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The Naming Project: Joseph

What We Know About Joseph

Little is known of Joseph, a man enslaved by James Madison Sr. The documentary record offers only one glimpse of Joseph in June 1798, when Madison Sr. was away from Montpelier, visiting his daughter and son-in-law Nelly and Isaac Hite at their Shenandoah Valley home, Belle Grove. James Madison Jr., now retired from Congress and living at Montpelier, wrote to his father on June 9 with updates on the plantation. He noted that the “family” (used in the patriarchal sense to mean everyone in the Madison household, both free and enslaved) was “nearly as you left it,” but made mention of the health of several enslaved men: Simon, Ralph, and Joseph.

“Joseph has undergone no change for the worse except that another tumor resembling the former has shewn itself.” [1]

This statement implies that Joseph had already developed a visible tumor of some kind before Madison Sr. left for Belle Grove. Joseph might not have been feeling worse, but what did the new tumor indicate? Did Joseph have cancer, or a more benign condition? Did Joseph eventually recover?

Unfortunately the documentary record is silent. There are no further letters surviving from the time that Madison’s father was away. When he returned, Madison and his father could have discussed Joseph’s condition in person, rather writing their concerns in a letter.

Just three years later, in 1801, James Madison Sr. died. His estate inventory simply lists “108 Slaves” without naming them as individuals.[2] Was Joseph still among them? We may never know.

Simon was up and about, Ralph had avoided dysentery thanks to medicine, and Joseph had a new tumor, according to the letter James Madison wrote to his father on June 9, 1798. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.


[1] James Madison to James Madison Sr., June 9, 1798, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed October 20, 2020, MRD-S 11513, Montpelier Research Database.

[2] Inventory of James Madison Sr., taken September 1, 1801 and recorded July 26, 1802, Will Book 4: 54-58, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia, accessed October 20, 2020, MRD-S 23611, Montpelier Research Database.

Hilarie M. Hicks, MA came to Montpelier in 2010 and joined the Research Department in 2011, where she provides documentary research in support of the Montpelier Foundation’s many activities. A graduate of the College of William and Mary (B.A) and the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies (M.A.), Hilarie has a broad background of experience in research, interpretation, and administration of historic sites. She enjoys following a good paper trail, and she thanks past members of the Montpelier research staff who blazed the trail for The Naming Project.