Open Daily, 9:00 am – 4:00 pm – Tickets Are Available Online.

The Naming Project: Joanna

What We Know About Joanna

Joanna was born at Montpelier on March 16, 1773, the eldest of five children born to Eliza. Joanna’s younger siblings were Dianna, Demas, Pendar, and Webster.[1] Joanna and her family members were all listed on James Madison Sr.’s personal property tax record for Orange County in 1782, the first of five years in which the county tax records listed enslaved people individually by name.[2]


“Given and Conveyed”

Joanna was almost 10 years old when James Madison Sr.’s eldest daughter Nelly married Isaac Hite, on January 2, 1783. If Eliza and her older children worked in the Madisons’ house or kitchen, Joanna was probably aware of the preparations for Nelly’s wedding. At some point Joanna must have learned that this milestone event for Nelly Madison and Isaac Hite would be life-changing for her own family as well. Joanna, along with her mother Eliza, her four younger siblings, and nine other enslaved people, were to be given as a gift from James Madison Sr. to the newly-married couple.

From James Madison Sr.’s point of view, he was simply giving his daughter an advance on her inheritance, sharing valuable assets to help his daughter and son-in-law establish their own plantation at Belle Grove. The work of these enslaved people would generate income for Nelly and Isaac Hite for years to come.

For Joanna, the coming together of the Madison and Hite families meant that her own world was coming apart. Which of the people dearest to her was she leaving behind – grandparents, aunts and uncles, another child who was her best friend? Was Joanna’s father among the people heading to Belle Grove, or was she leaving him behind as well? Was Joanna anxious at the thought of moving to the Shenandoah Valley, beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains that had marked the edge of her world at Montpelier? What comfort did Joanna find in the presence of her mother Eliza? Did Joanna comfort her younger siblings – Dianna, Demas, Pendar, and Webster – as well?

 In 1785 Madison Sr. confirmed his transfer of enslaved people to the Hites with a deed of gift:

“Know all men by these presents that I, James Madison of the County of Orange, in consideration of an intermarriage which hath taken place between Isaac Hite, Jr. of the County of Frederick and my daughter Nelly Madison, now Nelly Hite, have given and conveyed and do by these presents give and convey to the said Isaac Hite, Jr. by way of advancement to my said daughter Nelly, the following slaves, namely, Jemmy, Jerry, Eliza, and her five children, to wit Joanna, Diana, Demas, Pendar, and Webster; also Truelove and her four children to wit, Peggy, Priscilla, Henry, and Katey; also Sally and Milley. To have and to hold the said fifteen slaves together with … all their future increase …”[3]

The names of Joanna, her mother, and her siblings, appear in the will of James Madison Sr., confirming that he gave Joanna’s family to his daughter Nelly. Courtesy of James Madison Papers, Library of Congress.

The deed of gift was apparently filed after the fact. Madison Sr.’s will gives a clue as to when the actual transfer took place. By confirming “to my daughter Nelly Hite the following slaves … [including] Eliza and her children Joanna, Dianna, Demars, Pender and Webster … and their increase since the first day of March 1783 and for the future,”[4] Madison Sr. indicated that the transfer was effective on March 1, 1783. Joanna and her family, along with the nine other enslaved people named in the documents, probably moved to Belle Grove in the winter or early spring of 1783. (Joanna, her mother, and her siblings do not appear in Madison Sr.’s 1783 personal property tax records, a further suggestion that the transfer happened early in 1783.)

Isaac Hite entered Joanna’s name and birthdate, along with the names and birthdates of her mother and siblings, into his commonplace book.[5] There is no surviving record of birthdates of enslaved people at Montpelier. The Madisons may have kept such records, but the few account books of James Madison Sr. that survive are a record of other aspects of plantation operations. (See “Where Have All the Papers Gone?”)


“How Disposed”

Hite’s commonplace book provides the few details we know about Joanna’s life at Belle Grove. Joanna had a child when she was 23 years old, a daughter whom she named Eliza, after her own mother. Hite recorded the birth of “Eliza (Joana’s)” on April 26, 1796. The name of the baby’s father was not recorded. Had Eliza married a member of the enslaved community at Belle Grove? Sadly, just over a year later, Hite filled out the final column on baby Eliza’s record, “How Disposed,” with the words “Died May 23d 1797.” There are no indications in the commonplace book of any other children born to Joanna.

The “How Disposed” column reveals other events that caused further losses for Joanna. Her sister Pendar, and Pendar’s son and daughter, were “given to Madison,” who was Isaac and Nelly’s son James Madison Hite. Isaac and Nelly gave enslaved people to their son, possibly at the time of his 1815 marriage, just as they had been given enslaved people when they married. The notation “Gave to Madison” also appears next to the name of Charles, who was the son of Joanna’s sister Dianna. The record of Joanna’s sibling Demas had a similar notation: “Exchanged with George Hite,” who was a cousin of Isaac. These gifts and exchanges of enslaved people among the Hite family pulled Joanna’s siblings, nephews, and niece out of her sight.

There are no entries in the “How Disposed” column for Joanna or for the remaining members of her family: Eliza, Dianna, and Webster. Joanna apparently lived the rest of her life enslaved at Belle Grove, having only a remnant of her birth family still with her.


[1] Hite Family Commonplace Book, 1776-1859, Hite Family Papers, Vol. I, MS IH637535a-40, Virginia Museum of History and Culture, Richmond, Virginia, accessed February 17, 2021, MRD-S 44306, Montpelier Research Database.

[2] Personal Property Tax Records for James Madison, Sr., 1782-1786, Orange County, Virginia, Tax Records, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed February 17, 2021, MRD-S 43968, Montpelier Research Database.

[3] James Madison Sr. to Isaac Hite Jr., Deed of gift for slaves, August 25, 1785, William H. English Collection (Hite-Bowman Papers), Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis, Indiana, accessed December 8, 2020, MRD-S 42048, Montpelier Research Database. The deed, written several years after the fact, gives March 31, 1782, as the date after which the Hites would own the “future increase” of the enslaved group, but the date should probably be in March 1783, after the Hites’ marriage.

[4] 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.

[5] Hite Family Commonplace Book, 1776-1859, Hite Family Papers, Vol. I, MS IH637535a-40, Virginia Museum of History and Culture, Richmond, Virginia, accessed February 17, 2021, MRD-S 44306, Montpelier Research Database.