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The Naming Project: Harry

What We Know About Harry

James Madison Sr. made a specific provision in his 1787 will regarding Harry:

“… it is my will and desire that my said wife shall have in her lot such of my house servants or slaves as she shall choose and also my tradesman Harry, if she chooses to take him…”[1]

James Madison Sr. did not specify in his will what would happen to the majority of the people he enslaved at the time of his death, other than those he had already transferred to his children during his lifetime. He singled out only two other people in his will: Moses and Harry. Madison Sr. allowed his wife Nelly Conway Madison to retain any of the enslaved domestic workers she chose, but he particularly recommended that she retain Harry, who worked outside the house. Madison Sr. may have seen this bequest as a reward to Harry for his services, or more likely as a way to provide for his widow, by giving her an enslaved tradesman whom he considered skillful and dependable.

In his will, James Madison Sr. expressed his wish that his widow Nelly Conway Madison would become Harry’s next enslaver. Courtesy of James Madison Papers, Library of Congress.

Names and Notes

Two men named Harry were mentioned in a list of shoes distributed to the enslaved on November 2, 1787, a list found in a collection of Madison Sr.’s miscellaneous loose notes. Harry was listed with a size 7 shoe, while “L. Harry” (probably “Little” Harry) wore a size 4. This was the smallest shoe size on the list, meaning that “L. Harry” may have been a child. Since the shoe list was written just a few weeks after Madison Sr.’s will, it seems likely that the size 7 shoe belonged to the adult Harry, the tradesman.[2]

Harry also appeared on an untitled list of names and years, in which his name is recorded with the years 1766 and 1771. This list, found in the same collection of Madison Sr.’s loose notes, may be similar to the shoe list, recording the years in which enslaved people received some sort of provisions that were issued less frequently than clothes or shoes. It could also represent the years that Harry worked at a particular assignment or location.[3]

The tradesman Harry was probably the Harry who wore a size 7 shoe on this list of shoes distributed to the enslaved community on November 2, 1787. Taken from miscellaneous loose notes from one of James Madison Sr.’s account books. Courtesy of the Library of Virginia, which microfilmed the document from a private collection in 1941.

“The Particulars of the Journey”

If Madison Sr. singled out Harry in his will because of Harry’s dependability, several other documents confirm that Harry was trusted to travel independently. In February 1789, when James Madison Jr. was traveling to New York to take his place in the First Congress under the new Constitution, Harry accompanied him as far as Mount Vernon. After a day’s rest from the wintery roads, Madison sent Harry back to Montpelier with this letter to Madison Sr.:

“The obstructions to my journey from the Snow, the River at Fredericksburg, and the unparallelled badness of the roads, prevented my arrival here sooner than the Evening before last. Harry will be able to give the particulars of the Journey. I detained him yesterday in order to give both him & the horses a little rest after their fatigue; and shall leave it in some measure to himself, to return either by way of Fredg. or Norman’s Ford, according to the State of the Weather and the information he may receive concerning the latter route.”[4]

Not only did James Madison trust Harry to return home with the horses (rather than take an opportunity to escape), he had faith in Harry’s ability to assess the changing road conditions and choose the best route – either taking the road through Fredericksburg, or following part of the Carolina Road to cross the Rappahannock River at Norman’s Ford, between Fauquier and Culpeper counties.

Traveling by himself, Harry carried this letter from Mount Vernon back to Montpelier. In it, James Madison promised his father that Harry would “give the particulars of the Journey” through a snowy landscape. Courtesy of James Madison Papers, Library of Congress.

Three decades later, Harry accompanied another Madison family member on the first leg of a journey and again traveled back to Montpelier alone. In 1822 James Madison’s youngest sister, Fanny Madison Rose, set off with her husband Dr. Robert Rose to relocate to Alabama. The rest of the Rose family had started out ahead of Fanny and Robert. James and Dolley apparently offered to let Harry drive Fanny and Robert to a point where they could meet up with their family – which entailed a much longer trip than Fanny had envisioned. When Harry returned, he carried letters from Fanny explaining the delay. Fanny wrote to her brother James:

“When we arrived within two miles of Keazle town we learnt with certainty that the Waggon with our Family had proceeded on five days before; in this dilema we were compelled to keep Harry untill we could overtake the wagon … we now dispactch Harry back by way of Lynchburg as a nearer and better way tha[n] the one we have come. I regret extremely the imperious circumstances which have compelled us to detain so long your servant and horse, but hope you will excuse the liberty I have taken as I assure nothing but absolute necessity would have induced me to have done so.”[5]

To Dolley, Fanny wrote:

“I am truly greived that our necessity has been [words missing] as to take Harry so far, but hope he will [words missing] back safe and any repairs the gig may require on its return must be at our cost— ”

The envelope for this letter was addressed:

“The Hon’ble
James Madison
Montpelier
Orange
by Harry”[6]

indicating that Harry was the bearer of the message.

Harry’s travels took him northeast to Mount Vernon and west to Keezletown, as shown on this interactive map in The Mere Distinction of Colour exhibition. Courtesy of Montpelier, a National Trust site.

The Chain of Inheritance

By the time he drove the Roses beyond Keezletown in 1822, Harry was enslaved by the retired President James Madison. Nelly Madison had opted to inherit Harry after Madison Sr. died in 1801, as her husband had recommended in his will. In 1818 Nelly sold Harry to her son James, noting in a codicil to her own will that she had “sold to my son James Madison my slave Harry for six hundred dollars.”[7] Nelly then bequeathed that amount to James’s sister, Sarah Madison Macon.

James did not pay his mother for Harry at the time of the sale. Nelly Madison’s estate account shows a $600 obligation from James dating from March 7, 1818, “this sum being the price of negro Harry.”[8] James still owed this $600 to his mother at the time of Nelly’s death in 1829. Nelly, however, was in debt to James for more than $600, as noted by the administrator of Nelly’s estate. This threw into question whether the estate should make a $600 payment to Sarah, above and beyond what she would otherwise inherit. The administrator eventually went to court to settle the estate, due this issue and other complexities.[9]

While the court case had no direct impact on Harry, the documents presented in court provide us with information related to him, such as the precise date that Nelly sold Harry to James (March 7, 1818). The 1833 settlement of the case also marks the last time that Harry’s name is mentioned in the documentary record. He was probably still living in 1833, since the court records did not note otherwise. When Harry died is unknown.

 

A Valued Slave

The Madisons valued Harry, in more than one sense. They recognized that he was skilled. Harry could drive a carriage and navigate the best route along bad roads. The Madisons saw Harry as competent and dependable. James Madison Sr. thought his widow would benefit from having Harry in her household. James Madison Jr. trusted Harry to find his own way back from Mount Vernon. Fanny Madison Rose wanted Harry to drive as she and her husband began a long and important journey.

Yet the final time Harry appears in the documentary record, we see only how the Madisons valued him monetarily.

He was worth $600.

References

[1] James Madison Sr., Will dated September 17, 1787, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed February 11, 2021, MRD-S 20954, Montpelier Research Database.

[2] James Madison Sr. Miscellaneous Loose Notes from Unknown Account Book, Miscellaneous Reels, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed February 11, 2021, MRD-S 26491, Montpelier Research Database.

[3] James Madison Sr. Miscellaneous Loose Notes from Unknown Account Book, Miscellaneous Reels, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed February 11, 2021, MRD-S 26491, Montpelier Research Database.

[4] James Madison to James Madison Sr., February 24, 1789, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed February 11, 2021, MRD-S 21471, Montpelier Research Database.

[5] Frances Taylor Rose and Robert H. Rose to James Madison, March 19, 1822, New York Public Library, New York, New York, accessed February 11, 2021, MRD-S 22102, Montpelier Research Database.

[6] Frances Taylor Madison Rose to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, [March 19, 1822], Arents Collections, New York Public Library, New York, New York, accessed February 11, 2021, MRD-S 35912, Montpelier Research Database.

[7] Will of Nelly Conway Madison, November 28, 1807, and Codicils of September 16, 1808, January 8, 1817, and May 7, 1818, Will Book 7: 134-138, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia, accessed February 11, 2021, MRD-S 24466, Montpelier Research Database; see also Commissioners Report of the Estate of Nelly Conway Madison in account with Reynolds Chapman, Administrator, Commissioner’s Report, July 30, 1829, Orange County Chancery Causes, 1833-023, Chapman, Admr vs. Madison et als., Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed February 11, 2021, MRD-S 24468, Montpelier Research Database.

[8] Commissioners Report of the Estate of Nelly Conway Madison in account with Reynolds Chapman, Administrator, Commissioner’s Report, July 30, 1829, Orange County Chancery Causes, 1833-023, Chapman, Admr vs. Madison et als., Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed February 11, 2021, MRD-S 24468, Montpelier Research Database.

[9] Final Decree in Nelly Madison Admir v. Madison, August 1833, folder August H-N, 1833, Orange County: Microfilm Reel 275, Judgments, August 1833, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed February 11, 2021, MRD-S 31208, Montpelier Research Database.