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The Naming Project: Sally

What We Know About Sally

Sally’s name appears in just four surviving documents: the personal property tax record for James Madison Sr. from 1782; a deed of gift in which Madison Sr. transferred Sally to son-in-law Isaac Hite; Hite’s commonplace book; and Madison Sr.’s will. From these four documents, we can sketch the barest outlines of Sally’s life.

Sally was born December 10, 1763, according to an entry Isaac Hite made in his commonplace book.[1] Presumably Madison Sr. had recorded her birthdate in plantation records that no longer exist, and later shared that information with his son-in-law. The fact that Sally’s exact date of birth was known, suggests that she was likely born at Montpelier.

Sally was one of 84 enslaved people listed on James Madison Sr.’s personal property tax record in 1782, the first of five years in which the tax record listed the enslaved individually by name.[2] Sally was not on the list for 1783, because in that year Madison Sr. gave Sally to Isaac Hite, soon after Hite married Madison Sr.’s eldest daughter Nelly. Their wedding took place on January 2, 1783, not long after Sally turned 19. Madison Sr. made gifts of enslaved people to each of his sons and daughters as they married, providing each newlywed couple with the unpaid labor that would enable them to build wealth on their own plantations.

Madison Sr. gave a total of 2 men, 4 women, and 9 children to the Hites, as listed in the 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]

In his will, written in 1787, Madison Sr. confirmed his transfer of these 15 people as his daughter Nelly Hite’s inheritance. He listed March 1, 1783, as the date after which the Hites would own any additional children born to the transferred group.[4] This suggests that it was in March 1783 that Sally and her enslaved companions moved from Montpelier to the Hites’ Shenandoah Valley home, Belle Grove.

James Madison Sr.’s will confirmed that he had previously given Sally and 14 additional enslaved people to his daughter Nelly Madison Hite. Although Madison Sr. typically transferred enslaved people to his sons and daughters at the time they married, he restated the transfers in his will, indicating that these gifts were advances on his children’s shares of his estate. Courtesy of James Madison Papers, Library of Congress.

The will and the deed of gift offer no clues about Sally’s family relationships. Did she leave one or both parents behind at Montpelier, or perhaps one parent on another Orange county plantation? Were Milley, Eliza, or Truelove her sisters, or Jemmy or Jerry her brothers? Unlike Eliza and Truelove, who were listed with their children, Sally appears to be on her own. If Sally had already had children, they would probably have been transferred with her. Does this mean that Sally was unmarried, or did the transfer separate her from her husband?

Sometime after Sally’s arrival at Belle Grove, Isaac Hite copied her name onto a page in his commonplace book[5], in a column titled “Names of My Negroes.” In the next column, “When Born,” he wrote “December 10, 1763.”  At some point – probably after 1787[6] – he filled out the final column, “How Disposed,” with a single word:


Why Isaac Hite sold Sally, or to whom, is unknown. The rest of her life story is missing from the historical record.


[1] Hite Family Commonplace Book, 1776-1859, Hite Family Papers, Vol. I, MS IH637535a-40, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia, accessed December 8, 2020, 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 December 8, 2020, 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 December 8, 2020, MRD-S 20954, Montpelier Research Database.

[5] Hite Family Commonplace Book, 1776-1859, Hite Family Papers, Vol. I, MS IH637535a-40, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia, accessed December 8, 2020, MRD-S 44306, Montpelier Research Database.

[6] In 1787, when James Madison Sr. wrote his will and named all the enslaved people he had previously given to his sons and daughters, he noted that several people had died or been sold by the time of his writing. James Madison Jr. had sold Billey; Ambrose Madison had sold Savina. If Isaac Hite had sold Sally before 1787, Madison Sr. would likely have noted her sale as well.