George and Rebecca Barnes represent European American business and reform families. Many of them identified with the Syracuse and Utica Railroad, as well as the Unitarian Church. Many were committed abolitionist organizers and Underground Railroad supporters who used their resources to exert public pressure and to raise money for the cause.
Born in Tenterden Kent County England, in 1827, George Barnes came to Syracuse in 1844 and studied law in the firm of Wilkinson and Bagg. John Wilkinson was President of the Syracuse and Utica Railroad and an organizer of what became the New York Central Railroad in 1853. Thus, Barnes became a major player in two lucrative professions: the law and railroads. Through these businesses, he also became friends with Charles B. Sedgwick. In 1851, he joined the law firm of Sedgwick and Andrews. (Contemporary Biography of New York, 141-43)
Wilkinson’s orphaned niece, Rebecca Heermans, lived with the Wilkinson family and, in 1849, Rebecca married George Barnes. In 1853, they built their new Italianate villa on the James Street hill, once known as Swampy Foot Street Hill, near the homes of their friends, the Wilkinsons and Sedgwicks. Frank Colvin Sedgwick and Thomas Heermans Barnes, sons of the Sedgwick and Barnes families, became inseparable friends. Both tragically drowned in 1862. (Journal, April 19, 1862)
This trio of families formed a core group of Underground Railroad supporters. All three of the men served as members of the thirteen-person Vigilance Committee appointed for Syracuse in October 4, 1850. (Loguen, 395) George Barnes signed a call for a mass convention to be held in the Syracuse City Hall on October 14, 1851 “to take into consideration the Principles of the American Government, and the extent to which they are trampled under foot by the Fugitive Slave Law.” Barnes and Sedgwick also contributed bail money for those indicted as a result of the Jerry Rescue. George Barnes, with others, signed bail for $2000 each for a group of three white men. Barnes also signed bail for $4000 for William Thompson, an African American. Sedgwick served as legal counsel. (Standard, October 16 and 21, 1851)
In succeeding years, George Barnes continued his anti-slavery work. Local tradition suggests that the family held anti-slavery meetings in their library. Judging from Barnes’ participation in anti-slavery meetings, as reported in local newspapers, this seems quite possible. In March 1854, he signed a call for a meeting to support the rescue of a freedom seeker in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Standard, March 20, 1854) In April 1854, he was one of the Directors of a newly-formed City Anti-Slavery Society. (Religious Records, April 13, 1854) The following July, he was one of several hundred Syracuse men to issue a call for a convention to appoint local delegates to a state-wide convention opposed to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. (Standard, July 31, 1854)
In 1855, George Barnes became editor of the Chronicle, in support of the new Republican party. After a brief period in Cincinnati, he returned to Syracuse and became the founder and first president of the Syracuse State Bank and the Trust and Deposit Company of Onondaga.
Both George and Rebecca Barnes were lifelong supporters of the Syracuse Orphan Asylum.
George Barnes died in 1892. Rebecca Barnes died in 1894.
Thanks to Penny Brissenden for her help with this research. All sources come from the Onondaga Historical Association.