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The Naming Project: Ailsey Payne

What We Know About Ailsey Payne

Most of what we know about Ailsey Payne comes from an interview, published after her death in a 1902 newspaper. The interviewer gave a somewhat condescending description of Payne as “an aged, but well-preserved and quickwitted negro woman” who had been enslaved at Montpelier and was “for thirty years cook in the Madison family.” Payne described her work as a housemaid and recalled the “stirrin[g] times” when enslaved domestic workers prepared for General Lafayette’s 1824 visit — polishing silver, putting tablewares in order, and cleaning the house. Born about 1806 (according to later census records), Payne was in her late teens at the time Lafayette arrived, and the event clearly left an impression on her young memory. She recalled that there were “more horses and carriages [than] you could hardly count!” and that Dolley Madison felt obliged to dress the maids well for the occasion so that she wouldn’t have “disqualified herself in her own house.” The ice houses were filled with meat for the elaborate dinner including “mutton, beef, chickens, turkeys, ducks, shoats [and most everything] you [can] think of.”[1]

At the turn of the 20th century, when few people could recall events from 1824, Ailsey Payne’s recounting of the Lafayette visit became well-known. A newspaper account of a 1905 presentation for the Daughters of 1812 referred to a recently-deceased cook whose memories “were very clear and she took much delight in recalling festivals at Montpelier and the reception of celebrated guests, among them Lafayette.”[2]

Ailsey Payne’s name does not appear in any surviving Montpelier records. An enslaved woman named Ailsy was listed on the 1843 estate inventory of James Madison’s brother William, where she was valued at $375.[3] It is possible that Ailsey Payne was sold to William Madison by James or Dolley Madison, although no record exists for such a sale.

Ailsey Payne later moved to nearby Culpeper county, where she appeared in the 1880 census, living with her 14-year-old grandson W. Roscoe Dane.[4] The 74-year-old widow was listed as “keeping house” (the phrase used for a woman managing her own household, not working as a housekeeper in someone else’s household). She could neither read nor write; her grandson could read but not write.

Ailsey Payne died in the late 1890s, having been free since at least 1865.

This article was clipped from an unknown newspaper by a member of the duPont family and pasted into a scrapbook. We know that the undated article was published around October 1902, because it refers to the recent death of Joseph Specht, who died in September 1902. The duPonts had purchased Montpelier the previous year and often clipped articles about their new home to add to their scrapbooks.

Ailsey Payne’s story begins in the last paragraph of the first column. The writer of the article rendered her statements in the stereotypical “dialect” that white writers often used to mimic or belittle African American speech. While the dialect and some of the author’s comments are offensive, this image is included to give readers the opportunity to examine the original article and to think about the racial prejudice that Ailsey Payne experienced.

From duPont Scrapbook 1, courtesy of Montpelier, a National Trust site.


[1] “Old Ailsey Payne at Montpelier” [newspaper clipping], [October, 1902], DuPont Scrapbook Collection, Montpelier Foundation, Orange, Virginia, accessed July 21, 2020, MRD-S 23920, Montpelier Research Database.

[2] “Interesting Relics of Madison and His Wife: Letters and Mementos of Great Value Shown to Keystone Chapter, Daughters of 1812,” The Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), January 30, 1905, accessed August 6, 2020, MRD-S 33306, Montpelier Research Database.

3] Inventory of William Madison, September 6-7, 1843 (probated January 25, 1845), Will Book 7: 401-407, Madison County Courthouse, Madison, Virginia, accessed July 21, 2020, MRD-S 24041, Montpelier Research Database.

[4] Tenth Census of the United States, record for Ailsey Payne, Culpeper, Virginia, 1880, United States National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, accessed July 21, 2020, MRD-S 42856, Montpelier Research Database.