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The Naming Project: Charity

What We Know About Charity

The little we can say with certainty is that Charity was enslaved by James Madison Sr. at Montpelier from 1782 to 1784, and that she was not at Montpelier in 1785 or 1786.

Our only evidence comes from Orange County personal property tax records.[1] Because enslaved people were considered property, their enslavers paid tax on them. In most years, the tax records simply listed the number of people each taxpayer enslaved, within categories based on age and gender. From 1782 to 1786, however, each individual person was listed by name. Charity appeared on the lists for 1782, 1783, and 1784.

What does this tell us? Charity was at Montpelier for those three years. She may have been at Montpelier prior to 1782, although we have no comparable listings for earlier years. The tax records also tell us that Charity was somewhere other than Montpelier in 1785 and 1786. Where did Charity go?


What Might Have Happened to Charity

There are several possibilities, each suggesting a different life path for Charity.

One likely scenario is that James Madison Sr. sent Charity to work on another property outside Orange County. Several enslaved people worked on Madison Sr.’s land in Culpeper County in 1783, including Lemon, Abner, Lucy, Frank, Molley, Sarah, and Castor. Charity could have joined them in 1785. If this was the case, it would suggest that Charity was a young to middle-aged field worker.

Another possibility is that Charity had died. If we knew her age in 1785, we might be able to guess the circumstances surrounding her death. Charity could have been a younger woman who died in childbirth, as Silvey did. Charity might have reached an advanced age before dying, like Milly, who lived to be over 100. Charity could have died of disease at any age; a dozen or more enslaved people died during a typhus epidemic at Montpelier in the 1820s, as an example.

Perhaps Charity attempted to escape from slavery at Montpelier, like Anthony in 1786 or Ezekiel in 1794. James Madison Sr. might have sold Charity, either as a punishment if she did run away, or for his own economic reasons, in the business operation that was the Montpelier plantation.


“Esther & Child Charity”

One faint possibility is that Madison Sr. may have sold or transferred Charity to his son Ambrose Madison, who lived at the neighboring plantation Woodley. When 38-year-old Ambrose died in 1794, “Esther & Child Charity” were among the enslaved people listed in his estate inventory.[2] Ambrose’s son-in-law, Dr. John Willis, either inherited Esther and Charity or purchased them from the estate.

Ambrose Madison, brother of the future President James Madison, enslaved 39 people at the time of his death. Seven were mothers with young children, including “Esther & child Charity.” Orange County Will Book 3, courtesy of the Orange County Clerk’s Office.

Dr. Willis mentioned Esther and Charity in his will, directing that they and the other people he enslaved were to be sold for the benefit of his wife Nelly Madison Willis. He stated his desire “that they be sold in families so as the mother and husband and all the children under ten years old may be sold together, but all that are over ten years are to be sold for the best price that can be obtained whether single or in families.”[3] While enslavers typically sold young children and their mothers together, it was somewhat unusual to specify that fathers should also be sold as part of the family groupings.

When Dr. Willis died in 1811, Charity was appraised at $330 and Esther at $180.[4] This suggests that Charity was in the prime of her working and childbearing years, while Esther was aging and probably no longer able to have children. Who purchased Charity and Esther, and whether they remained together, remain unknown.

Could Esther’s daughter Charity be the same person that James Madison Sr. enslaved at Montpelier in the early 1780s? It is barely possible that Charity was a very young child at Montpelier in 1782, and was still considered a “child” when Ambrose Madison’s estate was inventoried in 1794. However, since no one named Esther appears on Madison Sr.’s tax records, it seems unlikely that Esther’s “child Charity” was apart from her mother at Montpelier in the 1780s, and then reunited with her mother at Woodley by the 1790s. Esther’s daughter Charity could easily have been one or two generations younger than Charity from Montpelier. If there was any family connection, perhaps Charity from Montpelier was a grandmother or aunt of Esther’s daughter Charity.


An Uncertain Ending

As much as we may speculate about Charity’s life after the three years we know she was at Montpelier, we will probably never know what happened to her. Perhaps her life’s path was similar to those of other members of the enslaved community. But it was still her own path, forged through her own experiences, enriched by her own relationships, and colored by her own losses.

We mark and honor Charity’s path, without knowing where it ultimately led.

An uneven path winds across Montpelier toward an uncertain destination. Roderick Nosbe photograph, courtesy of Montpelier, a National Trust site.


[1] Personal Property Tax Records for James Madison, Sr., 1782-1786, Orange County, Virginia, Tax Records, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed October 13, 2021, MRD-S 43968, Montpelier Research Database.

[2] Inventory and Appraisement of Ambrose Madison, December 22, 1794, Will Book 3: 318-320, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia, accessed October 14, 2021, MRD-S 24644, Montpelier Research Database.

[3] John Willis, Will dated February 13, 1811; codicil dated March 22, 1811; recorded April 22, 1811, Will Book 4: 396-399, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia, accessed October 14, 2021, MRD-S 24598, Montpelier Research Database.

[4] Inventory and Appraisement of the Estate of Dr. John Willis, June 24, 1811, Will Book 4: 399-406, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia, accessed October 14, 2021, MRD-S 24597, Montpelier Research Database.