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The Naming Project: Milly

What We Know About Milly

Milly’s name appeared on James Madison Sr.’s personal property tax records from 1782 through 1784, spelled either as “Milley” (1782-1784) or “Milly” (1785-1786).[1] Given that she was later described as a 104-year-old woman during General Lafayette’s visit, Milly was likely born about 1720, several years before Ambrose Madison acquired land in Orange County. Clearly Milly was born somewhere other than the Mount Pleasant/Montpelier plantation; her birthplace remains unknown.

No one named Milly is listed in Ambrose Madison’s 1732 estate inventory[2], indicating that Milly came to Montpelier sometime after 1732. This means that Milly was at least a teenager, if not an adult woman, when she arrived. Ambrose’s son, James Madison Sr., may have purchased Milly or possibly received her as a gift from his new father-in-law when he married Nelly Conway in 1749.

Milly was in her early to mid-60s during the five years in the 1780s when enslaved people were listed individually by name in the personal property tax records. A second woman named Milly was also named on the personal property tax list, but only in 1782. Born in 1768, the younger Milly was 15 when James Madison Sr. gave her to his daughter and son-in-law, Nelly and Isaac Hite, at the time of their 1783 marriage.[3] If the elder Milly and younger Milly were related, their family was divided by the Hites’ union.


“The Log Cabin of Granny Milly”

Mary Cutts, who wrote a memoir of her aunt Dolley Madison after her death, included a romanticized depiction of the elder Milly:

“General de La Fayette when he visited Montpelier in 1825, said one of the most interesting sights he had witnessed in America was when he visited the log cabin of Granny Milly, 104 years of age, whose daughter and grand daughter, the youngest nearly 70 were all at rest retired from their labors, and living happily together; their patch of ground cultivated for them, their food and raiment supplied by [‘]Mass Jimmy and Miss Dolley.’” [4]

Cutts was 11 years old and living in Washington when Lafayette visited; she may have heard this anecdote second-hand from her Aunt Dolley or Uncle James. We don’t know what Lafayette himself made of his encounter with Milly and her family, since he left no written comments about them. (Neither did Lafayette’s secretary, Auguste Levasseur, mention Milly in his published account of Lafayette’s 1824-1825 travels in America.)

Lafayette may well have been impressed with the advanced ages of Milly and her family. However, as Lafayette was staunchly opposed to slavery, he was unlikely to have shared Cutts’s rosy view of the “happiness” of three generations of elderly enslaved women sharing a cramped log cabin after their years of hard physical labor had ended. Auguste Levasseur noted that Lafayette, who “still never fails to take advantage of an opportunity to defend the right which all men, without exception, have to liberty,” made a point of opening a discussion of slavery with Madison and other guests during his visit to Montpelier. [5]


Milly’s “Only Treasure”

Mary Cutts may have relied on her childhood memories of visiting Montpelier, when she wrote the following about Milly and her family:

“Their residence in ‘the Walnut Grove’ was a pleasant walk and an object of interest to Mrs. Madison’s [many] relatives, who would save part of their luxurious breakfasts[,] take themselves to those good old people and return with the gift of a potato or fresh egg — Sometimes, an old chest, would be rumaged to shew them the only treasure of Granny Milly, which was an old worn French copy of Telemachus, which had been given her as a keepsake by the wife of the gardener [Beazee].”

“Beazee” was Cutts’s phonetic spelling of Charles Bizet, a French gardener who worked at Montpelier from approximately 1810 until late 1817 and is credited with designing the terraced gardens. Cutts described Bizet and his wife as “great favorites” with the enslaved community, “some of whom they taught to speak french.”

What did it mean for Milly to receive a copy of a French novel from Mme. Bizet? Did Milly already read English? Was she learning French phrases? Was the book a memento, perhaps a thank-you for something Milly did for the Bizets during their time at Montpelier?


Multiple Perspectives

Two very different kinds of documentary sources give evidence of Milly’s presence at Montpelier: tax records that offer a cold and impersonal reckoning, and a personal memoir that sanitizes and sentimentalizes the realities of slavery. Both sources provide insights, but neither tell Milly’s story from her own perspective. Did Milly feel relieved to be allowed to spend her last years with a daughter and a granddaughter? Was she resentful of – or reconciled to – any separations from other family members that she had experienced? Did Milly look forward to morning visits from the Madisons’ young nieces and nephews, or did their rambunctious energy try her patience? How did she feel about being placed on display for guests like Lafayette?


Milly’s own view of her world remains just beyond our reach.

Milly may have kept her copy of the French political novel The Adventures of Telemachus in a chest such as the one now displayed in the South Yard. The book was widely read; James Madison had purchased a copy for his youngest sister Fanny in 1792. The author, Francois Fenelon, was an early advocate for women’s education.[6] Image courtesy of Montpelier, a National Trust site.


[1] Personal Property Tax Records for James Madison, Sr., 1782-1786, Orange County, Virginia, Tax Records, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed May 14, 2021, MRD-S 43968, Montpelier Research Database.

[2] Inventory of Ambrose Madison, 1732, recorded in Spotsylvania County Will Book A, pp. 183-186, published in Ann L. Miller, The Short Life and Strange Death of Ambrose Madison (Orange, Virginia: Orange County Historical Society, Inc., 2001).

[3] Hite Family Commonplace Book, 1776-1859, Hite Family Papers, Vol. I, MS IH637535a-40, Virginia Museum of History and Culture, Richmond, Virginia, accessed May 20, 2021, MRD-S 44306, Montpelier Research Database; 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 May 20, 2021, MRD-S 42048, Montpelier Research Database.

[4] Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts Memoir II, [1849-1856], Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed May 14, 2021, MRD-S 23538, Montpelier Research Database.

[5] Auguste Levasseur, Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825: Or, Journal of Travels in the United States (New York, NY: White, Gallaher and White, 1829), accessed May 14, 2021, MRD-S 23537, Montpelier Research Database.

[6] James Madison to James Madison Sr., November 23, 1792, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed May 20, 2021, MRD-S 10899, Montpelier Research Database. See explanatory notes on Founders Online.