Early History

Research & Collections

Early - Ambrose and Madison Sr.

In 1723, Ambrose Madison, President James Madison’s grandfather, sent slaves to clear his newly acquired land patent of 2,850 acres in the Piedmont area of Virginia and build the first Madison home in the area, Mount Pleasant. Ambrose, with his wife Frances and three children, did not move to the new property until the spring of 1732. That same year, surviving court documents suggest Ambrose died as a result of a poisoning at the hands of three slaves – Pompey, Dido, and Turk. Pompey, who was leased to Madison by a neighboring plantation owner, was eventually sentenced to death by hanging for his role in the murder. Dido and Turk, who were members of the enslaved Mount Pleasant community, were sentenced to twenty-nine lashes each and returned to Frances Madison, who inherited her late husband’s property, including the twenty-nine slaves listed on his inventory. Though little extant documentation survives, it is likely those enslaved men, women, and children were the ancestors of many of Madison Jr.’s slaves at Montpelier.

Upon his mother’s death, James Madison Sr. inherited one of the largest plantations in Orange County, which he systemically expanded to diversify his economic base. While tobacco remained the primary source of income for the Madisons at Montpelier, the enslaved community supported a wide ranging crop production, including grains. To supplement his plantation income, Madison Sr. also operated a commercial blacksmith shop, selling horseshoes, nails, brandy, and other assorted goods to the neighborhood.

Madison Jr. – Montpelier Plantation

At the time of Madison Sr.’s death in 1801, his inventory listed 108 slaves. Although the number fluctuated, approximately 100 slaves lived at Montpelier during Madison Jr.’s ownership from 1801-18136. Most were assigned to field labor or preformed domestic service around the main house. Madison instructed overseers who, in turn, supervised labor gangs of slaves. Slaves with specialized skills, such as blacksmiths, millers, and weavers, worked alone or in small groups to complete their tasks across the property.

When James and Dolley Madison retired to Montpelier in 1817, the plantation was comprised of approximately 3,000 acres, upon which about 110 enslaved men, women, and children lived and worked. A significant property owner (of both land and slaves), Madison was atypical in his neighborhood. In 1820, according to the census for Orange and Green Counties, individuals who owned more than 51 slaves accounted for only 2.3% of all slaveholdings; 41.3% of the overall local slaveholdings were individuals who owned between one and five slaves.

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Montpelier Slave Cemetery

The slave cemetery at Montpelier is located just beyond the front lawn of the mansion and within view of the Mount Pleasant archaeological site. The cemetery contains roughly 40 unmarked grave shaft depressions.