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The Women of Montpelier
Unheralded stories of strength, resilience, and resolve
10 Minute Read
January 13, 1845
“if a lady undertakes to accomplish an object, she is not apt to be deterred by trifles . . .”
Evalina Stone Smith to Dolley Madison
Montpelier's Leading Ladies
The most-told story of Montpelier is that of the home of America’s 4th President, James Madison, who, from his library overlooking the sprawling estate, helped to frame a fledgling nation. Historians discuss his intellectual contribution to America and the ideals we hold dear today. And, they try to reconcile his legacy as a politician, a slaveholder, and a founding father.
The lesser-known stories are those of the women of Montpelier, the mothers and wives, sisters and nieces, who through their resilience and perseverance, displayed their power in a society dominated by men.
traditionally receives the most recognition as America’s dynamic first First Lady and political partner to President Madison, yet there are other women whose stories often go untold. Frances Taylor Madison, Nelly Conway Madison, Sarah Madden, Sukey, Ellen Stewart White, and Marion DuPont Scott used their unique talents to make their mark on Montpelier—sometimes quietly, other times boldly—while navigating the constraints imposed upon them for simply being female.
Though their stories don’t all intersect, they do share the common thread of being unheralded in the history books. However, these women helped to make Montpelier what it was, and without their various contributions it’s fair to say that the accomplishments of many of the men of our Founding Era may not have come to pass.
The Madison Women of the 1700s
Frances Taylor Madison & Nelly Conway Madison
Frances Taylor Madison (1700-1761), and her daughter-in-law, Nelly Conway Madison (1731-1829), were among the strongest female influences on the life of James Madison, 4th President of the United States. Their collective resolve and intellect helped to preserve Montpelier and create an environment in which James would eventually flourish.
In 1732, Frances, her husband Ambrose, and their three children moved to Montpelier to settle a 2,850-acre tract secured for Ambrose by Frances’s father, who was one of Governor Spotswood’s “Knights of the Golden Horseshoe.” The land was secured as a dowry for Frances, however due to the custom of
Females did not have independent legal identities. As a child, a female's identity was subsumed within that of the father, and upon being wed, her identity was absorbed by her husband
, the land, which he named Mount Pleasant, belonged to Ambrose. Months after they arrived at Montpelier, Ambrose, possibly poisoned by his slaves, passed away on August 27, leaving Frances a widow in at the age of 32.
Following the death of her husband, Frances made a bold choice for a woman of her time: to stay on and run the sprawling plantation. In 1737 she settled the original patent division with her brother-in-law, Thomas Chew, confirming that she had life rights to the Mount Pleasant property, in accord with the terms of her husband's will. She successfully operated Mount Pleasant, its 2,500-acres, 29 slaves, tobacco fields, and food crops until her death in 1761. The running of the plantation served to increase the wealth and status of her son, James Madison Sr., who would inherit the entirety upon her death.
Nelly was married to Frances's son, James Madison Sr., in 1749 at the age of 18. She gave birth to James on March 16, 1751, followed by 11 other children by the time she was 43. As an adult, Nelly took charge of the early education of her children, schooling them in the rudiments: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Nelly continued to care for her family, traveling to the homes of her grown sons and daughters to spend time with, and nurse, sick family members. Even as she grew older, residing in her own wing of Montpelier, visitors to the property were regularly impressed by her intellect, and would make sure to pay her a visit before meeting with her son, the retired president. Mary Cutts, Dolley's niece, described Nelly as “a lady of excellent education, strong mind and good judgment” who “took an interest in modern events.” She was able to converse confidently about a variety of topics, from the Revolutionary War to modern culture, and was described by Thomas Jefferson's granddaughter as “one of the most interesting pictures of very advanced age that I ever saw.”
Portrait of Mrs. James Madison, Sr. by Charles Peale Polk. Used with permission from Belle Grove Plantation, Middletown, Virginia
Nelly lived a long and full life, dying only seven years before her son James, at the age of 98.
The African American Women of the 1800s
The contribution of the African American women to the legacy of Montpelier can not be understated. Whether through indentured servitude, or slavery, Sarah, Sukey, and Ellen are vital to the history of the people and place.
Sarah Madden (1758-1824), was born a free person of color is 1758, but was forced into indentured servitude because her mother, Mary Madden, was unable to pay the required fine for bearing “a bastard child by any negro or mulatto,” as was the
"Any English woman being free shall have a bastard child by any negro or mulatto, she [must] pay the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, within one month... and in default of such payment... such bastard child shall be bound out as servant by the said church wardens until he or she shall attain the age of thirty years"
of the time. At the age of seven, Sarah was transferred to the Madison family for debts her previous owner could not pay. James Madison Sr. gave his son, Francis, the indentures of Sarah and her four children. When Francis decided to sell the indentures, Sarah feared that she and her family would be sold into slavery and broken apart, as was the unfortunate reality for many African American families of the time. Sarah fled to Fredericksburg, and when her indenture ended at age 31, she moved to Culpeper where she established a successful business as a seamstress and laundress to support her growing family.
A few of her account books survive, showing that she washed, sewed, or repaired dozens of garments each month for her customers. Sarah always appeared as head of her own household in census records.
Indenture of Servitude for Sarah Madden to George Fraser, April 17, 1760, box M-589, Papers of the Madden Family, 1760-1874, MS 4120, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Virginia. Courtesy of The Madden Family.
Sukey & Ellen Stewart White
Born into slavery, Sukey (ca. 1795 – post 1848), served as Dolley Madison’s lady's maid, dressing the First Lady, adorning her hair, helping her bathe, and assisting her in almost every aspect of daily life. She was with the Madison family for some of the most intimate and trying times of their lives, including when Dolley escaped the British attack on Washington in 1814, and when James passed away. In tending to Dolley and the Madison family, Sukey endured long periods of time away from her family and her community on the Montpelier plantation.
Sukey labored as a slave for most of her adult life (and had at least five children born into slavery), one of which was Ellen Stewart, born in 1833. Through Dolley’s letters, we find that Sukey often pushed back against her enslavers, Dolley's dependence on Sukey gave her a measure of power. At one point during her retirement years, Dolley accused Sukey of having “made so many depredations on every thing, in every part of the house” that she decided to punish Sukey by sending her to the fields. Sukey’s exile ended quickly, as Dolley soon realized the difficulty of leading her everyday life without the assistance Sukey provided, saying that it was "terribly inconvenient to do without her."
Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Anna Payne Cutts, ca. July 23, 1818. Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
Meanwhile, in 1848, while living in Washington D.C., Sukey's daughter Ellen overheard Dolley Madison planning to sell her to slave traders. At just 15 years old, she made the daring decision to run away to preserve her freedom. Ellen boarded the schooner,
with 76 other slaves attempting escape, in April of 1848.
Sarah Madden and Ellen Stewart both engaged in well-documented escape attempts, traveling by any means necessary to attempt to free themselves and their families from bondage.
In the early 1780s she set off on foot on a 35-mile journey to Fredericksburg, to explain her case to a judge, James Mercer, hoping that the law would protect her family. Mercer wrote to James Madison Sr. on her behalf asking for the indentures to remain unsold. Despite her efforts, when she returned to Montpelier three of her children were gone, their indentures having been sold, and Sarah was never reunited with them.
, one of the most well-known former Madison slaves who was now living as a Freedman in D.C., the "Pearl Incident" was the largest ever non-violent slave escape attempt in American history. Free blacks and abolitionists organized the escape, attempting to make the over 200-mile journey to the free state of New Jersey. Unfortunately, the
was captured in the Chesapeake Bay. The runaways were recaptured and Ellen was jailed in Baltimore. Abolitionists heard Ellen’s story, and a local physician bought her freedom and helped her get to Boston.
Once in Boston, Ellen was married to Thomas White by Rev. Leonard A. Grimes, the leader of The Fugitive Slave Church, which aided runaways. Ellen eventually moved back to Washington with her daughter, Gertrude, and attended school.
Her mother, Sukey, however, was sold by Dolley Madison to an unidentified Washington, D. C. family, perhaps as a punishment for Ellen’s attempted escape. Sukey's sale epitomizes the inhumanity of the institution of slavery, that someone who Dolley relied on heavily was
treated as transient property.
The duPont Years
Marion duPont Scott
The last of the duPonts to live at Montpelier, Marion duPont Scott, who's name is derived from her brief marriage to actor, Randolph Scott, embodied the modern notions of a strong, independent woman.
The eldest daughter of Annie and William duPont, Marion was born on May 3,1894. She always had a penchant for the outdoors, and preferred to spend her time riding horseback and exploring nearby forests. Remembered as somewhat of a tomboy, Marion was uninterested in the aristocratic propriety of the traditional English finishing school. On November 16, 1915, at the age of 21, Marion was the first woman to ride in an equestrian jumping competition, held at Madison Square Garden. Not only did she ride in the competition, but she took home the coveted blue ribbon. Marion's eschewing of traditional gender roles was at the forefront of bubbling social change in the early 20th century.
Courtesy of Montpelier, a National Trust Historic Site
Horseback riding was more than a rebellious hobby for Marion, it was her calling. In fact the horse shows put on by her and her brother Willie eventually evolved into the Montpelier Hunt Races, which commenced in 1934. She raised champion horses at Montpelier, including Battleship, who became the first American-bred and American-owned horse to win the British Grand National Steeplechase in 1938. By 1976, Marion's stables had produced 50 stakes-winning horses.
As she aged, Marion recognized the beauty and the historical significance of Montpelier. She requested her heirs to donate Montpelier to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, so that it could be restored to its 19th Century appearance, an homage to the life and times of President James Madison.
A Lasting Legacy
It’s easy to look at the women of Montpelier in terms of the gender-based roles and limitations of their times. Their voting rights were non-existent, their intellect was seen as inherently inferior to a man's, and many of them were cast into bondage because of the color of their skin. The options available to them were far more limited than the men of their time, and their potential was often overshadowed by the demands of household upkeep, child-rearing, and entertaining guests.
Yet each of these Montpelier women significantly impacted what we know of Montpelier today as well as the man for whom the plantation is most known. These women contributed to James Madison's life and political career, all while fighting for autonomy, equality, and in the case of the enslaved, survival for themselves and their families. Without Frances, Nelly, Sarah, Sukey, Ellen, and Marion, the story of Montpelier would not be the one we celebrate today.
Their signatures may not be on any documents, but their fortitude and persistence is at the heart of the American experience.
House and Grounds
Birth of the Constitution (1763-1797)
Honeymoon Years (1797-1801)
Retirement Years (1817-1844)
duPont Years (1901-1985)
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