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Putting People in the Picture

I have the satisfaction of informing you that in the midst of our political agitations, the earth is silently and bountifully making its contributions to our comfort and enjoyment.
James Madison, 18341

James Madison presented an idyllic image of American agriculture in this 1834 letter to the American minister to France, Edward Livingston. While it may indeed have been a fine season for crops, Madison did not state the obvious: that at Montpelier and most farms and plantations throughout the south, the earth brought forth its bounty only through the hard work of enslaved laborers.

No complete record of the enslaved labor force and plantation operations survives for Montpelier (see Where Have All the Papers Gone?). There are no farm journals, no complete series of account books. By combing carefully through the records that do survive – letters, wills, legal documents – we can piece together a partial picture of Montpelier as a working plantation. Even when we are able to compile lists of crops, or trace breeds of sheep and cattle, it can still be difficult to find the names of individual people who were plowing fields and shearing wool. But every so often, we do catch a glimpse of an enslaved person at work, in a passing mention in a Madison letter or in the details of a visitor’s recollection.

One of your Waggons is still engaged in carrying your wheat to market.
William Madison to James Madison, 18112

Wagons didn’t drive themselves, but the Madisons often wrote as if they did. In this letter James Madison’s brother William, who was managing some of Montpelier’s business during James’s presidency, was more concerned about where the wagons were going and what was in them, than about the particular people who were driving.

Waggoner Aleck will deliver 2 Hhs Tobo which will be followed by others as fast as they can be made ready.
James Madison to Bernard Peyton, 18263

Sometimes, however, Madison did drop a name. This letter mentions Aleck delivering two hogsheads of tobacco to Richmond merchant Bernard Peyton. (A hogshead was a barrel 48 inches tall and 30 inches in diameter, holding about 1000 pounds of tobacco.) Aleck periodically appears in letters in the 1820s and 1830s, as the person who drove Madison’s tobacco and flour to merchants in Fredericksburg or Richmond, and returned with items that Madison had ordered from the merchants. But even though Aleck himself is mentioned by name in this letter, there are still some invisible laborers in the background, cultivating and curing and packing the tobacco into hogsheads and making it ready for market.

We know that the enslaved laborers were there – raising crops, tending livestock, plying skills such as blacksmithing and weaving. We just need a little more evidence to connect the names we know with the work they did, so that we can put the people back into the picture.


Establishing a Plantation

We can start with one of the earliest documents that gives evidence for plantation operations: the estate inventory of Ambrose Madison, grandfather to the future president. Ambrose established his Mount Pleasant plantation near where the Madison family cemetery is today. Ambrose, in fact, was the first person to be buried in the cemetery, only a few months after moving his family to Mount Pleasant. He was the victim of an apparent poisoning by enslaved laborer Pompey, whom Ambrose had leased from an Orange county neighbor. The inventory of Ambrose’s estate gives an overview of the early operations of the plantation.

The inventory lists 10 “Negro Men” (Tom, Turk, Bristoll, Joe, Harry, George, Isaac, Petter, Spark and Dick), 5 “Negro Women” (Nanny, Kate, Daffney, Clarisea, and Dido), and 14 “Negro Children” (Leucy, Betty, Catterenea, Sarah, Cussina, Lett, Juda, Violet, Nancy, Hannah, Jack, Billy, Sam, and Anthoney). Some of the enslaved tended the livestock that were listed in the inventory: 59 head of cattle, 18 hogs, 16 sows and pigs, and 19 sheep, which they sheared with “1 pr. of Sheep Shers.” Someone worked in the garden, using “1 pr. of Gerdin Shers” (garden shears) and “1 Tin Gardin Pot.” Many of the enslaved used the “13 New Weeding Hows” (hoes) listed on the inventory to cultivate tobacco, then Virginia’s primary cash crop. Someone used the trace harness and cart on the inventory to hitch a horse to pull the cart; with no ox yoke on the inventory, it appears that no one was driving the cart with oxen. Although we can’t say which individual did which task, the list of enslaved names and the list of livestock and tools gives a fairly well-rounded picture of Montpelier’s operations as of August 1732.4


Raising Field Crops, Overseeing Tracts

Ambrose’s wife Frances Taylor Madison ran the plantation after his death, at first by herself and then with her son James Madison Sr. for several more years. He expanded the landholdings, established a profitable blacksmith shop, and set up a distillery and a store. All of these enterprises operated with enslaved labor. By 1790, his son James Madison Jr. had acquired two tracts of his own, beyond what Madison Sr. owned. Madison Jr., heading to Philadelphia as a member of the First Congress under the new Constitution, left a set of written instructions for his overseers: two free white men, Lewis Collins and Mordecai Collins, and an enslaved overseer, Sawney. Sawney oversaw a 560-acre farm on the former Edmundson property, and was so much associated with it that by the time it was sold 50 years later, it was referred to in legal documents as “Sawney’s tract.”5

The list of instructions Madison left for Sawney included these tasks:

To have a patent plow… & to fallow the little field allotted for meadow first: then the field on the old mountain. He is to plow his ground all around in the manner prescribed for M. Collins.
To clear as much ground as possible along the road and adjoining the field towards Capt: Merry’s.
To stem & get down as soon as may be convenient his crop of Tobacco. To have all his Wheat well cleaned & got down as soon as possible for Mr. Dunbar.
To plant about 200 apple Trees either before Christmas or very early in the Spring, in the little field on the top of the Mountain: beginning with the Tobacco ground, & going on to the best part of the old field adjoining. …
To plant his corn 5½ feet by 5½. and lay off his ground by Stakes.
To plant all the Tobo. ground on the top of the Mountain in Irish Potatoes; and as much more as he can find that is worth planting.6

Madison’s instructions for Sawney reflect Madison’s own interest in a more scientific approach to agriculture. He wanted Sawney to use an efficient new style of patent plow, and to plow the ground “all around,” meaning to plow according to the contours of the land rather than in straight lines; this would help prevent run-off and erosion. Sawney was also responsible for readying crops of tobacco and wheat for market, and for planting an apple orchard and fields of corn and potatoes.

Sawney was not Madison’s only enslaved overseer. In 1804, after Madison had inherited the Montpelier tract from his father, white overseer John Clark mentioned both Sawney and another enslaved overseer, Ralph, in a letter: “This time you wanted to know How much wheet was sown by me I have sown 45 Bushels, Ralph 67 Bushels my Corn 350 Barrells Ralphs Corn was not measured … I have Ralphs and Best part of sawneys seed wheet to pay out of my wheet.”7

Ralph, sometimes referred to as Ralph Sr. or Old Ralph, was the grandfather or father of Ralph Philip Taylor (who sued for and won his freedom after the death of John Payne Todd, James Madison’s stepson, in the 1850s).

A brick mosaic in the exhibition The Mere Distinction of Colour. Just as it took many brick fragments to form this portrait of an anonymous child, it takes many pieces of evidence to portray the lives of unnamed enslaved laborers. Proun Design, Chris Danemeyer photograph, courtesy of Montpelier, a National Trust site.

Although there are numerous references to overseers Sawney and Ralph in Madison’s correspondence, there are far fewer references to individual enslaved field workers. Madison referred to “the laborers” collectively during the wheat harvest on this hot, dry day in July 1793:
“The weather at present is extremely favorable for the harvest, being dry. It is the reverse however for the laborers, being excessively hot. The Thermometer at this moment (4 OC. P. M.) is up at 96°.”8

Madison again referred to “my harvest men” collectively when he wrote to a fellow agricultural enthusiast, Richard Peters, debating which varieties of wheat were pest-resistant. Madison favored Lawler wheat, which he noted “has a very hollow and soft stalk. All my harvest men concurred in saying that it cut almost as easily as oats.”9

Madison’s friend James K. Paulding mentioned Tony in an anecdote of Paulding’s visit to Montpelier in the summer of 1818 – one of the few times we hear the name of an enslaved field laborer, someone who was not an overseer or a craftsman. Paulding rode out on horseback with Madison to see one of Madison’s tracts that bordered the Rapidan River. The river had flooded after a heavy rain, and two or three inches of gravel had washed up and ruined a meadow. Paulding recounted this conversation when Madison stopped to talk to Tony:

“Why this is a bad business Tony.” said Mr. Madison.
“Yes mas[t]er ver[y] bad—ver[y] bad indeed”—answered Tony–then scratching his grey head, he added … “I tell You what Mas[t]er—I t[h]ink The Lor[d] a[l]mighty by and large, he do [al]most as much harm as good.”10


Tending Gardens

In addition to growing wheat and tobacco for sale, enslaved workers also raised vegetables for the Madisons, and sometimes themselves, to eat. (See Montpelier’s Edible Alphabet). Joe is the first enslaved gardener to be mentioned in correspondence, and the only one to be mentioned by name. Niece Nelly Willis, keeping an eye on Montpelier while the Madisons were in Washington DC, reported to Dolley Madison in April 1805, “Joe has paid great attention to the Garden every thing in it looked flourishing when I saw it last – your Peas were growing away finely so you must make haste home to eat them.”11

Other enslaved gardeners are mentioned without being named. A local resident remembered that “farm-hands” had created a flat back lawn and a terraced garden according to the design of French gardener Charles Bizet: “The back lawn was laid out and leveled by the farm-hands, I think. … a Frenchman named Beasey had charge of the garden. I presume he laid it out. …This also, I think, was done by old Mr. Beasey, with the aid of detailed farm-hands. The construction of that succession of horseshoe terraces which makes the garden must have been a heavy job.”12 Archaeological evidence has shown the extent of the enslaved hands’ earthmoving project, which was indeed “a heavy job.”

Niece Mary Cutts noted that when James Madison received rare plants as gifts, “they were carefully studied and reared by the gardener and his black aids.”13 After dismissing a later gardener, Scotsman Archibald Blair, Dolley Madison wrote that “we … called in three black men, who understood the business—and we hope to have from them as many good things as usual.”14

One other enslaved gardener appears in the account of visitor Thomas Bloomer Balch, a traveler who stopped at Montpelier one June day while the widowed Dolley Madison was in Washington on an extended visit (likely in 1838 or 1842). Balch wheedled the overseer into showing him through the house, and toured the garden with an enslaved man who was working in the garden beds:

…passing beyond the house [I] entered the gate of the garden. An old colored man was working in the beds; but he paused, and leaning on his rake seemed to await my inquiries. He took me down the inclined plane of the garden, and showed me various plants and grafted trees.15

Members of the enslaved community gardened not only for the Madisons, but also for themselves. Mary Cutts recalled that “ ‘Old Sawney’… had his house and ground, where he raised his favorite vegetables, cabbages and sweet potatoes…” She also mentioned a garden at the cabin where 104-year-old “Granny” Milly lived with her daughter and her 70-year-old granddaughter. Cutts says “their patch of ground [was] cultivated for them,” so that presumably means other enslaved community members gardened for this family of aging women.16 All this suggests that many members of the enslaved community had gardening skills, forming a pool of garden-skilled workers who could be “called in” by the Madisons when they wanted additional workers in the garden.

Caring for Livestock

Mary Cutts noted that in addition to raising vegetables near his dwelling, Sawney also raised “chickens and eggs to be sold to ‘Miss Dolley’.” 17 At many plantations, chickens were the one type of livestock that was almost exclusively owned by the enslaved community, who then sold chickens and eggs for their own small profit. Another bit of evidence for the enslaved community owning and selling chickens comes from an invoice submitted by the Madisons’ White House chef and butler Michel Kromenacker. He made a trip to Montpelier in 1812 and invoiced Madison for 50 cents “paid for chickens at Montpelier.”18 Kromenacker wouldn’t have invoiced Madison for the chickens if they were part of Madison’s own livestock. Since the invoice clearly states that the chickens were purchased at Montpelier, Kromenacker must have bought them from someone in the enslaved community.

Enslaved people spent less time raising their own chickens than tending the Madison livestock. They were responsible for caring for Madison’s horses, and driving wagons and carriages. Sam is mentioned several times as a carriage driver. In December 1799, James wrote to Dolley that Sam, who had just driven him to Richmond for a session of the General Assembly, would return the next day:

“I have found it more convenient to let Sam remain until tomorrow morning, than to start him today. He will be able to execute the journey in one day with ease, with an empty carriage.”19

Aleck, as mentioned previously, often drove Madison’s wagon to transport tobacco and flour to merchants. One particular letter from Fredericksburg merchant William Allen mentions an out-of- the-ordinary transaction:

I have also furnished Alleck at his request with fifty cents for the purpose of shoeing his horses which he said was absolutely necessary for him to have done.20

Aleck was clearly experienced enough to notice the need for re-shoeing the horses. He took the initiative to ask for the money, perhaps having to be persistent or emphatic, judging by Allen’s wording. By the end of the conversation Allen apparently accepted Aleck’s assessment and advanced the necessary funds.

These outlined dwellings mark locations where enslaved field workers lived on Montpelier’s home farm. Kenneth Garrett photo, courtesy of Montpelier, a National Trust site.

Madison, who strove to approach agriculture from a scientific perspective, preferred to use oxen rather than horses whenever possible, since oxen could be more cheaply fed on grass instead of corn. George Massie wrote to Madison in 1828 about unnamed ox drivers who gave up on one of Madison’s oxen during a journey. “Your waggoners some little time past on their return from Richmond encamped at my black smiths shop not far from my house, and in the morning when they started they left an ox their as I suppose to die,” Massie reported. Massie ascertained that the ox “was not sick but only fatigued … after a while with assistance we got him up and I turned him into a grassy place in my inclosure where he presently filled himself and is now well. And you can have him again by sending for him, unless you feel free to make me a present of a dead ox.”21

Paul Jennings, who had been James Madison’s personal servant after Madison retired, took on a variety of duties after Madison’s death, including serving as Dolley Madison’s coach and wagon driver. In April 1844, while Dolley was in Washington, she sent Jennings on a trip to Montpelier. He mailed her a letter soon after reaching Montpelier: “I write you A fiew line to let you know that I arrive safe home with the horses an wagon.”22


Made at Montpelier

British diplomat Sir Augustus John Foster visited Montpelier in 1807 and was impressed by the number of trades plied by enslaved craftsmen:

“When at a distance from any town it is necessary they should be able to do all kind of handiwork; and, accordingly, at Montpellier I found a forge, a turner’s shop, a carpenter, and wheelwright.”23

An account written in 1839 also described a range of skills within the enslaved community:

“They work a saw and grist mill for the plantation and neighborhood, and employ a carpenter, blacksmith, shoemaker, weaver, &c. So that the cloth and shoes of the servants, the bread they eat and the planks that protect them from the weather, are all manufactured on the plantation.”24



Both of the above quotes mention a forge or a blacksmith. When Madison’s father owned Montpelier, he had a sizeable blacksmithing operation, where enslaved smiths forged and repaired tools, hardware, and other ironwork items, not only for use at Montpelier but also for sale to the outside community. Their work generated a significant amount of income for Madison Sr.

Moses was a highly skilled blacksmith, so much so that James Madison Jr. requested Moses several times when he needed something specific or special from his father’s forge. In his 1790 instructions to overseers, Madison directed overseer Mordecai Collins “To get a plow made by Moses according to the model lately arrived…”25 On another occasion Madison wrote to his father for an update on a project Moses had undertaken: “I hope Moses has finished my Waggon: if not pray instruct him to do so.”26

In addition to their ironwork skills, the blacksmiths in Madison Sr.’s shop had an additional skill we might not expect: bookkeeping. We learn this from a lawsuit brought against William Madison, the President’s brother, who served as executor for Madison Sr.’s estate. Another family member alleged that William had not been diligent in collecting what was owed to the estate. In the course of explaining why he had not tried to collect on the few small accounts that remained unpaid, William noted in passing that “the Blacksmiths shop accounts were kept by the negro smithes.”27 William’s offhand observation gives a remarkable insight into the capabilities of the enslaved blacksmiths, who not only possessed the skills of their trade, but could also write and do the arithmetic necessary to keep the shop’s ledgers current.



Carpenters were mentioned in both the 1807 and 1839 descriptions of Montpelier’s domestic production, above. Although we don’t know the names of the carpenters during Madison Jr.’s ownership of Montpelier, we do know the names of two particular carpenters leased by Madison’s father in 1763.

Madison Sr. sometimes hired enslaved craftsmen from other slaveowners in a sort of rental arrangement. (The fees went to the other enslaver in this case, not to the enslaved worker.) Madison Sr. happened to be the trustee for his niece and ward Mary Willis, who had inherited a sizeable estate from her father, including land and enslaved people. Madison Sr. periodically hired carpenters George and Peter from this estate, recording his payments in the account book he kept with the estate, such as this entry from August 25, 1763:

“To the hire of George Ten Months & Nine Days & of Peter Nine Months & Six days including the Winter Season”28

Madison Sr.’s major building project during these months in 1762-63 was his new mansion house, which suggests that Peter and George likely did the carpentry work on the Montpelier house.

Shadow figures in The Mere Distinction of Colour exhibition remind us that we know only the bare outlines of the life stories of many of Montpelier’s enslaved workers. Rick Seaman photo, courtesy of Montpelier, a National Trust site.

Spinning and Weaving

We know the names of several enslaved textile workers during both Madison Sr.’s and Madison Jr.’s ownership of Montpelier. Reuben, a weaver, is mentioned in Madison Sr.’s description of a 1796 fire at the house of his overseer James Coleman. Among the losses was thread that had been spun but Reuben had not yet woven:

… there was spun Stuff enough, upon a calculation, to have made 500 Yards of Cloth, some of which would have been wove up if Reuben had not been laid up with the Rheumatism, which has confined him from weaving for the last three months.29

Eleven years earlier, in 1785, Madison Sr. wrote that his wife Nelly Madison intended to have some fabric woven, “but is apprehensive that her weaver’s hand is a little out, and the weaving geer out of sorts & is afraid the work will not be so well executed as she would wish.”30 Was that earlier weaver the same person as Reuben, and was he starting to have the beginnings of rheumatism in his hands? Or are they two different people, who both developed arthritic hands because of the kind of work they did?

In addition to Reuben, we know the names of two other weavers: Hariot and Amey. Dolley offered to have one of these two weavers do some work for her brother John Coles Payne in 1829: “I insist on Hariots weaving for you – or Amey’s doing it whichever you like best – ”31

Many People, Many Tasks

Sometimes our own experience of the 21st-century working world influences the way we ask questions of the past. We ask who “the cook” was, or whether they had “a shoemaker,” as if each enslaved person had only one specific job or task. The reality was much more fluid. Many enslaved people had multiple skills, and moved from one task to another according to the decisions of their enslavers.

A diary kept by Francis Taylor, the owner of another Orange county plantation called Midland, gives an intriguing example of a single enslaved person with a variety of duties: Davy.

October 29, 1787: “Davy began to make Shoes, made 1 pair.”
November 4, 1787: “Del[ivere]d Shoes to some of the Negroes.”
November 9, 1787: “Davy finished Shoemaking 20 pair.”

November 12, 1794: “I let Davy go to his house to make a pair Shoes for Harry”
January 5, 1795: “Col A Maury paid me 4/. for Davys making 2 pair & mending 3 pr Shoes last winter.”
October 5, 1799: “Davy mended shoes”32

These are just a few entries from Taylor’s diary that mention Davy making shoes. The pattern of the three entries from 1787 is repeated many times, in which Davy spent two weeks at a time making a large number of shoes for the other enslaved people at Midland. Sometimes Davy was assigned to make or repair shoes for a particular person at Midland, and sometimes the owners of other plantations paid Taylor for shoes that Davy had made for them. If we looked only at these entries, we would probably consider Davy “the shoemaker.”

But when we look through the entire diary to see what else Davy did, it becomes clear that his work encompassed more than shoemaking. He planted and harvested crops, sheared sheep, shoed horses, dug ditches, and did a little carpentry or waggoning when the need arose. So while Davy was “the shoemaker” in the sense that he was the person Taylor called on when he wanted shoes for the enslaved community at Midland, Davy was not exclusively a shoemaker. That was probably true for many of the enslaved at Montpelier. One or more of the enslaved community might have a particular skill, but that didn’t limit their other assignments. Many people worked in the fields, some might be re-assigned to the garden, and probably at harvest time every available person was working to get the crop in while it was at its peak.

The Madisons might write of the earth bringing forth harvests or the wagons heading to market, but we know that enslaved men and women were the source of all the labor that made Montpelier function. While their freedom was denied to the enslaved, they deserve recognition for the range of their skills and the dignity of their work. Putting the people back in the picture gives us a fuller and richer appreciation of the inner workings of Montpelier.