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The Naming Project: Silvey (Sylvia)

What We Know About Silvey

Silvey, also called Sylvia, was likely born at Montpelier ca. 1806[1], and was enslaved by James Madison. She may be related to an older woman named Sylvia or Silva who was enslaved by Madison’s father in the 1780s.

It is uncertain whether it was 12-year-old Silvey or the older Sylvia who received medical treatment from Dr. Charles Taylor in August 1818. Taylor’s bill, which covered a year of visits to the Madisons and 11 members of the enslaved community, shows that on August 11, Taylor provided “A Visit[,] Blistering Medicine &c for Sylva” for an unspecified condition.[2] (Blistering was a treatment for pain that involved using a preparation such as a mustard plaster to raise blisters on the skin and theoretically draw blood away from the original site of pain, providing relief.)

Dr. Charles Taylor’s visit to “Sylva” on August 11, 1818, is the next to last entry on his bill. Courtesy of James Madison Papers, Library of Congress.

There is much that is unknown about Silvey’s life. We don’t know whether she worked in the house or in the fields. We know a little more about Silvey’s family. She gave birth to Fanny ca. 1835, Jack Abram (also called Abraham) ca. 1837, Frank ca. 1838, Elizabeth ca. 1841, and William ca. 1844. Their birth years, as well as Silvey’s, can be calculated from a list drawn up by Dolley Madison’s son John Payne Todd, giving their ages in 1844. At that point the widowed Dolley Madison had moved to Washington and was preparing to sell Montpelier.[3]


Listing Silvey and Her Children

Silvey’s name, in fact, appears in several lists that Todd wrote in the months leading up to the sale of Montpelier, as he apparently weighed options for selling enslaved people. Todd included “Sylvia & 4 Children” on a list in his journal in June 1844.  (Silvey was likely pregnant with her fifth child, William, at this time.) Todd incorrectly estimated Silvey’s age at 30. He did not place a dollar value on Silvey’s family or the other women and children on the list, although he did list values for the men.[4]

In July 1844, Silvey and her family were among the 50 enslaved people that Dolley Madison transferred to her son, in a move that was probably intended to keep them from being seized in a lawsuit brought against Dolley Madison by her brother-in-law.[5] The last people on the list were “Charles abt 30 yrs with Sylvia and four children she abt 33 yrs old.” Since Charles is described as being “with” Sylvia and four children, it is possible that Charles was Silvey’s husband or brother, although that is not explicitly stated in any surviving document.[6]

Silvey had given birth to her son William by the time John Payne Todd made his next list of the enslaved, appraising the sale value of 21 people as individuals or in groups. This time he listed Silvey’s age as 38, noting that it was on the authority of Silvey herself. He put a total price of $1,000 on Silvey and her five children. Todd priced Silvey with 4-year-old Elizabeth and newborn William at $425. He priced 10-year-old Fanny by herself at $275, and 8-year-old Jack Abram and 7-year-old Frank together at $300. Todd’s bracketing within the family group may simply reflect his thought process in calculating the total price, but may also suggest that he considered selling some members of Silvey’s family separately. Charles, who may or may not have been Silvey’s husband, was not included on this list. [7]

John Payne Todd calculated the selling price of Silvey, here listed as “Sylvia,” and her family. Charlotte and Edwin, the son and daughter of Sally (deceased), also appear on the list along with Charlotte’s children Elizabeth and Caleb.

Sold to Moncure

Todd probably made this list in preparation for selling a group of enslaved people to Henry Moncure, who had already purchased part of the Montpelier tract and who would purchase the rest of the tract, including the house, in August 1844. Although no deed survives for Moncure’s purchase of the enslaved, Moncure referred to the transaction in relation to a court case:

“On the 22d. of July 1844 this defendant [Henry Moncure] purchased of John P. Todd the following slaves, [towit:] … Charles at $450 … Sylvia & her five children, [towit]: Fanny, Abraham, Frank, Elizabeth & William $1000 … and [rec’d] from the said Todd a bill of sale of the said slaves as of that date, warranting amongst other things that the said slaves were sound both in mind and body.” [8]

In his statement, Moncure also noted that he had made two partial payments thus far toward the total price of $3,550 for 13 men, women, and children: $400 on August 12, and $127.99 on August 19. This information may have a bearing on the next list John Payne Todd drew up.

Silvey and her family appear on that undated list in Todd’s journal, which he apparently wrote in August (based on the dates of journal entries before and after the list). The list includes

“Sylvia & her 5 children Fanny

Abraham Frank & Elizabeth

& William — 1000”[9]

although Todd had already sold Silvey and her family to Moncure in July. Charles was on the list, although he too had been sold to Moncure. The list also included “Caty & 2 children,” who were never sold to Moncure. Perhaps in this list, since Moncure had not yet paid in full for the people he purchased, Todd was calculating the total amount of money he could expect to receive for the slaves sold to Moncure, as well as for other people who might be sold in the future.


“Taken in Labour”

Although the sale of Montpelier represented a significant moment in the breakup of the enslaved community, some members of the community remained in the vicinity, whether enslaved by Henry Moncure at Montpelier, by John Payne Todd at Toddsberth, or by other enslavers in the town or county of Orange. While separated, they at least had opportunities to hear about each other from time to time. On April 24, 1847, enslaved domestic worker Sarah Stewart wrote to Dolley Madison from Toddsberth with news that had come to her. “I believe the people in the naibourhood is generaly well,” Sarah began, before relating an item of terrible news from Montpelier:

“Silvey was taken in labour last fryday & had Doct. Slaughter & Doct. Grymes with her but died last sunday morning at sunrise They could not deliver her.”[10]

Sarah Stewart sent the news of Silvey’s death to Dolley Madison in Washington. Stewart may have penned the letter herself, or asked someone else to write for her. Courtesy of Papers of Dolley Madison, Library of Congress.

Silvey, age 41, had died on April 18, after nearly two full days in labor. When her labor began, she probably had the assistance of another woman acting as a midwife. (It was typical in the mid-nineteenth century for women, enslaved or free, to give birth with the help of midwives and other women, rather than doctors.) As the mother of five children, Silvey knew what to expect, and could undoubtedly feel that something was wrong this time. Someone – perhaps the overseer, since Henry Moncure was not at Montpelier[11] – called for the doctor.


The Doctors

Dr. Slaughter and Dr. Grymes had treated James and Dolley Madison at various times, as well as members of the enslaved community. Thomas Towles Slaughter, age 43, lived in nearby Madison County and was married to James Madison’s great-niece, Jane Madison Chapman. Peyton Grymes Sr., age 56, lived at Selma, a plantation east of Orange Court House, and had been a friend as well as a doctor to James and Dolley.

An undated note from Dr. Slaughter to Dr. Grymes, preserved in the Grymes family papers, may refer to Silvey’s case. With the dateline “Montpelier Saturday Morng,” Dr. Slaughter wrote:

“There is a woman in Labour here with an Arm Presentation, Expecting to have need of assistance, I will thank you to come up immediately”[12]

Dr. Thomas Slaughter requested the assistance of Dr. Peyton Grymes for a difficult birth at Montpelier, in this undated note from the Grymes family papers. The note is addressed to Dr. Grymes at his home, called Selma. Courtesy of Virginia Museum of History & Culture (Mss1 G9297 a45),

The date of “Saturday Morng” would fit with Silvey’s labor beginning on Friday. After a night with no progress, someone called the doctor the next morning. If this note does indeed refer to Silvey, Dr. Slaughter’s observation of “an Arm Presentation” would explain why Silvey was in such distress. Rather than being headfirst in the birth canal, the baby was in a transverse (sideways) position, with an arm in the birth canal.


“They Could Not Deliver Her”

Even after Dr. Grymes arrived, there was only so much that two doctors could do. They may have attempted to turn the baby into the correct position, or tried to use instruments to deliver it. Surgical deliveries by Caesarean section were generally too dangerous to be attempted in this period.[13]

Despite the best attempts of Dr. Slaughter and Dr. Grymes, “they could not deliver her,” as Sarah Stewart wrote. Silvey likely died of shock, hemorrhage, or infection.

What happened to Silvey’s children – Fanny, Jack Abram, Frank, Elizabeth, and William, who ranged in age from 13 to 3 years old – is unclear. They were still enslaved by Henry Moncure. Possibly there were other adults who could care for them in the quarters where they had lived with their mother Silvey. If not, they may have moved into quarters with relatives or other families enslaved at Montpelier.

On the surface, it might seem that Silvey’s death was not much different from that of any free white woman who died in childbirth in Orange, Virginia, in the mid 19th century. A complicated birth was dangerous, even though Silvey had medical attention from the same doctors who had attended James and Dolley Madison.

The circumstances of Silvey’s death, however, were far different than those of a free woman. Silvey died while bearing a child who was, in the eyes of the law, the property of Henry Moncure – just as Silvey was herself.


[1] Based on the age Silvey reported to John Page Todd, in: John Payne Todd, List of slaves, foodstuffs shipped, and draft to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, [1844], box 2, folder June–Dec 1845, Papers of Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed March 31, 2021, MRD-S 28677, Montpelier Research Database.

[2] Charles Taylor, Account with James Madison, July 25, 1817 – August 27, 1818, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed March 30, 2021, MRD-S 22255, Montpelier Research Database.

[3] John Payne Todd, List of slaves, foodstuffs shipped, and draft to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, [1844], box 2, folder June–Dec 1845, Papers of Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed March 31, 2021, MRD-S 28677, Montpelier Research Database.

[4] John Payne Todd, List of Slaves, [June 1844], excepted from John Payne Todd’s Journal, The Peter Force Collection; Series 8, MS 17134, Library of Congress, Washington, DC., accessed March 31, 2021, MRD-S 29157.

[5] William Madison had pressed Dolley to sign a bond pledging to pay him $2,000, which he believed his brother James owed to him from their father’s estate.

[6] Dolley Payne Todd Madison, Declaration of Certain Slaves to John Payne Todd, July 16, 1844, box 3, folder Deeds Conveying Slaves and other property from Dolley Madison to John Payne Todd, 1844 Jun 16-Jul 17 , Papers of Notable Virginia Families, MS 2988, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Virginia, accessed March 31, 2021, MRD-S 27300, Montpelier Research Database.

[7] John Payne Todd, List of slaves, foodstuffs shipped, and draft to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, [1844], box 2, folder June–Dec 1845, Papers of Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed March 31, 2021, MRD-S 28677, Montpelier Research Database.

[8] Answer of Henry W. Moncure, July 1, 1847, box 629, folder Wall File J, 1, Orange County Ended Chancery, Ended Dates: 1847-1848, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia, accessed March 31, 2021, MRD-S 26225.

[9] John Payne Todd, Journal and Letterbook, 1844-1847, Peter Force Papers and Collection; Series 8, MS 17137, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed March 30, 2021, MRD-S 27454, Montpelier Research Database.

[10] Sarah Stewart to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, April 24, 1847, Papers of Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed March 31, 2021, MRD-S 26445, Montpelier Research Database.

[11] In Moncure’s testimony of July 1, 1847, he noted that he had been in Louisiana from the autumn of 1846, “and it was not till about the 20th of April following that he returned to Virginia.” See note 7, above.

[12] Thomas Slaughter to Peyton Grymes Sr., n.d., MS 1 G9297 a45 (Section 1), Virginia Museum of History and Culture, Richmond, Virginia, accessed April 6, 2021, MRD-S 23943, Montpelier Research Database.

[13] By the end of the century, caesarean births became safer, as antiseptic practices reduced the danger of death from infection, and general anethesia came into wide use. The following articles provide an accessible but sometimes graphic explanation of the relevant medical issues: 19th Century Childbirth, Adelaidia, accessed April 6, 2021; Cesarean Section: A Brief History, National Insitutes of Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine, accessed April 6, 2021; A Short History of Anaesthesia: From Unspeakable Agony to Unlocking Consciousness, The Conversation, accessed April 6, 2021.