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Montpelier: What’s in a Name?

If you’re a fan of Presidential homes, you may already know that Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello means “little mountain” in Italian.  So what does Montpelier mean?

“Montpelier” doesn’t have a direct translation, since it comes from a place name, rather than a word borrowed from another language. The medieval French city of Montpellier was built on two hills, and its modest elevation seemed to give it a healthy climate. The city eventually boasted a university and a medical school renowned throughout Europe, which may have added to its reputation as a healthful location. “5 Reasons Why Places are Named Montpelier or Montpellier,”, accessed May 1, 2019.

By James Madison’s time, naming a place “Montpellier” conjured up images of an ideal spot, in the same way that we might name our ideal spot “Eden” or “Buena Vista” or “Shangri-La.” “Montpellier” was an especially fitting name for an elevated location with healthy mountain air.

Artist’s conception of the Mount Pleasant site by Linda Boudreaux Montgomery, courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation.The Madison property was originally named Mount Pleasant when President Madison’s grandparents, Ambrose and Frances, established their home in 1732 near what is now the Madison family cemetery. The President’s father, James Madison Sr., moved his family up the hill and built a new house ca. 1765. At some point Madison Sr. renamed the property “Montpelier.” Like “Mount Pleasant,” the name “Montpelier” conveyed the image of an idyllic mountain location – but with an added continental flair. (President Madison, in fact, usually spelled “Montpellier” with two L’s, evoking its French origins.)

Madison used the double-L spelling of Montpellier in the header of this letter to Andrew Parks on November 9, 1826. Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation, MF2014.21.1.Edmund Pendleton, a family friend, visited Madison Sr. in 1781, and soon afterwards he enthused about “the Salubrious Air … not to be exceeded by any Montpelier in the Universe.” Edmund Pendleton to James Madison, July 6, 1781, The Gilder Lehrman Collection, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, New York, New York, accessed April 25, 2019, Montpelier Research Database, MRD-S 33984. This is actually the first time “Montpelier” appears in the documentary record in relation to the Madison home. Pendleton’s comment shows that he understood the connotation of “Montpelier” as the epitome of healthful locations. (Of all the Montpeliers, this was apparently the Montpeli-est.)

But was “Montpelier” already the name of the plantation in 1781? Or was Pendleton just drawing a comparison?

We may never know exactly when the Madisons started calling their home Montpelier. A 1799 insurance application is the earliest surviving document in Madison Sr.’s hand where he refers to “my Plantation called Montpelier.” And although the younger James Madison became the owner of the plantation in 1801 at his father’s death, it was only in 1809, when he became President, that Madison began writing “Montpellier” as the name of his home in correspondence. See note 7 on Pendleton’s letter here. (Previously, Madison either didn’t include a location in the heading of letters he wrote from home, or he simply used “Orange Court House.”)

All the Montpeliers

With such pleasant images attached to “Montpellier,” it’s not surprising that it would be a popular place name. There are over 150 Montpeliers in the world, according to the delightful and slightly obsessive website Several Jamaican plantations were named Montpelier, for example, the first dating to 1684. “So Which is the Oldest Non-French Montpelier or Montpellier?”, accessed May 1, 2019. A list of 349 enslaved workers on one of the Jamaican Montpeliers, compiled in 1798, survives in the Suffolk Record Office in Great Britain. (The people enslaved at any of the Montpeliers undoubtedly found the conditions there much less salubrious than the people who named the plantations.) Unfortunately this list of names has created some confusion when it has been posted on genealogy websites out of context. Since the body of the document does not specify its Jamaican origin, researchers have sometimes mistakenly interpreted it as a listing of people enslaved by James Madison at his Montpelier plantation. (We can only wish we had such a comprehensive listing for Madison’s Montpelier! See Where Have All the Papers Gone and Finding Your Ancestor in the Census.)

Closeup of a document listing people enslaved at a Jamaican plantation named Montpelier, unrelated to James Madison’s Montpelier. (Indenture and List of Negroes on Montpelier Estate [Jamaica], July 31, 1798, MS HA507/4/26, Suffolk Record Office, Bury St. Edmunds branch, Suffolk, Great Britain, accessed May 30, 2019, Montpelier Research Database, MRD-S 46404. Courtesy of The Abolition Project.)

Madison’s Misdirected Mail

The retired President was often dismayed to find that his correspondents simply addressed letters to “James Madison, Montpelier,” and that these letters reached him only after a lengthy detour to Montpelier, Vermont (no doubt another salubrious location, but an inconvenient one for Madison to access his mail). In that pre-ZIP code era, Madison suggested to a correspondent that letters be “addressed to J. M. near O. C. [Orange Courthouse]. Virginia: omitting Montpellier which frequently misleads letters to Vermont.” James Madison to Samuel A. Storrow, March 9, [1828], James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed May 30, 2019, Montpelier Research Database, MRD-S 18195.

Just as Madison’s letters sometimes ended up at the wrong Montpelier, a number of accidental tourists have unintentionally visited the small community of Montpelier in Hanover county, Virginia, when intending to visit James Madison’s Montpelier. To avoid going 48.2 miles out of your way, always be sure to input “James Madison’s Montpelier” or “Montpelier Station, Virginia” into your GPS. If you can’t visit “All the Montpeliers” in one trip, we want to make sure that you visit James Madison’s!