’s proposal was that she was just 16 years old “and had not thought much about marriage.” But in a later letter, she said that “I always liked him as a friend but you know, his peculiar manner and general deportment would not be likely to fascinate a young girl just entering the society world.”
Unlike his brothers, James A. Barret lived Springfield, his home—on the southwest corner of Third and Monroe Streets—serving as the site for his sister Mary’s June wedding in 1851. “The yard was described as being filled with great forest trees and on the night of the wedding was illuminated by a headlight lent by the Wabash Railroad.” The president of Illinois College, Julian Sturtevant, married the couple.
Jane Maria, the youngest of the Barret daughters, married Charles Ridgely in 1857 in a rainy evening wedding at the Fondy home.
James, who married Mary Eliza B. Anderson of Green County in 1848, began his career as a land speculator a year earlier, purchasing about 640 acres from the federal government. By 1849 he owned thousands of acres here, capitalizing on warrants that granted veterans of the Mexican War free land in return for their military service. Many veterans opted to sell the warrants for 50 cents an acre rather than fulfill a requirement that they travel to areas with available land and pick the site themselves. Brokers who bought the warrants resold them to speculators like Barret for 75 cents an acre. “James Barret could buy land cheap, but so could many others,” observed Mann.
Barret, he said, had a different agenda.
“In the spring of 1849, Barret signed up to buy 30 shares of Alton and Sangamon Railroad stock on an installment plan while at the same time working as an agent for the railroad, selling stock subscription certificates in Springfield and across Sangamon County. Barret had a special interest in the railroad since he owned 4,000 acres of land near New Berlin, where the railroad track was intended to be built before heading to Springfield.”
But in 1851, the Illinois General Assembly passed an amendment that allowed the railroad to change the route, bypassing New Berlin. The amendment allowed subscribers living west of the original line to rescind their installment agreements and get refunds. Though Barret owned land west of the line, he was not eligible for the deal because he resided in Springfield.
When Barret and three other investors refused to make installment payments, the Alton and Sangamon Railroad sued, retaining Abraham Lincoln as its representative. Barret hired Lincoln’s old law partner Stephen Trigg Logan as his attorney and offered a compromise in which he would pay for 15 shares if the railroad would release his obligation for the other 15. The railroad refused and the case went to trial in 1851. In a landmark decision credited to the legal prowess of Lincoln, Barret lost and was ordered to pay the remainder of the money. He appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, but lost there too.
Barret continued to buy land and by 1853, owned 16,800 acres, developing some of it into working farms, building houses and fences, planting orchards and crops. “He would give the farms elaborate names such as Castle Point or Copenhagen when he advertised them for sale from his office on the south side of the public square above his brother-in-law William Fondy’s store.
But with his purchase of the distillery, Barret ran afoul of Lincoln anew, the object of a lawsuits brought by the owner of a Springfield lumberyard and from a business partner from whom he had borrowed several thousand dollars. Lincoln successfully represented the lumberyard owner and his law partner, the other complainant.
When the Civil War broke out “Barret became the colonel of the 10th Illinois Cavalry and requested that it be ordered to New Mexico. President Lincoln passed along the request to general in chief of U.S. armies, General Henry Hallack in April, 1862, but Halleck turned it down. Barret resigned his commission the following month and within a year or so, moved back to Kentucky where, said Mann, “he apparently was involved in some coal mining and salt making operation.
Within the decade, the elder Barrets had passed away and in the ensuing years, most other family members moved away, William Barret to Petersburg where he died in 1902. His wife Ellen had died in 1881. Richard Barret moved to Kansas City in 1870 and lived there the remainder of his life, working as a real estate agent until his death in 1908. His sister-in-law, Sarah Rickard Barret died in 1911, also in Kansas City. Mary Barret Fondy was widowed in 1882 but remarried several years later to James Merriman, a fellow veteran of the Barret brothers in the Mexican War. She died in 1894. Jane Barret Ridgely was the sole survivor of the family. She lived to be 85 years old, dying in 1922 while visiting Florida.