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The Naming Project: Moses

What We Know About Moses

Moses was already a skilled blacksmith when he appears for the first time in the documentary record. In 1779, a loose note from one of James Madison Sr.’s account books mentioned Moses giving an opinion on repairing an ax. James Madison Sr. wrote:

“I have jumpt 2 of your axes, Moses says another only requires being upset.”

The note was presumably written by Madison Sr. to John or Jonathan Cowherd, whose name appears in another handwriting at the bottom of the note, along with the date of August 4, 1779.[1]

“Jumping up” and “upsetting” are two related terms for making a heated metal item thicker and shorter by hammering on its end.[2] Clearly Moses was able to assess the problem with Cowherd’s third ax and knew the appropriate technique to repair it. We don’t know how old Moses was, or how long he had worked as a blacksmith. Was Moses born at Montpelier, and did he learn his skills from another enslaved blacksmith there? Or did Madison Sr. buy Moses because of the skills he had learned previously while enslaved by someone else?

In this note, Madison Sr. referred to several business dealings with Cowherd, including grinding his corn and wheat, and having axes repaired by Moses. 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.

Wherever Moses had originally learned his trade, by 1779 he was toiling with several other enslaved smiths in a massive blacksmithing operation that sprawled across two acres beside the main house at Montpelier. The smiths’ work generated a significant portion of Madison Sr.’s income. His account books show that enslaved smiths produced or repaired approximately 800 items each year from 1776 to 1783. By 1800 they produced nearly 1500 items a year. Over 200 customers from Orange and surrounding counties, and even as far away as the Shenandoah Valley, patronized the shop.[3]

 

In Tax Records and Account Books

Moses appeared on James Madison Sr.’s Orange County personal property tax records from 1782 to 1786, the only years in which enslaved people were listed invididually by name. A second Moses also appeared on the tax records from 1782 to 1784.[4]

Two men named Moses appear on a list of shoes distributed to the enslaved community on November 2, 1787, found among James Madison Sr.’s miscellaneous notes. The first Moses on the list wore a size 9 shoe. The next man on the list was “B. Moses” (possibly “Big” Moses or “Blacksmith” Moses). His shoe size is harder to read, but may be a 10.[5]

Both Moses and B. Moses appear on the shoe distribution list from 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.

A fragmentary letter dated January 26, 1787, includes another mention of Moses as a blacksmith. R. Taylor (possibly Tayloe) wrote that if enough remained on his account after paying for one ax, he also wanted “a narrow ax of four pounds,” and he would “take it as a favor if you woud let Moses &c [several words missing] them on Monday morning as I must leave [several words missing] on Tuesday.” By writing “Moses &c” (Moses etc.) Taylor seems to have recognized Moses as the head of the crew of blacksmiths.[6]

Moses was hired out by James Madison Sr. in some instances. One of Madison Sr.’s surviving account books shows charges to Zachariah Herndon for several days’ work by Moses (possibly “Moses &c”) in December 1780. Moses may have gone to Herdon’s plantation to perform the work, or he may have devoted entire days in the Montpelier blacksmith shop to complete Herndon’s project.[7]

Moses, like many enslaved people, found opportunities to earn a little money for himself, perhaps by hunting, raising chickens or vegetables, or making use of his considerable mechanical skills on his own time. A surviving day book for the Barbour-Johnson store in Orange county has several entries for purchases made by Moses in 1785 and 1786, including rum, thread, pins, a cambric handkerchief, glass tumblers, and “Tin Cans.” (A cann is a bulbous-shaped mug). The storekeeper specifically identified him as “Moses, Smith belong.g to Colo. Madison” when recording Moses’s first purchase. In subsequent transactions, he was simply Moses, belonging to Col. Madison.[8]

 

Made by Moses

Although future president James Madison Jr. enslaved a small number of people on his own lands in the 1790s, he periodically asked for Moses (who was enslaved by Madison’s father) to do specific projects for him. In November 1790, as Madison set out for Congress in Philadelphia, he left directions for overseer Mordecai Collins

“To get a plow made by Moses according to the model lately arrived up from Mr. Bishops: his brother [Lewis Collins] to do the wooden work. The old Bar share to be refitted by Moses & L. C to be worked with oxen…” [9]

The fact that Madison specifically wanted Moses to copy a new model of plow and to refit the old bar share plow suggests that he had confidence in Moses’s ability to analyze unfamiliar forms and improvise workable solutions.

In February 1797, Madison checked in with his father on another specific project assigned to Moses:

“I hope Moses has finished my Waggon: if not pray instruct him to do so.”[10]

Moses probably worked on the iron components of the wagon, such as the iron tires on the wheels.

 

More Than One Moses

When documents refer to Moses as a blacksmith, or describe him doing the work of a smith, it’s not hard to tell which Moses is under discussion. When someone named Moses is doing other tasks, such as carrying messages, it is less clear if we are seeing Moses the blacksmith or another Moses.

For example, James Madison Sr. and his wife Nelly spent some time at Orange county’s Healing Springs in the summer of 1792. When Madison Jr. wrote to update his father about events at Montpelier, he addressed the letter to “Col. James Madison/Healing Springs/By Moses,” indicating that Moses was the courier. Madison expected Moses not only to deliver the letter, but to report on the harvest to his father, and to bring back an update from the saddle maker who was working on his riding chair:

“Moses will give you the progress & state of the Harvest. I wish to be informed by his return what passed with the Sadler at the Court House & what & when he is to finish for my chair.” [11]

Was Moses the blacksmith available to act as a courier during a lull in business? Or was this letter carried by a different Moses?

 

Moses in Madison Sr.’s Estate

When James Madison Sr. wrote his will in 1787, he listed only certain enslaved people by name: the people he had already given to his children as an advance on their inheritance; “tradesman Harry,” whom he hoped his wife Nelly would take as part of her share of the estate, and Moses.

“I desire my blacksmith Moses may belong to such of my children as he shall choose to serve, if they are willing to take him at a reasonable price that shall be set on him by three disinterested men.”[12]

Madison Sr. died on February 27, 1801. Moses apparently chose to be enslaved by Madison Jr., who purchased “negro Moses” from the estate for £150 in April 1802.[13] Although the United States used the dollar by this time, many people still made calculations in the familiar British units of pounds, shillings, and pence. The price of £150 was equivalent to about $682 in 1802, which most enslavers would consider a “reasonable price” for a highly-skilled enslaved craftsman still in the most productive years of his working life.[14]

Moses was the only enslaved person whom James Madison Sr. allowed to choose which of Madison’s heirs would be his next enslaver. Will of James Madison Sr., courtesy of the Library of Congress, James Madison Papers.

Years after the fact, when executor William Madison responded to a lawsuit challenging his administration of his father’s estate, he made a revealing side comment about the operation of the blacksmith shop. In discussing possible debts due to his father’s blacksmithing operation, William noted that

“the Blacksmiths shop accounts were kept by the negro smithes.”[15]

This offhand reference reveals that some of the smiths – perhaps Moses – could write and do arithmetic well enough to keep track of the shop’s daily business.

It is unclear what happened to Moses after Madison Jr. purchased him from his father’s estate. Within weeks of his father’s death, Madison had embarked on what would become a sixteen-year tour of duty in the nation’s capital, serving two terms as Jefferson’s secretary of state and two terms as president. Madison returned to Montpelier for only a few weeks each year. He corresponded with his overseers while in Washington, but Moses is not mentioned in the few letters that survive from that correspondence, nor does Moses’s name appear in letters that Madison wrote during his retirement from the presidency.

What happened to Moses? We will probably never know. Perhaps Moses gradually became less able to work during the years that Madison was in Washington, and his duties had been assumed by a younger man by the time Madison retired. Perhaps Moses died while Madison was in Washington, and the letter conveying that news does not survive. We know as little about the end of Moses’s life as we do about its beginning. The references we do have, however, depict Moses as a skilled craftsman whose work was highly valued, even as he himself was viewed as a commodity.

References

[1] James Madison Sr. Miscellaneous Loose Notes from Unknown Account Book, Miscellaneous Reels, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, image 11, accessed January 20, 2021, MRD-S 26491, Montpelier Research Database.

[2] See “upset” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, accessed January 21, 2021, https://ahdictionary.com/; and “jump” in John D. Light, “A Dictionary of Blacksmithing Terms.” Historical Archaeology 41, no. 2 (2007): 84-157, accessed January 21, 2021, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25617445.

[3] Lynne G. Lewis, Scott K. Parker, Larry D. Dermody, and Ann L. Miller, “Crafty Businessmen: a new perspective on 18th-century plantation economics,” Council of Virginia Archaeologists (May 1992), p. 18-19, accessed January 21, 2021, MRD-S 40260, Montpelier Research Database.

[4] Personal Property Tax Records for James Madison, Sr., 1782-1786, Orange County, Virginia, Tax Records, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed January 20, 2021, MRD-S 43968, Montpelier Research Database.

[5] James Madison Sr. Miscellaneous Loose Notes from Unknown Account Book, Miscellaneous Reels, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed January 20, 2021, MRD-S 26491, Montpelier Research Database.

[6] James Madison Sr. Miscellaneous Loose Notes from Unknown Account Book, Miscellaneous Reels, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed January 20, 2021, MRD-S 26491, Montpelier Research Database.

[7] James Madison Sr., Account Book D, 1776-1798, Miscellaneous Reels, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed January 20, 2021, MRD-S 25676, Montpelier Research Database.

[8] Barbour – Johnson Daybook, 1785-1786, box 7, Papers of the Barbour Family, MS 1486, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Virginia, accessed January 20, 2021, MRD-S 38579, Montpelier Research Database.

[9] James Madison, Instructions to Mordecai Collins, Lewis Collins, and Sawney, November 8, 1790, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accesssed January 21, 2021, MRD-S 21794, Montpelier Research Database.

[10] James Madison to James Madison Sr., February 13, 1797, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed January 21, 2021, MRD-S 11390, Montpelier Research Database.

[11] James Madison to James Madison Sr., July 6, 1792, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed January 21, 2021, MRD-S 10865, Montpelier Research Database.

[12] James Madison Sr., Will dated September 17, 1787, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed January 21, 2021, MRD-S 20954, Montpelier Research Database.

[13] Account of James Madison Sr.’s Estate with William Madison, Executor, July 27, 1818, Will Book 5: 242-247, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia, accessed January 21, 2021, MRD-S 24578, Montpelier Research Database.

[14] Caculated using the helpful tool at Measuring Worth https://www.measuringworth.com/calculators/exchange/, accessed January 22, 2021.

[15] Answer of William Madison, April 29, 1835, box HB 606, Chancery Cause Ended 1838, File No. 2 Loose Papers, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia, accessed January 23, 2021, MRD-S 24746, Montpelier Research Database.