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The Naming Project: Clarissa

What We Know About Clarissa

Clarissa was enslaved at Montpelier in the 1780s, and possibly earlier.

James Madison Sr.’s personal property tax records list Clarissa as one of the enslaved people for whom he was taxed from 1782 to 1786. (Those were the only years when enslaved people were listed individually by name.) Although the tax records spelled her name “Clarissa” in 1782, 1783, and 1786, with an alternate spelling of “Clairissa” in 1784 and 1785, it seems clear that these were two phonetic spellings of the same person’s name. [1]

Clarissa may have been at Montpelier from its earliest beginnings (when it was called Mount Pleasant), if she was the same person listed as “Clarisea” in Ambrose Madison’s estate. Ambrose Madison (the father of James Madison Sr., and grandfather of President Madison) sent a crew of enslaved laborers to begin developing the plantation shortly after patenting the land claim in 1723. Ambrose Madison moved his family to Mount Pleasant in the spring of 1732 but died that summer. Listed in his estate inventory were 14 “Negro Children,” 10 “Negro Men” and 5 “Negro Women:”

“Nanney, Kate, Daffney, Clarisea, Dido”[2]

Clarisea must have been at least in her late teens to be counted as a woman, rather than a child, when Ambrose Madison died. If “Clarisea” was another spelling of the name of the woman listed as “Clarissa” or “Clairissa” in the tax records, she was at least in her late 60s, possibly in her 70s or older, when she was enslaved by James Madison Sr. in the 1780s.

Another possibility is that Clarisea from the 1732 inventory and Clarissa/Clairissa from the 1780s tax records are two different women, who were one or even two generations apart. Clarisea could have been mother, grandmother, or another elder significant to her namesake Clarissa.

These few bits of information raise more questions about Clarissa than they answer. Did Clarissa toil in the fields, planting the first crops of corn and tobacco on the plantation? Did she experience the periods of change when ownership of the plantation – and of the people enslaved there – passed from Ambrose Madison to his widow Frances Madison to their son James Madison Sr.? Was Clarissa brought to Mount Pleasant from another location, or was she born at Montpelier after one or two generations of enslavement for her family? What happened to Clarissa after 1786, the last time her name appears in the documentary record?


Although we may never know the answers, we honor Clarissa’s story by asking the questions.

Only shadowy outlines of Clarissa’s story remain in the historical record. Photo of The Mere Distinction of Colour exhibition by Rick Seaman, courtesy of Montpelier.


[1] Personal Property Tax Records for James Madison, Sr., 1782-1786, Orange County, Virginia, Tax Records, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed May 12, 2021, MRD-S 43968, Montpelier Research Database.

[2] 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).