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The Naming Project: Betty

What We Know About Betty

On November 2, 1787, Betty was issued a pair of size 9 shoes by James Madison Sr., father of the future President. On his list of enslaved people and their shoe sizes, Madison Sr. referred to Betty as “B. Betty” (probably meaning “Big Betty”) to distinguish her from another, possibly younger, woman named Betty, who was listed as wearing a size 5 shoe.[1]

Betty’s name also appears on the personal property tax records for James Madison Sr. from 1782 to 1786, the five years that enslaved individuals were listed by name. In each of those five years, Madison Sr. was taxed on three enslaved women named Betty.[2] This suggests that the two different women identified as “B. Betty” and “Betty” on the 1787 shoe size list had been on the tax rolls since at least 1782, along with a third woman named Betty who did not receive shoes in 1787 and possibly was no longer at Montpelier.

James Madison Sr. recorded the names and shoe sizes of 50 people he enslaved – including two women named Betty – on this scrap of paper, when distributing shoes to them on November 2, 1787. The scrap is part of a collection of loose notes that apparently came from an account book belonging to Madison Sr.
Courtesy of the Library of Virginia, which microfilmed the document from a private collection in 1941. The name of “B. Betty,” who wore a size 9 shoe, has been circled in red.

Betty as a Child

Betty may have been enslaved at Montpelier from its earliest years. A child named Betty was among the 14 children, 5 adult women, and 10 adult men listed on the estate inventory of Ambrose Madison, the President’s grandfather.[3] In 1723 Ambrose had patented the land that became Montpelier, and soon afterward sent an overseer and a small group of enslaved laborers to develop the plantation, which he called Mount Pleasant. Ambrose moved his family to Mount Pleasant in the spring of 1732; he died just a few months later, in August 1732. If Betty was a child when the inventory was taken in April 1733, it is possible that she was born at Mount Pleasant between 1723 and 1733. If the child Betty is the same person as “B. Betty” in the shoe size list, she would have been in her 50s or 60s when she received her shoes in 1787.


Betty as a Customer

Betty’s name also appears in several transactions in the daybook of the Barbour-Johnson store in Orange County in 1785 and 1786.[4] (Storekeepers typically used a daybook to log daily sales and payments as they occurred, and then copied the entries into ledger books organized by customer, in order to track the balance on each customer’s account.) Each time she appears in the daybook, Betty is identified as “Betty belonging to Colo. Madison” or “Colo. Madison’s Betty,” indicating that she was making purchases on her own account, rather than James Madison Sr.’s account. On Sunday, August 28, 1785, Betty purchased five yards of calico, one yard of linen, and three yards of “Rowls.” (Rolls was a cheap, course British linen often used for slave clothing). Her order totaled £1, 4 shillings, 5 pence. On Sunday, January 1, 1786, Betty bought five yards of calico for £1, 5 shillings. The fact that Betty shopped on Sundays is significant; enslaved people were traditionally allowed some time to themselves on Sundays.[5]

How did Betty have money to buy fabric? Enslaved people had occasional opportunities to earn small amounts of money. Betty may have raised chickens and sold the eggs, or she may have done some sewing for others in the limited time she had to herself. The daybook reveals one such possibility. On each day that Betty bought fabric at the store, Col. Thomas Barbour made a credit to her account: 13 shillings 6 pence on August 28, 1785, and 10 shillings on January 1, 1786. This suggests that Betty had brought in something to sell to Barbour, or that she had provided a service to him or his family and was now receiving credit for it. Earning money in this way may have allowed Betty to construct a few additional articles of clothing for herself or her family, beyond what was issued to them by the Madisons.


Betty in Old Age

Again assuming that “B. Betty” on Madison Sr.’s shoe size list was same person as the child Betty on Ambrose Madison’s inventory, she would be approaching her 70s by the 1790s. In that case, she may well be the same woman that James Madison Jr. referred to as “Old” Betty in letters to his father from that decade. On July 6, 1792, when his father was visiting Healing Springs in Orange County, Madison Jr. wrote with updates from Montpelier, including news on Betty’s improved health: “The family is as you left it, except old Betty who seems to have got over her complaint entirely.”[6] (Madison often used the term “family” in the patriarchal sense, referring to everyone who lived at Montpelier.) We have no way of knowing what illness had affected Betty; fortunately it seemed to have passed over.

James Madison Jr. reported to his father on July 6, 1792, that “Old” Betty’s health had improved.
Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Betty as a Mother

The final reference to “Old” Betty in Madison Jr.’s letters is the only indication of her family connections, to her husband Anthony and to their son Billey Gardner, who was by then a free man in Philadelphia. On December 27, 1795, Madison wrote his father from Philadelphia with tragic news for Betty and Anthony: “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.”[7]

Betty had undoubtedly gone through many difficulties in her long life at Montpelier, but the loss of her son seems almost unimaginable. Perhaps there was some comfort in knowing that he had experienced the one thing that Betty might only have dreamed of: freedom.


[1] James Madison Sr. Miscellaneous Loose Notes from Unknown Account Book, Miscellaneous Reels, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed October 16, 2020, MRD-S 26491, Montpelier Research Database.

[2] Personal Property Tax Records for James Madison, Sr., 1782-1786, Orange County, Virginia, Tax Records, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed October 16, 2020, MRD-S 43968, Montpelier Research Database.

[3] Inventory of Ambrose Madison, 1732, recorded in Spotsylvania County Will Book A, pp. 183-186, published in Ann L. Miller, The Short Life and Strange Death of Ambrose Madison (Orange, Virginia: Orange County Historical Society, Inc., 2001).

[4] Of the three women named Betty who were enslaved by Madison Sr. in 1785 and 1786, it appears that only one patronized the Barbour-Johnson store. The storekeeper consistently referred to her as Colo. Madison’s Betty, rather than Old Betty on one transaction and Little Betty on another, as he might have done if he were distinguishing between two different customers. We assume that the older “B. Betty” was more likely to have been the Barbour-Johnson store’s customer.

[5] Barbour – Johnson Daybook, 1785-1786, box 7, Papers of the Barbour Family, MS 1486, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Virginia, accessed October 16, 2020, MRD-S 38579, Montpelier Research Database.

[6] James Madison to James Madison Sr., July 6, 1792, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed October 16, 2020, MRD-S 10865, Montpelier Research Database.

[7] James Madison to James Madison Sr., December 27, 1795, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed October 16, 2020, MRD-S 11057, Montpelier Research Database.