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The Naming Project: Henry

What We Know About Henry

Henry’s name appears in only two documents, both related to the estates of the two men who enslaved him during his lifetime.


Henry in the Estate of James Madison Sr.

Henry was a child when his first enslaver, James Madison Sr., gave him to his son William Madison. By the time Madison Sr. wrote his will in 1787, he had already given enslaved people to his adult sons and daughters, at the time they married or established their own landholdings. Madison Sr. used the will to confirm these prior gifts, which constituted a part of each son or daughter’s inheritance. William married in 1783, and it may have been at this time that Madison Sr. gave William the enslaved people that he later listed in the will:

“I also confirm to my son William a good right and title to the following slaves to wit, Abraham, Margaret and her child Henry and her future increase forever.”[1]

Henry was a child in 1787, when James Madison Sr. wrote his will and confirmed that he gave Henry to his son William Madison. Courtesy of James Madison Papers, Library of Congress.

The only information we have about Henry’s family is the name of his mother, Margaret. The will does not identify Abraham as Henry’s father, but it is at least possible that Abraham and Margaret were a married couple with Henry being their child. William Madison’s plantation (known as The Residence) was about 20 miles from Montpelier. While enslaved people sometimes walked at night or on a Sunday to see family members on nearby plantations, it was probably too far for Henry and his mother to visit Montpelier once they were sent to The Residence.

If Henry was a child in 1787 when the will was written (or in 1783 when William married), he was probably born in the 1770s or early 1780s. By the time William died in 1843, Henry was in his 60s or even his early 70s.


Henry in the Estate of William Madison

“Negro Henry” appears on William Madison’s estate inventory, appraised at the value of $25. Henry’s valuation is the lowest on the list, with the exception of Simon and his wife Betty, who were appraised at $0. Other men on the inventory were valued between $125 and $625. The women on the inventory (including Ailsy, possibly Ailsey Payne) were valued between $125 and $375. Several women were appraised with a child for a single value ranging between $180 and $450. Individual children ranged in value from $75 to $300.[2]

Henry’s age was likely a factor in his low valuation. He may have been physically weak or in poor health, due to a chronic condition or a past injury, preventing him from doing heavy labor. The fact that he was valued at $25 more than Simon and Betty suggests that he was still capable of doing some kind of light work.

Henry’s valuation was decreased to $10 when the commissioners of the estate distributed the enslaved people among William Madison’s heirs. Henry was assigned to William Madison’s granddaughter, Frances Willis Lee. Frances also inherited part of William Madison’s plantation, where she and her husband John Hancock Lee built a house called Buena Vista (later Brampton). In 1850 the Lees moved to Litchfield, which had been part of the Montpelier tract in the lifetime of James Madison Sr. [3] If Henry was still living in 1850, he may have spent the last years of his life not far from where he had spent his earliest years.


The documentary record gives us only two glimpses of Henry, as a child in the 1780s and as a worn-out worker in 1843. The experiences that filled the six intervening decades in Henry’s life remain unknown.


[1] James Madison Sr., Will dated September 17, 1787, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed February 17, 2021, MRD-S 20954, Montpelier Research Database. Most of Madison Sr.’s bequests of enslaved people to his children include the phrase “and their increase since [date],” with the date being close to the date of that son or daughter’s marriage. For no apparent reason, the bequest to William omits that dated phrase, although William was already married at the time his father wrote the will.

[2] Inventory of William Madison, September 6-7, 1843 (probated January 25, 1845), Will Book 7: 401-407, Madison County Courthouse, Madison, Virginia, accessed February 17, 2021, MRD-S 24041, Montpelier Research Database.

[3] Ann L. Miller, Antebellum Orange (Orange County Historical Society, 1988), p. 29.