The Founding of Montpelier
People enslaved by Ambrose Madison, James Madison’s grandfather, began clearing the land for the plantation that became known as Montpelier around 1725. Ambrose Madison’s father-in-law, Colonel James Taylor, acquired the property on what had been Manahoac and land near the Southwest Mountains in what is now Orange County during a period of westward expansion in Virginia. Taylor parceled the land out between his two sons-in-law: Ambrose Madison and Thomas Chew; Madison received 2,850 acres. He named the plantation Mount Pleasant, and enslaved people built a house on the property about half a mile from where Montpelier would sit. Ambrose Madison sent between ten and twenty enslaved people to Mount Pleasant to clear the land and plant tobacco in the years before he and his family moved there.
Ambrose Madison, his wife, Frances Taylor Madison, and their four children moved to Mount Pleasant in early 1732, but Ambrose Madison died six months later, in August 1732. The local justices ruled the death a poisoning carried out by two of the people Ambrose enslaved, Dido and Turk, and a neighboring enslaved person, Pompey. All three were tried, and Pompey was sentenced to death by hanging. Dido and Turk were returned to Mount Pleasant and are likely the ancestors of many generations of enslaved people at Montpelier.
After Ambrose Madison’s death, Frances Taylor Madison ran the plantation until their oldest son, James Madison Sr., came of age in 1744. In 1764, enslaved people built a new two-story brick home that would be called Montpelier. In 1797, Madison’s son James Madison returned to live at Montpelier with his new wife, Dolley Todd Madison, and oversaw the construction of a portico and a thirty-foot extension to the house, which was also built by enslaved laborers. James Madison Sr. died in 1801, and James Madison inherited Montpelier and its enslaved population.
The Enslaved Population at Montpelier
There is no complete inventory of enslaved people at Mount Pleasant or Montpelier for any year except 1732, because most of the records concerning people enslaved at Montpelier were lost or destroyed. However, through the remaining account books, tax records, letters, deeds of sale, wills, receipts, and journals, along with a robust archaeology program and decades of collecting oral histories from descendants of enslaved people, historians and archaeologists have identified 300 individuals enslaved at Montpelier and pieced together a picture of their lives (the Naming Project is currently putting biographies of some of these individuals online).
The enslaved community at Montpelier was not self-contained; it was widely connected to enslaved people on other plantations in Orange County and the surrounding area. There were marriages and families that stretched across multiple plantations. Recent surveys using ground-penetrating radar have revealed the existence of worn footpaths connecting Montpelier to adjacent plantations, adding to the evidence of familial and social connections beyond the bounds of Montpelier.
Like people enslaved on other Central Virginia plantations, enslaved laborers at Montpelier worked the land growing cash crops such as tobacco and wheat, waited on the Madison family and performed the domestic tasks required to run the plantation, and engaged in skilled trades such as carpentry, blacksmithing, and weaving. Overseers were employed to manage the day-to-day operations at Montpelier. Some overseers were enslaved, while others were white men hired from the area. James Madison attempted to avoid hiring physically harsh overseers, as he and Dolley Madison disapproved of the physical punishment of enslaved people, preferring to withhold privileges or threaten to sell enslaved people to maintain discipline.
Little is known about the health of the enslaved community at Montpelier. There are multiple accounts of doctors coming to Montpelier to treat enslaved people. Through letters, historians have also determined that at least two epidemics occurred at Montpelier: one in the 1820s and another in the 1840s that killed many enslaved people. There are also several accounts of enslaved people living beyond the age of seventy at Montpelier. Though there is not much documentary evidence about the food enslaved people received at Montpelier, a letter to overseers from James Madison describes food rations including milk, meal, and pork, and a letter from a visitor to Montpelier describes enslaved people as having gardens, raising poultry, and being able to eat without restriction.
Personal Items Excavated From Enslaved Quarters at Montpelier
The enslaved community at Montpelier was provided with Archaeological surveys also have found remnants of toys such as marbles, as well as a pipe, beads, and jewelry. Enslaved laborers at Montpelier were also likely able to hire themselves out on Sundays (when they were not required to work) for wages, as was common practice. It is also likely that visitors tipped enslaved domestic workers during their visits, again in keeping with widespread custom.that was likely sewn outside the plantation, with domestic servants receiving better clothing than enslaved people who worked in the fields. Enslaved people also purchased fabric, thread, and buttons from nearby stores that they used to make clothes for themselves. Receipts indicate that enslaved people also purchased glassware, pipes, hats, and rum.
It is not known how many enslaved people at Montpelier were, though historians have identified at least three individuals who could likely read and write. Letters from enslaved domestic workers to the Madisons in Washington exist, and while they may have been written by white neighbors, there are some suggestions that the letters were written by the enslaved persons themselves. Documents also suggest that enslaved blacksmiths were able to read the ledgers needed to perform their jobs.
Paul Jennings, Enslaved Servant Sold by Dolley Madison
There are two first-hand accounts by people enslaved at Montpelier. Paul Jennings, who was born at Montpelier in 1799 and served as a footman in the White House during the Madison administration and then as Madison’s valet when he returned to Montpelier, wrote A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison (1865). The memories of Ailsey Payne, an enslaved domestic worker at Montpelier, appeared in an article from an unknown newspaper around October 1902 that was found in a scrapbook belonging to the du Pont family, who purchased Montpelier in 1901. Payne recalled the marquis de Lafayette’s visit to Montpelier in 1824 and told of all the preparations that took place to get Montpelier ready for this great event.
Sale and Family Separation
James Madison Advertising for the Capture of Enslaved Seeking Freedom
James and Dolley Madison tried to avoid sellingand separating families as much as possible, to the point of selling land from the 3,000-acre plantation to pay off debt. However, the early 1800s were a period of dramatically declining profitability for many large Virginia plantations, and Montpelier was no exception. As their financial situation worsened, exacerbated by gambling debts accrued by Dolley Madison’s son, John Payne Todd, James Madison in 1834 sold sixteen enslaved people to his cousin William Taylor in Louisiana. Notably, in 1783, Madison did sell an enslaved person, Billy Gardner, who had accompanied him to Philadelphia, a city with a large free Black population, during his three years with the Continental Congress. Gardner may have tried to self-emancipate while in Philadelphia; Madison , that Gardner was “coveting” liberty. Regardless, Madison told his father, “I am persuaded that his mind is too thoroughly tainted to be a fit companion for fellow slaves in Virga.” Constrained by Pennsylvania law from selling Gardner outright, however, Madison sold him into a seven-year term of indenture, and afterward he lived as a free man.
After Madison’s death in 1836, Dolley Madison remained deeply in debt and financially pressured by lawsuits from creditors. She owned approximately seventy-five enslaved people in 1844, when a series of legal judgements directed the Orange County sheriff to seize Montpelier’s enslaved individuals and sell them to settle Madison’s debts. Sarah Stewart, an enslaved domestic at Montpelier,, who was living in Washington, D.C., on July 5, 1844, “We are afraid we shall be bought by what are called negro buyers and sent away from our husbands and wives,” a reference to slave traders who frequently bought enslaved people from distressed plantations in the Upper South and sold them to booming cotton plantations in the Lower South. She begged Madison to “get neighbors to buy us that have husbands and wives, so as to save us some misery which will in a greater or less degree be sure to fall upon us at being separated,” but it is unlikely that the neighboring plantations were in any better financial shape.
Ultimately, the enslaved community at Montpelier was largely broken up because of Madison’s financial difficulty. Henry Moncure purchased Montpelier in August 1844 and with it twenty-two enslaved people, who were rescued from the sheriff’s sale. (He also may have received some elderly enslaved individuals who were deemed to have no monetary value.) Dolley Madison transferred ownership of thirty-seven enslaved adults and approximately thirteen enslaved children to Todd. Her son sold at least two of these individuals to neighboring plantations, and may have sold more, and used others as collateral for loans. He granted the remaining enslaved individuals their freedom in his will, but most were sold to pay off his gambling debts when he died in 1852. Several enslaved individuals, including Sarah Stewart, remained with Dolley Madison in Washington.
The fate of the enslaved individuals who remained at Montpelier after its sale to Moncure is unknown. Moncure sold Montpelier after four years, and the property had six more owners before it was bought by the du Pont family in 1901. Although historians don’t know if those enslaved at Montpelier through thein 1865 were descendants of those who labored there during the Madison era, it is likely that many remained in and around Orange County. According to oral histories, several descendants of the Montpelier enslaved community worked for the du Pont family during the twentieth century. Most of those who did not remain in Orange County migrated north to Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, and New York City, where many continued to live near each other.