The Taylors

Research & Collections

Life with the Madisons

Born into slavery at Montpelier, Catherine Taylor labored as a domestic servant for the Madisons. Caty, as most documents refer to her, was born between 1820 and 1823. Around 1840, she married Ralph (Raif) Taylor, also a Montpelier slave who was born between 1811 and 1815. First the property of James Madison Jr., Catherine was bequeathed to Dolley Madison upon his death in 1836. In the summer of 1844, Dolley deeded Catherine, along with her husband and children, to John Payne Todd.

While no documentation exists regarding her childhood at Montpelier, Catherine was likely the child of a domestic servant, and may well have grown up in and around the mansion during the Madisons’ retirement years. Similarly, little is known about Ralph’s formative years at Montpelier. Existing documents indicate that Ralph’s mother was an enslaved domestic servant. Thus Ralph likely resided in the South Yard housing complex. After Dolley sold Paul Jennings in 1846, Ralph took over his position as her main house servant.

After Madison’s death, Dolley took several house servants with her when she traveled to Washington. While Ralph Taylor often accompanied Dolley, Catherine stayed at Montpelier (or Toddsberth) with their children. The first known mention of Catherine or “Caty” is in an 1843 letter from Dolley Madison to her niece, Mary E. E. Cutts. Dolley was concerned about how she would be “waited upon in the Capital” because “Judy, Beck & Caty have little babies” and therefore remained at Montpelier. In a May 1844 letter, Paul Jennings instructed Sukey, Dolley’s lady’s maid with her in Washington, to “tel Ralph Catey is well an intend to write to him soon.” While in Washington and serving as her “servant man,” Ralph purportedly saved Dolley from a burning Cutts-Madison House on Lafayette Square. According to Mary Cutts, “an attempt was made to burn her residence by placing matches between the shutters and sash of her hall window, close to the staircase.” Dolley insisted that Ralph also save important papers from the house – Madison’s papers to be sold to Congress – which he did.

In 1844, “Caty” is listed as the mother of two young children – Sarah (sometimes noted as Sarah Elizabeth) and Henry (sometimes noted as William Henry). By 1845, the Taylor family grew to five with the addition of Benjamin who is described as two-years-old in an 1847 court document. Young Benjamin died by 1852 and the Taylors subsequently had two more children – John and Ellen.

Petition for Freedom

The Taylors, in addition to approximately forty other enslaved individuals, were already the property of John Payne Todd when Dolley died on July 12, 1849. When Todd made out his final will in December 1851, just one month prior to his own death, he specified:

I do give and bequeath until all my slaves whether in the District of Columbia or the State of Virginia or else where and by whatever name or names they may be called and designated their immediate freedom, and it is my will and desire, that all my said slaves shall immediately on my decease be fully, free, manumitted and discharged from all manner of service.

Payne Todd died on January 17, 1852 in considerable debt to many individuals. Consequently, his slaves were not immediately freed as outlined in his will. The Taylors, in turn, successfully petitioned James C. McGuire, administrator of the estate, for their freedom. In April 1853, Catherine Taylor and her four surviving children were awarded their Certificate of Freedom. Presumably, Ralph Taylor was issued his own separate freedom certificate.

Catherine is described in her 1853 Certificate of Freedom as “a dark mulatto woman stout and well made, about thirty two years of age, five feet four and three quarter inches high, round oval face forehead high with good features.” At some point she developed two small scars on the back of her hand, “occasioned by her hand being, or having been broke.” Catherine, as with all freed persons, likely carried these papers with her at all times after attaining her freedom.

A Free Family in Washington

The Taylors remained in Washington, D.C. after attaining their freedom. The 1880 Census lists Ralph Taylor as a waiter, while “Cathrine” kept house, denoting that she was able to work from home as a housewife as opposed to laboring outside the home as a housekeeper or maid. Their children Henry and Sarah Elizabeth were still residing with them, working as a barber and a dressmaker, respectively. Both Ralph and Catherine lived to see old age, passing away sometime after 1892.

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Image Rendered by Chad Keller, Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, University of Virginia

Life in the South Yard

As domestic servants, Ralph and Catherine Taylor likely resided in the South Yard complex.