Domestic servants at Montpelier labored primarily in and around the mansion and nearby outbuildings as cooks, waiters, butlers, maids, laundresses, and gardeners, and likely resided in the South Yard housing complex [read more here]. According to the archaeological record and substantiated by an 1837 insurance map, this site included at least three residential duplexes, two smokehouses, and an exterior kitchen. Due to their close proximity to the mansion and their required interactions with visitors, domestic servants were typically provided better fitting, higher quality clothing, superior housing (compared to field laborers), and exposed to a wider political and cultural landscape. Furthermore, domestic servants had unique access to the world beyond the Montpelier plantation; they traveled with, or ran errands for, the Madison family throughout the region. Like other members of Montpelier’s enslaved community, domestic servants likely grew their own vegetables and kept chickens for meat and eggs. During the early nineteenth century, it was not uncommon for house servants to receive monetary tips from visitors; these monies were used to purchase goods at local markets. There is no extant evidence to suggest that the Madisons taught their slaves to read or write, but letters written by their domestic (Paul Jennings, Sarah Stewart) servants survive, verifying literacy within the bounds of slavery at Montpelier.
Because the extant historical record contains few primary sources about individual slaves in the Piedmont region, the identities of many of the hundreds of slaves who worked and lived here are currently unknown. Through court records, correspondence, receipts, and accounts, we know more about a handful of domestic servants, including Paul Jennings, Ralph and Catherine Taylor, Aleck, and Sukey.
Sawney, Madison Jr.'s personal manservant, accompanied the young Madison when went away to the College of New Jersey in Princeton. Sawney labored in a variety of positions at Montpelier, including as overseer of a Montpelier quarter known as “Sawney’s tract” for a number of years. Later in life, Sawney often sold the Madisons produce, eggs, and chickens from his small plot of land, and waited on President Madison’s mother at the end of her life.
The Madisons brought multiple enslaved domestic servants, including Paul Jennings and Sukey, to labor at the President’s House. Jennings was approximately ten-years-old when he first accompanied the Madisons to the nation’s capital and likely worked as a footman, waiter, porter, and perhaps as postilion. Sukey, whose last name is unknown, was possibly a maid or washerwoman, and later became Dolley’s personal lady’s maid, caring for the first lady’s wardrobe, dressing her hair, stitching decorative hems, and attending her on trips. While there were likely additional Montpelier slaves who labored for the Madisons in Washington, extant documentation fails to reveal their identities, though records indicate the Madisons hired enslaved and free blacks to work for them.
Image Rendered by Chad Keller, Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, University of Virginia
South Yard Complex
Domestic servants at Montpelier resided in the South Yard complex. In addition to three duplex housing structures, the complex included two smokehouses and a kitchen.
Image Courtesy of Sylvia Jennings Alexander
Paul Jennings is by far the most notable Madison slave. Born into slavery at Montpelier, Jennings went on to accompany the Madisons to Washington during Madison's tenure as president, continued as Madison's person manservant until his death in 1836, and eventually purchased his own freedom.