Nikki L. Berg

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




In 1834, at the age of sixteen, southerner Ann Barnes married Richard Thompson Archer, a successful planter twenty-one years her senior. Over the course of their thirty- two years of marriage, the Archers raised ten children and acquired over five hundred slaves. Their family and bondpersons were the defining elements of their lives. As the wife of an affluent planter, the mother of nine children, and the mistress of one of the biggest plantations in Mississippi, Ann Barnes Archer appears to have been the ideal southern lady and to have lived the ideal southern life.

By embodying these three principal roles of wife, mother, and plantation mistress, Archer fulfilled her duties as determined by antebellum gender prescriptions. Although each prescriptions defined and established a “feminine” base of authority within family community, they essentially placed slaveholding women in a subsidiary position to other white residents of their plantations. Archer, however, was far more than a coordinate of her husband, her children, and her overseers. She was at the center of her community and had significant influence over the people with whom she came into contact.

There were three principal factors which established Archer’s centrality in her community - her productive and reproductive duties in regard to her slaves, her role as a counselor to her husband and children, as well as her isolation on the plantation, through an examination of Archer’s individual experience based on her correspondence, consider the significance and consequences of a white woman’s roles and responsibilities on an antebellum slave plantation.

Archer’s experience reflects what was essentially a matrifocal community. Her husband, children, and slaves depended on her personal, educational, and moral guidance, her fulfillment of reproductive and productive duties, and her isolation, to sustain their community. She was in many respects the central figure on the plantation and provided stability and reassurance to both those who had the leisure to leave as well as those who were forced to remain. There may have been a strong patriarchal figure at the head of the Archer family, but, because of her authority as a prescribed moral leader, as well as her static position and management on the plantation, it was arguably the “subsidiary” female figure in the center that held the most sway. Archer accepted her position within her community and took advantage of the authority it provided her. Her experience invites a new interpretation of what it meant to be a plantation mistress in the Old South.