Biographical and Critical Miscellanies - Meta H. Barnwell

Meta H. Barnwell


Meta H. Barnwell (1822-1900)

Margaret Harriet Barnwell, affectionately known as Meta, was born on 15 May 1822 in Kean’s Neck, South Carolina. Her parents were Edward Barnwell (1785-1860), a cotton plantation owner, and Elizabeth Osborn (?-1824). They were married on 1 January 1808.

Edward and Elizabeth had nine children: Catherine Osborn (1809-1886), Mary Bower (1811-1871), Edward M. (1813-), Thomas Osborn (1815-1879), Robert (1817-1817), Martha Ann (1818-1895), Elizabeth Osborn (1820-1916), Margaret Harriet (1822-1900), and Esther Heyward (1824-1864).

Elizabeth died 28 days after baby Esther was born, leaving Meta motherless at the age of two.

Undoubtably heartbroken, Edward suddenly found himself a bachelor with 8 children, ranging in age from 15 to newborn. Edward’s four youngest daughters, Martha (6), Bet (4), Meta (2) and Hety (newborn) were of particular concern to him. The newborn, Hety, was adopted by her aunt, Mrs. Mathews, in Charleston. Edward's oldest daughter Catherine (15), was put in charge of looking after the rest, Meta being the youngest, while Edward travelled on many of his business trips. In one letter to Catherine, he writes: Kiss the little ones and tell little Meta I won’t love her if she cries so. 9 March 1825. Meta would have been, not quite, three at the time.

Eventually, Edward’s mother and sisters helped look after the youngest children. On 2 March 1827, Edward writes to Catherine again, about five year old Meta:

I have been very much disappointed however in not receiving one [letter] by last Tuesday’s mail particularly as my dear little Meta had been again sick. Your aunt Nancy wrote to your aunt Betsy she had the fever and that large black and blue spots had been all over her, but that she was better again… Dr. Stuart says it was poverty of the Blood that occasioned the spots on my dear little Meta. I beg your good aunt not to let her eat anything sweet so as to clog or weaken her appetite, but endeavor to make her eat wholesome food and such as will nourish her. To give her bark or tincture of bark and brandy and water. I hope in your seeing and visiting your young friends you will not forget the necessity of attending regularly to the ?dut? and tonic medicine for Meta. I do not wish her to take much weakening Physic- your Aunt Nancy is an excellent judge of what is good for children. Do beg your Aunt Martha to consult her.

Edward Barnwell

Meta's father, Edward Barnwell

When Catherine was married in 1829, at the age of 20, Edward’s “little ones” went and stayed with her and her new husband, William H.W. Barnwell. They raised them. However, it seems that little Meta stayed with her father longer than the others. In fact, Edward seems to have a particular fondness for Meta. He writes numerous letters to his eldest daughter, Catherine, thanking her for looking after his “little ones” and often only mentions Meta by name. In a letter written from Kean’s Neck (Edward’s plantation) and dated January 26th 1831, Edward writes about 9 year old Meta:

My dear Daughter,

I re’d your letter by your uncle William on my return from Beaufort yesterday with Meta. I am very thankful to William for his affectionate kinship in being willing to take the great trouble of another of my little ones; but I cannot yet part with her, if ever I do consent. She is full ? and smart enough, to idle away another year. As to the attention you would pay her, as well as my others, I hope you feel satisfied, when I say, I would part with them to no one in preference to you. Indeed to both of you. I am interrupted, I must close with fervent prayers to a kind and gracious God to continue his watchful care over all of us. I am yours most affectionately.
Edward Barnwell
I will come and see you soon

By the 1840 Census, Catherine and her husband William are living with their own children but they remained close to Catherine’s siblings. William traveled with Meta (age 24), and her younger sister, Hety (age 22) and wrote about the journey to his wife on 12 October 1846:

Meta and Hety give me no trouble at all. They are always in good spirits and ready for any circumstances that may occur. Everyone has been extremely kind to them.

Catherine’s own children also seem to have a fondness for their Aunt Meta. A letter by Robert Burnwell to his mother Catherine, dated August 1846, reads: Aunt Meta is still trying to sling some music out of the piano- but the fault seems to be in her fingers- otherwise she is well.

In an undated letter, from an unnamed sister to Catherine reads: Father carried Meta down to Bay Point this morning for change of air; he is to return this evening. And on 15 August 1853 Catherine’s son, Edward, writes, Aunt Meta is still at Bay Point.

By his time, Meta’s father had married again. Edward and Eliza Zubly Smith were married on 14 June 1832. This union resulted in seven half-siblings for Meta: Archibald Smith Barnwell, John Smith Barnwell, Woodward Barnwell, Helen Barnwell, Charlotte Cuthbert Barnwell, Stephen Bull Barnwell, and Eliza Anne (“Leila”) Barnwell.

Meta’s step-mother, Eliza, died in 1846, and in 1849 Edward married for a third, and final, time to Sarah Caroline Richardson. They had one child together, Sarah Caroline Barnwell. Edward’s grandson, Robert Woodward Barnwell, writes to his aunt Martha Matthews about the occasion of his Grandfather’s upcoming nuptials, dated October 29th, 1849:

I was taken somewhat aback with the news of a wedding in the family but could scarcely have guessed that it was the Patriarch of this Flock that was about to bend his neck to the marriage yoke… Aunt Martha’s account, I am sorry- she has been so devoted to His children and so jealous of Grandfather’s affection and care that she cannot but feel distressed. Aunt Meta is so accommodating to G’fs bliss and has such implicit faith in him that she can scarcely withhold rejoicing with his joy, and the lady stands very high in her estimation. The wedding is to come off on Christmas Eve.

Meta’s love for her father is clearly evident. She also seems to have a focused love of books and education:

In a letter from Ann Barnwell to Catherine O. Barnwell, dated August 27th, 1836, Beaufort:

...Bower came up from Bay Point the day before yesterday. I have not yet seen her but understand she has grown very fat, and looks quite well, I am told. Bet is improving at school, her grandmother and Aunt Mary appear very much interested in her and [?play] piano with her. Meta was here this morning looking well. She was asking about [?St] Mark’s school, says she wishes to go there. I told her I was pleased with all that. I saw and heard of the school, but she must go to stay and to learn; your father, she tells me, is well.

Meta’s books come up in conversation more than once in the letters. Meta’s nephew Joseph Walker Barnwell writes to his mother, Catherine, on 14 June 1869, saying, I don’t really understand about the dictionary. The last time I was in Beaufort it was on the shelf in the parlour- it may, however, be among Aunt Meta’s books. Do ask Moll to hunt it up for me, or perhaps Hettie may know about it.

No matter how intelligent or well-read Meta seems to be, there is a fair amount of discussion regarding her sensibilities.

In a letter from her father, Edward, dated April 22, 1837, from Kean’s Neck, we read:

My dear Catherine,

…..I am truly thankful to my dear William and yourself for your kinship to Meta. Particularly as you have been so sick yourself. I trust Meta will feel more and more how much, and how often, you must have performed the affectionate attentions of the kindest parents to her. She seems fully sensible in her letters to me, of the kinship she has had from you both… Kiss the little ones for me and give my love to all the rest. And believe me my dear Catherine, yours with warmest affections,

On 11 June 1865, Stephen Elliott Barnwell writes to his mother, Catherine, saying:

Aunt B. will no doubt have informed you also of my having taken advantage of an opportunity of hob-nobbing a little with Aunt Meta who actually mystified me with an amount of common sense for which she had not been previously credited. Enough [that] she expressed herself as comparatively hap[py] and had not as yet taken up any [more] aversions. Both of your little sisters asked affection [torn] after you and professed much interest [in] the family.

On 19 January 1860, Meta’s father passed away.

By 1860, Meta is no longer living with Catherine and her family. Instead, she shares a home with her only other unmarried sister, Martha, in St. Helena’s Parish, Beaufort, South Carolina.

An incident recorded in the contemporary journal of Miss Jane Caroline North, known as “Carey”, may shed light on the continual reference to Meta’s “sensibility”. Carey writes about an insistent woman who she met in a hotel and then again on the train. Of the woman Carey writes, just before she left the cars she came to me and said ‘don’t you want to know who I am? You must think it funny a stranger should be so sociable.’ Carey answered, I would be happy to know who you are. The woman replies, I am Miss Barnwell sister of Mrs. Pinckney, I knew you were a Miss North, I knew your Grandfather and Uncle.’

Carey reflects on this meeting in her diary and writes: I was really glad to find out who she was, for her talk was so peculiar that I was certain she was distracted and think so a little still.

Mrs. Pinckney was Meta’s younger sister Esther, affectionately known as Hety, and only Meta and Martha would have been qualified as “Miss Barnwell”, sister to Mrs. Pinckney, at the time. Martha’s reserved nature, as reflected in her letters and letters written about her, indicate the likelihood that Carey was referring to Meta.

Meta appears very strong-willed and confident in her opinions. During the Civil War, when President of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis, came to South Carolina, Meta is mentioned in a letter from Caroline Pinckney Seabrook to her cousin Mary Maxcy Leverett. The letter talks about President Davis, followed by a mention of “Mrs. D.", stating Mrs. D. had spent some time in Abbeville previously and Meta B. taught her children with Mr. Parkers'. Meta “wished she was a man to fight for him”.(Taylor, 400). Alongside being tenacious and ready to fight for the cause, it appears that Meta also was a teacher of some regard.

From the book A Story of an American Family we read that, according to Meta’s nephew Joseph, “She [Meta] had bright twinkling eyes, like my grandfather’s and was very pretty in her youth, but she was not his equal in some other respects. She was always very fond of the religion to which she belonged and was anxious at one time to accompany the Misses Gregg of Columbia as a Missionary to Africa.” However, Meta's father refused her hope of being a Missionary in Africa and announced that “she could find enough work to do for Africans at home without crossing the sea." (Barnwell, 87).

In a letter written by Meta’s nephew, Robert Woodward Barnwell, dated 16 August 1847, we read that Meta was a supporter of the temperance movement. “Aunt Martha, and Meta, and Smith are among the converts though Uncle George breathes out fire against the cause and vows that neither Aunt B. or Bet shall join. However, they are in a dead minority and shall have no one either to drink their ?ale? or drink their health”.

In November 1861, almost two years after Meta’s father passed away, the Union army attacked, won, and occupied Beaufort. Almost all of the plantation owners, and their families evacuated the area on the evening of November 6 and the morning of November 7th. Kean’s Neck Plantation, and all the surrounding plantations were quickly abandoned. Many of the slaves were “freed” by default as a result of the fleeing plantation owners and their families.

On the website The Battle for the Coastal Islands of South Carolina we read that, “Teddy Barnwell [Meta’s brother] led a detachment of the Rutledge Mounted Rifles onto Port Royal Island the same day to gather military information. He reported that the town was “still as death," but from the fourth floor of the Barnwell Castle on Bay Street he could see the Union gunboats steaming up the Beaufort River. When Thomas Elliott slipped into Beaufort on November 8, he found that the homes had already been ransacked by the slaves and that the debris of furniture and household goods cluttered the streets. When he arrived at his own home, Elliott found several plantation slaves revelling in the house.”

Inside UPEI’s Provenance Collection book, Biographical and Critical Miscellanies, by William H. Prescott, is written the inscription:

Meta H. Barnwell from her affec. Sister E.O. Barnwell

Tucked between the pages, in the middle of the book, was a journal clipping from the 18 January 1862 edition of Harper’s Weekly: A Journal of Civilization. The clipping was a sketch depicting slaves having a party. Captioned under the picture is Scene in the Parlor of Mr. Barnwell’s House at Beaufort, South Carolina- [Sketched by our Special Artist]. Written on the side of the sketch are the following words:

This sketch as you will perceive coincides with the description given by Tom when his party entered it and conveys in eloquent terms the old establishment and horrors entailed upon may who once enjoyed the belongings of home with all its mere refining influences

Tom could be Meta and Bet’s brother, Thomas Osborn Barnwell, or it could be the Thomas Elliott mentioned above, as he was a friend of the family and distant relative.

Meta, whose sensibility is often in question, who needed at one time to be carried for a change of air, who was given special attention by her father and many others in the family, remains a mystery. Census records never indicate that she was “disabled” or of “feeble mind”. Perhaps just being inquisitive, forthcoming, socially bold and very intelligent didn’t line up with proper behaviour for a genteel lady of the South.

In the 1880 Census, Meta is living alone in Fairplay, Georgia. Her occupation is “keeping house”. By 1898 she is living on Biddle Street West, in Baltimore Maryland, with her half-sister Charlotte Cuthbert Barnwell.

She died in April 1900, in Maryland, and is buried in Loudon Park Cemetery, Baltimore, USA.


1840 United States Federal Census. Census Place: Charleston, Charleston, South Carolina; Roll: 509; Page: 33; Image: 670; Family History Library Film: 0022508

1860 United States Federal Census. Census Place: Saint Helena, Beaufort, South Carolina; Roll: M653_1214; Page: 13; Image: 29; Family History Library Film: 805214

1880 United States Federal Census. Census Place: Fair Play, Habersham, Georgia; Roll: 150; Family History Film: 1254150; Page:597C; Enumeration District: 127; Image: 0138

“Barnwell Family Papers”, Lowcountry Digital Library, accessed 2 August 2016.

Barnwell, Stephen B. The Story of an American Family (Michigan: Marquette, 1969), p.87.

“The Battle for the Coastal Islands of South Carolina”, accessed 2 August 2016.

"Find-A-Grave for Margaret Harriet 'Meta' Barnwell", accessed August 2016.

O’Brien, Michael (editor), An Evening When Alone: Four Journals of Single Women in the South, 1827-67, (Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 1993), 27.

R.L. Polk & Co.'s Baltimore City Directory for 1898. Twelfth Annual Edition. Compiled and Arranged by B.R. Sheriff. Printed by Evening News Publishing Company.

Taylor, Frances Wallace, et al. The Leverett Letters. Correspondence of a South Carolina Family 1851-1868. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.


Captain Edward Barnwell. From book The Story of an American Family by Stephen B. Barnwell, 82.

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