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The Naming Project: Stephen

What We Know About Stephen

Stephen appears in the documentary record only in 1844 and 1845, but those few references give some clues to his life before and after that time. Paul Jennings, who had traveled to Montpelier in April 1844, wrote back to Dolley Madison in Washington with updates on the health of various members of  enslaved community, noting: “the peaple ar All well exept stephen…”[1] Since Stephen was at Montpelier, it is likely that he had been born there, as the Madisons rarely purchased enslaved people. In July 1844, Stephen was one of about 50 enslaved people whom Dolley transferred to her son John Payne Todd. It is unclear why Dolley did this, although the timing may be significant; the transfer took place just weeks before she sold Montpelier to Henry Moncure. Todd sold a number of the 50 people transferred to him, kept several with Dolley in Washington, and enslaved others at his Orange county plantation, Toddsberth.

The last mention of Stephen is in a letter from Dolley to an unknown man in April 1845. She thanked the man for “information, and attention, in regard to Stephen who belongs to my Son J P Todd,” and enclosed vegetable pills that “had been once of great service” to Stephen.[2] Possibly Stephen had been leased out and had fallen ill, and Todd was sending pills that had helped Stephen before (perhaps in 1844, when Jennings had written that Stephen was not well).

Stephen was not among the enslaved people listed in John Payne Todd’s estate inventory after Todd’s death in 1851. Possibly Todd sold him, although no written record of a sale survives. It is also possible that Stephen died, either from the condition that made him ill in 1844 and 1845, or from another cause.

In this letter dated April 23, 1844, Paul Jennings reported that “the peaple ar All well exept stephen…” Several letters in Jennings’s handwriting survive, indicating his ability to read and write. Jennings also reported on the declining health of his wife Fanny Gordon Jennings, who was enslaved by Charles Howard at his plantation near Orange Courthouse. Fanny died on August 4, 1844. Dolley Madison Papers, Library of Congress.


[1] Paul Jennings to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, April 23, 1844, Dolley Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed July 23, 2020, MRD-S 26439, Montpelier Research Database.

[2] Dolley Payne Todd Madison to unknown correspondent, April 23, 1845, Papers of Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed July 23, 2020, MRD-S 30596, Montpelier Research Database.