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The Naming Project: Anthony

What We Know About Anthony

Our clearest picture of Anthony and his family connections comes from this December 1795 letter, in which James Madison shares news of the tragic death of Billey Gardner, who had been living as a free man in Philadelphia:

“You may let Old Anthony & Betty know that their son Billey is no more. He went on a voyage to N. Orleans, where being sick as were most of the crew, & very weak under the operation of a dose of physic, he tumbled in a fainty fit overboard & never rose.”[1]

Thanks to this letter, we can picture Anthony as part of a family that included his wife Betty and their son Billey. Many unanswered questions still arise. Did Anthony also use the surname Gardner, or was that a surname chosen by his son only after gaining freedom? Did Anthony and Betty have other children? How old was “Old” Anthony? The questions are made more difficult to answer since there appears to have been more than one Anthony enslaved at Montpelier.

This letter brought Old Anthony and Betty the terrible news “that their son Billey is no more.” James Madison to James Madison Sr., December 27, 1795, courtesy of the Library of Congress, James Madison Papers.

It is possible that Betty’s husband Anthony was at Montpelier from its earliest beginnings as Mount Pleasant, as the plantation was called when established by Ambrose Madison, the future president’s grandfather. Among the 14 “Negro Children” listed on Ambrose’s 1732 estate inventory was “Anthoney.”[2] If “Anthoney” was about 10 years old in 1732, he would have been in his seventies by 1795 – old enough to be the father of an adult son, and old enough to be considered “old” in regard to the limited physical work he could do.

The personal property tax records of James Madison Sr. make it clear that he enslaved two different men named Anthony at Montpelier between 1782 and 1786, the only years when enslaved people were listed individually by name in the property tax records. One of these men was likely Anthony, the husband of Betty. Betty also appeared on the tax records in these years.[3]

An enslaved man named Anthony, possibly the same man who married Betty, was mentioned in a March 1777 letter that James Madison wrote to his father, who was on a trip to Fredericksburg:

“[Anthony] was taken on Wednesday morning with a strong Ague succeeded by a high fever and accompanied with a pain in his Stomach and side. The Swelling in his Arm also increased very considerably and became hard and painful. I was a good deal at a loss in what manner to proceed with him being unable to form any Judgmt. of the nature of the Tumor or the effect a proper treatment of his other complaints might have on it. I ventured however to have a pretty large quantity of blood taken from him and had his arm kept moist by the usual Poultices, which has answered every purpose I cd. have hoped. His fever and pain have gradually abated and I have no doubt but he will be perfectly recovered from them in a few days, and the Swelling on his arm seems to be subsiding fast.”[4]

Acting in his father’s place, Madison had decided how Anthony’s fever and swelling should be treated. Since the “usual” remedies appeared to be working, Madison did not seem to think it necessary to call in a doctor.

It’s tempting to assume that each of these mentions of Anthony is a reference to the same person: a child enslaved at Mount Pleasant, a middle-aged man suffering from an infected arm, an old man sharing with his wife the sorrow of losing their son. Perhaps it is true, that we are seeing the story of one man traced out in these particular documents. However, knowing that there was at least one other man named Anthony enslaved at Montpelier, we will never be certain.


[1] James Madison to James Madison Sr., December 27, 1795, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed December 30, 2020, MRD-S 11057, Montpelier Research Database.

[2] Ambrose Madison, Will dated 1732 with Inventory [18th century copy], James Madison Museum, Orange, Virginia, accessed December 26, 2020, MRD-S 26299, Montpelier Research Database.

[3] Personal Property Tax Records for James Madison, Sr., 1782-1786, Orange County, Virginia, Tax Records, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed December 30, 2020, MRD-S 43968, Montpelier Research Database.

[4] James Madison to James Madison Sr., March 29, 1777, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed December 26, 2020, MRD-S 10024, Montpelier Research Database.