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The Naming Project: Gideon

What We Know About Gideon

Gideon’s name appears in only two documents, giving us the barest outlines of his life story. Once enslaved by James Madison Sr. (the future President’s father), Gideon was given by Madison Sr. to his second son Francis on or about January 1, 1773.

Madison Sr. customarily gave land and enslaved people to his sons (and enslaved people to his daughters) once they married. It was his way of providing the newlywed couples with the means to establish their own plantations, where they would make their livelihood using enslaved labor to raise crops for sale. Since Francis Madison married Susannah Bell on October 29, 1772, Gideon’s transfer from Madison Sr. to Francis fits the pattern of a marriage gift.

We don’t know whether James Madison Sr. gave Francis a written title to Gideon at the time the transfer took place, but Madison Sr. confirmed the gift in his will.  The will, written in 1787, formally confirmed all the transfers of land and enslaved people that Madison Sr. had made to his sons and daughters up to that time. Madison Sr. stated in the will that in 1784 he had given Francis 1000 acres in Culpeper County “on which he now lives,” adding

“And I do also confirm to my son Francis a good right and title to the following slaves which I have heretofore given him, to wit; Gideon, Aaron, Hannah, Nell and her son George and Amey, who is to be estimated as a grown woman, and their increase since the first day of January 1773 and for the future.”[1]

It is not known whether Gideon was related to Aaron, Hannah, Nell, George, or Amey. Gideon may have had relatives at Montpelier, from whom he was now separated. His age is unknown, although he appears to have been an adult; children were usually listed in relation to their mother. There is no indication whether Gideon labored in the fields, waited on Francis and Susannah Madison in their house, or had a specialized skill such as blacksmithing or shoemaking.

Ten years after Gideon was given to Francis, Gideon remained enslaved on Francis’s Culpeper plantation. “Giddeon” was listed on the 1783 Culpeper personal property tax rolls under Francis’s name, along with “Aron, … Nell, Hannah, [and] Amy.”[2]

What happened to Gideon after 1783 is still unknown.

James Madison Sr.’s will confirms that he gave enslaved people, including Gideon, to his son Francis. Courtesy of the James Madison Papers at the Library of Congress.


[1] James Madison Sr., Will dated September 17, 1787, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed October 29, 2020, MRD-S 20954, Montpelier Research Database.

[2] Mary Boldridge Norris, Property Tax List of Culpeper County Virginia and Names of Slaves, 1783 (Raleigh, NC, 1900), accessed October 29, 2020, MRD-S 41900, Montpelier Research Database.