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The Naming Project: Reuben

What We Know About Reuben

Reuben’s name was listed on James Madison Sr.’s Orange County personal property tax records in each of the years between 1782 and 1786, except 1784.[1] (The five years from 1782-1786 were the only years in which the individual names of enslaved people were recorded on the tax lists.) It is unclear why Reuben was not listed in 1784. He may have been outside Orange County that year, either working on a Madison property in another county or having been hired out to a plantation owner in another county.


“Laid Up with the Rheumatism”

A letter written by Madison Sr. gives a more personal glimpse of Reuben. Madison Sr. wrote to his son-in-law Thomas Macon in 1796, regarding a fire at the house of Montpelier overseer James Coleman on the night of January 2. Stored in the overseer’s house was a large quantity of Madison Sr.’s wool, which had been spun into yarn or thread but not yet woven into cloth. (Madison Sr. referred to it as “stuff,” a common term for wool in the 18th century.) As Madison Sr. described the situation:

“Jimmy Coleman had his House burnt the 2d. Night of the last Month, & lost a great many things beside what I lost,  there was spun Stuff enough, upon a calculation, to have made 500 Yards of Cloth, some of which would have been wove up if Reuben had not been laid up with the Rheumatism, which has confined him from weaving for the last three months.”[2]

This suggests that by the late 1790s, Reuben was the primary weaver at Montpelier. No one else had taken up the task of weaving the wool in the overseer’s house, even though Reuben’s rheumatism had kept him from weaving since November 1795.

It is difficult to determine Reuben’s physical condition from just one mention of rheumatism in a letter. The term “rheumatism” was often used imprecisely, more as a description of symptoms than as a diagnosis of a specific disease. Reuben may have had arthritis, bursitis, or another condition resulting in stiff or painful joints. Reuben’s condition may have been related to advancing age, perhaps made worse by years of the physical work of operating a loom.

Reuben’s role as a weaver was mentioned in this excerpt from James Madison Sr.’s letter, describing a fire at the overseer’s house. The fire destroyed enough wool to have woven 500 yards of cloth. Reuben would have woven some of the wool, if he had not been suffering from rheumatism. Courtesy of Carrier Library, James Madison University.

“Her Weaver’s Hand is a Little Out”

Reuben may have been the unnamed weaver to whom Madison Sr. referred in another letter, a decade earlier. In June 1785, Madison Sr. explained why his wife Nelly was uncertain about weaving cotton cloth for the wife of his nephew Taverner Beale:

“Your aunt will endeavour to have Mrs Beale’s Cotton wove agreeable to the pattern, but is apprehensive that her weaver’s hand is a little out, and the weaving geer out of sorts & is afraid the work will not be so well executed as she would wish…”[3]

If Reuben was the weaver whose hand was “a little out” in 1785 (one of the years when Reuben’s name appeared in the tax list), this would suggest that Reuben had occasional bouts of pain and stiffness in his hand in the 1780s, which would – by the 1790s – progress to the point that Reuben was unable to weave for months at a time.


Madison Sr.’s Estate

When James Madison Sr. wrote his will in 1787, the only enslaved people he mentioned were the people he had already given to his sons and daughters as advances on their inheritance. Reuben was not among them; his skills as a weaver may have made him too valuable to give away during Madison Sr.’s lifetime. After Madison Sr. died in 1801, “108 Slaves” were listed in his estate inventory, but their individual names were not recorded.[4] We don’t know whether Reuben was among the 108 enslaved people.

Reuben’s name, in fact, does not appear in the documentary record again after Madison Sr.’s 1796 letter regarding the overseer’s house fire. Did Reuben die between 1796 and 1801? If not, was he sold, or given to one of the Madison sons or daughters, in the final distribution of Madison Sr.’s estate? How much longer would Reuben have been physically able to weave, before his rheumatism robbed him of that ability? The task of weaving at Montpelier eventually passed to Harriet and Amey, according to an 1829 letter in which Dolley Madison offered to have Harriet or Amey weave for her brother John Coles Payne.[5]


A Weaver’s Life

Knowing that Reuben was a weaver gives us a greater insight into his daily life than we have for many other people enslaved at Montpelier. Yet since Reuben’s name appears only in one letter and four tax lists, there is still so much we don’t know. How old was Reuben when these five documents were written? Was weaving Reuben’s primary occupation, or was he also expected to labor in the fields or do other seasonal tasks throughout the year? What was Reuben like as a son, a husband, or a father? What did he hope for himself and his loved ones?

Only a few threads of Reuben’s story are known to us, but woven together, they hint at the vibrant and complex fabric of his life.


[1] Personal Property Tax Records for James Madison, Sr., 1782-1786, Orange County, Virginia, Tax Records, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed July 29, 2021, MRD-S 43968, Montpelier Research Database.

[2] James Madison Sr. to Thomas Macon, February 7, 1796, box 1, folder 1, James Madison Memorabilia, 1796-1951, MS SC 0119, Carrier Library, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, accessed July 29, 2021, MRD-S 24494, Montpelier Research Database.

[3] James Madison Sr., to Taverner Beale, June 6, 1785, private collection, accessed July 29, 2021, MRD-S 28234, Montpelier Research Database.

[4] 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 July 30, 2021, MRD-S 23611, Montpelier Research Database.

[5] Dolley Payne Todd Madison to John Coles Payne, December 4, 1829, private collection, accessed July 29, 2021, MRD-S 25906, Montpelier Research Database.