The Manumission of Ann Shorter and Her Children

An 1858 slave sale in Washington D.C., documented by Gene Kerr Sharp, with an explanation of the meaning of a transaction in which a slave for life became a slave for a term of years.



This remarkable document, while titled manumission, is in fact more of a long term lease.  The ‘manumission’ frees Ann Shorter after a period of fifteen years; however, Ann’s two children revert to the slaveholder (Margaret Catherine Barber) for an additional five years upon completion of their terms each at the age of twenty five.

The document’s prime mover was Margaret Catherine Adlum Barber (May 29, 1810 – February 14, 1892).  Margaret was born the daughter of Major John Adlum and Margaret Catherine Adlum.  Major Adlum made his large fortune in land while working as a surveyor.  Her mother, Margaret Adlum and Major John Adlum, shared the same family name and were first cousins.  Her mother came from a prosperous Maryland farming family.  Both her parents had substantial land holdings and each owned a considerable number of slaves.  Margaret’s marriage to Cornelius Barber resulted in additional land and more slaves brought into the family.[1]  The Barber’s resided for many years close to where the U.S. Naval Observatory and Vice President’s house is today.  In 1849, four of her children died during an outbreak of dysentery.  Her husband, Cornelius Barber, died in 1853.  By 1862, she was one of the wealthiest individuals and the second largest slaveholder in the District of Columbia.  After the Civil War she continued to prosper because of her land holdings and business sense, and she resided in the District of Columbia until her death in 1892.

Ann Shorter was born circa 1837, possibly on the Barber family estate in Georgetown, District of Columbia.[2]  The estate’s seventy acres were later purchased by the U.S. government and are now occupied by the U.S. Naval Observatory and the Vice President’s official residence.[3]   The 1858 manumission of Ann Shorter and her children reflects Margaret C. Barber’s business acumen for the manumission is also a bill of sale/lease to Mary Fenwick with a provision for Shorter’s freedom only after a fixed number of years of additional servitude. For slaveholders like Barber and Fenwick, to free a slave by manumission was to reduce the total value of their estate. Most slaves in the District of Columbia were “slaves for life.” A slave who was granted a prospective manumission became “a term slave.[4]  As one distinguished scholar notes: “such agreements were motivated by cold utility rather than libertarian idealism.”[5]  Term slavery, while giving hope to the enslaved, benefited the slaveholder since it also served to check most thoughts of escape and helped insure continued productivity.

Mary Fenwick, the purchaser/lessee of Ann shorter and her children, is most likely Mary E. Fenwick, a wealthy widow, recorded on the 1860 census or the District of Columbia as residing in Ward 4 with her eight children. Her occupation is listed as farmer, her property is valued at $21,000 and her personal estate $5000.

Shorter and her two children Robert and Lucy remained enslaved to Mary Fenwick until April 16, 1862, when they were emancipated in accord with the provisions of the District of Columbia Emancipation Act. Harriet Shorter, listed as the youngest child in the 1858 manumission document, apparently died prior to 1862, as she is not listed in slaveholder Mary Fenwick’s 1862 petition, in accordance with the Emancipation Act, for compensation.

In the petition, Fenwick describes Ann Shorter as “age twenty five, five feet two inches tall – strong and very healthy of handsome countenance intelligent and experienced as a cook.”  Robert Shorter is enumerated as “six years old three feet two inches high handsome and intelligent.”  Lucy Shorter is said to be “healthy and a well-formed child.”  Like many slaveholders, Mary Fenwick had only vague ideas as to the age of her slaves.  As part of the 1862 Emancipation Act, Mary Fenwick, received $197.10 for Ann Shorter, $87.60 for Robert and $43.90 for Lucy.  Like all former slaves, the Shorter’s received their freedom and were able to live as a family with no fear of separation.  They received no financial compensation, yet somehow they made their way and preserved their independence.

The 1870 Census for the District of Columbia, enumerates Ann Shorter, age 30 and her husband Abram age 40, as living in Georgetown.  Abram Shorter was employed as laborer, while Ann was described as keeping house.  The couples four children are enumerated as:  Robert age 13, Izeta age 8, Mary age 4, and Sarah age 2.  Both Ann and Abram are described as unable to read or write but young Robert Shorter is listed as going to school; something largely unavailable to black children prior to the Civil War.  In all Ann and Abram had nine children and seven who reached maturity, the last document listing Ann Shorter is the 1910 census of the District, where she is enumerated as a widow, 70 years of age, residing with her two daughters.



[1] Margaret Catherine Adlum Barber’s slaves are enumerated in her 1862 petition for compensation

[2] Northview , Glover Park and Barber family slaves are discussed by Carlton Fletcher s

[3] In 1879, the Federal government purchased the Barber estate variously known as Northview and as “Pretty Prospect” in the government report. The Barber property is described as 70 acres of “beautiful grounds” of M.C. Barber. The purchase price given is $100,000, see Report of the Commission on Site for the Unites States Naval Observatory, Daniel Ammen et al, Government Printing Office: Washington, DC, 1879,p. 5 and 12.

[4] Rockman, Seth, Scraping by Wage Labor Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 2009, p.66.

[5] Ira Berlin, Generations of Captivity, a History of African American Slaves. Cambridge Massachusetts:  Harvard University, The Belknap Press, 2003,p. 150.

One of the signers of the manumission is John Adlum Barber (1838 -1905) , Margaret Catherine Adlum Barber’s sole surviving child and the principal heir to her fortune.  See



District of Columbia Archive, Manumission of Ann Shorter and children, 1858, Liber JAS154 (1858) f.394/336).

National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC Records of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia relating to Slaves, 1851-1863; Microfilm Serial: M433, Microfilm Roll:1,p.18

NARA U.S. Census for the District of Columbia, 1860, Washington, Ward 4, Microfilm Roll M653 -103, p. 96.

NARA U.S. Census for the District of Columbia, 1870, Washington, Ward 4, Microfilm Roll M593 -124, p. 699A .

NARA U.S. Census for the District of Columbia, 1910, Washington, Ward 8, Microfilm Roll T 624 -153, p. 88.



My thanks to Mr. Carlton Fletcher whose thoughtful and informative article, Slaves of Margaret Barber first alerted me to the manumission of Ann Shorter and her children

My thanks also Mr. Ali Rahmann, Archivist, District of Columbia Archives, for generously providing a copy of Ann Shorter’s manumission document.


Gene Kerr Sharp                                                                          7 October 2011




 M. C. Barber}

To                         } Assignment & Manumission Recorded 13th September 1858

M. Fenwick   }

To all whom it may concern. Be it known that I Margaret C. Barber of the County of Washington in the District of Columbia for divers good causes and considerations me thereunto moving as also in further consideration of the sum of five hundred dollars current money to me in hand paid by Mary Fenwick of Georgetown in the said County before the execution hereof (the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged) have bargained, sold, and assigned, and by this instrument do bargain sell and assign unto the said Mary Fenwick her executors, administrators and assigns my negro woman, Ann Shorter, aged twenty three years, and her two children, one named Robert born in September eighteen hundred and fifty five and the other named Harriet born on July the eighteenth last past.

To have, take and hold my said women and her said children unto and by the said Mary Fenwick her executors administrators and assigns for the following periods or terms of years namely–the said Ann Shorter to serve her and them for the term of fifteen years, commencing from the first of September next and the said two children until they shall respectively attain the age of twenty five years, the mother to be free at the expiration of the said fifteen years, and her said two children to be returned to me or my representatives at their said respective ages of twenty five years, and to serve me and mine, each of them for the term of five years thereafter, and then to be free; and during the time of their servitude to said Mary Fenwick or her representatives, neither the mother nor her said children shall be sold or removed from or out of the said District of Columbia.  And further I the said Margaret C. Barber for the consideration aforesaid, and I the said Mary Fenwick in consideration of one dollar to be paid, have, and we do hereby jointly and severally, release from slavery, manumit, liberate and set free the said negro women, Ann Shorter, from and immediately after the expiration of the said period or term of fifteen years, for which she is to serve me the said Mary Fenwick or my representatives as aforesaid, and her said two children at their respective ages of thirty years; and we do hereby declare that the said Ann Shorter and her two children shall from the period or term, and ages, aforesaid, be thenceforth respectively free, manumitted and discharged from all manner of servitude or service to us and each of us, our and each of our executors, administrators and assigns forever.  And I the said Mary Fenwick do hereby covenant for myself my executors, administrators and assigns with the said Margaret C. Barber her executors and administrators that the said negro woman and her said two children shall not during their respective periods of servitude to me as aforesaid, be removed from or sold out of the said District of Columbia.


In Testimony whereof we the said Margaret C. Barber and Mary Fenwick have hereunto set our hands and seals this thirteenth day of August in the year one thousand eight hundred and fifty eight.  Signed sealed and delivered

In the presence of                                        M.C. Barber     (Seal)

Mary Fenwick  (Seal)

Robert White

John Adlum Barber


District of Columbia

Washington County to wit


Be it remembered that on this thirteenth day of August eighteen hundred and fifty eight personally appeared Margaret C. Barber and Mary Fenwick, parties to the a foregoing instrument of writing, before me the subscriber, a Justice of the Peace in and for the said County and acknowledge the same to be their respective act and deed for the purposes therein mentioned and according to the tenor and effect thereof, and the act of assembly in such case made and provided.


Acknowledged before me.

Robert White



Carlton Fletcher

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