February 1, 2024

Abby, Harriet, and Benjamin: The Montpelier Naming Project

Montpelier, a sprawling estate in today’s Orange County, Virginia, is best known as the home of generations of the Madison family, including Founding Father and fourth President of the United States James Madison and his wife, Dolley. However, over the three generations that the Madison Family lived at Montpelier, beginning with President Madison’s grandfather in the early decades of the eighteenth century, approximately 300 enslaved persons also lived on the estate.

After years of research, The Naming Project, a website launched in 2020, has begun to host biographies of these enslaved residents and explanations of how their names and stories have been uncovered in the archives. The project received early input from the Montpelier Descendants Committee, an organization comprised of those who trace ancestry to people once enslaved at Montpelier. The project is led by Senior Research Historian at Montpelier, Hilarie M. Hicks. Since it began, Hicks has published more than 40 biographies. The project will continue until all 300 enslaved persons that researchers have identified have their own biographies.

The Naming Project helps tell a more complete story of the estate, a National Trust Historic Site and National Historic Landmark, first listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.

An ariel view of the main house at James Madison's Montpelier.

photo by: The Montpelier Foundation

Aerial view of James Madison's Montpelier.

Pulling Back the Curtain

The Naming Project is part of a longstanding mission at Montpelier to help visitors engage with historical and archaeological research and museum interpretation. “This is an effort to pull back the curtain, look behind it, and see how the sausage gets made at the museum,” says Terry Brock, a research associate at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and former assistant director of archaeology at Montpelier.

While immersing visitors in the research process has always been a goal of the staff at Montpelier, The Naming Project takes this work online in a new way. Doing so was, in part, a response to the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic and early pandemic-era restrictions that forced the museum to close its doors to on-site visitors. To engage audiences while the museum was closed to in-person visitors, Montpelier staff began to expand the museum’s online presence and offer more virtual opportunities to explore the estate and its exhibitions.

One of Montpelier’s first engaging online projects was Unlocking Montpelier, a fundraising effort that used geographic information systems technology to render the estate’s main house as a navigable digital map. Donors could make online contributions to unlock the home’s virtual doors and receive behind-the-scenes access to people, stories, research, and stewardship.

Now that Montpelier has reopened to in-person visitors, those who can come to Orange County, Virginia, can work side-by-side with archaeologists and museum professionals to excavate and analyze artifacts still buried on the property. For those who visit Montpelier online, initiatives like Unlocking Montpelier and The Naming Project offer similar opportunities to uncover historical artifacts and stories.

The biographies hosted on The Naming Project are written such that readers can understand how researchers “connect the dots,” says Brock. Visitors will find a list of resources and even scanned documents hosted alongside the biographies to see where researchers found their information.

Piecing Together History

Writing the biographies hosted on The Naming Project website requires significant research, patience, and a bit of luck. “There is no one history book that you can pull off the shelf and have the life stories of these 300 people,” explains Hicks. “This is information that we have to piece together, one person’s story at a time.”

A screencap of a website with images that name the individual enslaved people with links to biographies.

photo by: The Montpelier Foundation

A screenshot of The Naming Project website.

Some plantation owners kept detailed ledgers with lists of births and deaths of enslaved persons, which can provide a helpful starting point for historians writing about enslavement and the lives of enslaved persons. However, if the Madisons kept such detailed ledgers, those records have not survived. Without these documents, Hicks and other researchers have turned to documents like those held in the James Madison Papers and the Dolley Madison Papers collections at the Library of Congress. Even though these are vast collections, housing more than 13,000 documents in total, there are gaps in the historical record.

Many documents created at Montpelier while the Madisons lived on-site were not preserved because they were considered insignificant. Some records were even burned because their contents were considered private. Others were damaged over time or became food for rodents who nested on the estate. Famously, mice allegedly shredded the original letter that Dolley wrote describing her directive to remove George Washington’s portrait from the White House before British troops burned it in 1814.

Other names appear in more documents, and their biographies are more detailed, including the one written for Harriet. Researchers have found her name and some details about her in various letters, the legal proceedings of a case filed against Dolley Madison in 1844, and a receipt from when she was sold to another enslaver in 1845.

A view of the arched window flanked by the names of individuals enslaved by James Madison stenciled on the wall.

photo by: The Montpelier Foundation

View of the names stenciled on the wall in the exhibition The Mere Distinction of Colour.

Hicks says she has used correspondence, court records, and some unexpected documents, including a list of names and shoe sizes handwritten on a scrap of paper, to glean names and flesh out biographies of the enslaved persons who lived at Montpelier. For some of these residents, like Abby, who was enslaved by James Madison Sr., President Madison’s father, researchers have confirmed little other than their shoe size.

Besides documents, the property also holds clues that help historians and visitors better understand the lives of those who lived and were enslaved there. For example, the biography of “the little girl” is scant. She was a young, enslaved girl who answered the door when a visitor stopped by Montpelier in 1837 when Dolley Madison was out. While the archives provide no further confirmable details about her, architectural drawings and the house itself offer additional insights.

“Because we’ve put so much work into reconstructing the main house based on extensive archaeological and architectural research, we know more about that little girl because we know what the front doorway looks like, and we know what the cellar space looks like, where she may have gone next after she opened the door,” says Brock

An inventory list that shows the names of enslaved people at James Madison's Montpelier with shoe sizes next to names.

photo by: The Montpelier Foundation

A view of one of the primary source documents, this one provides a single detail, a shoe size, about an enslaved person named Abby.

Exploring the Full Humanity of Montpelier’s Enslaved Residents

When the Montpelier team was brainstorming virtual engagement ideas in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, they also felt called to action by the protests that swept the nation in response to the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Brock says the title of The Naming Project is meant to echo the phrase “Say their names,” a common refrain among protestors that summer. “It means to say the names of the victims of racial violence,” explains Brock. “There is no doubt that the individuals who were enslaved by the Madisons at Montpelier were also victims of racial violence.”

Inspiration for The Naming Project also came from the exhibition called The Mere Distinction of Colour, an award-winning exploration of slavery at Montpelier and in the United States in Madison’s time located in the cellars of the plantation home and the South Yard of the property, where the domestic slaves lived and worked. That exhibition launched in 2017. As part of the exhibition, the 300 names for which Hicks is now hard-at-work penning biographies are displayed on the walls of one of the cellar spaces. Brock says The Naming Project was an opportunity to not only say or display the names of those enslaved at Montpelier but also to “explore their full humanity.”

Sometimes, with the right support or luck in the archive, Hicks can produce a biography that reflects more details of the life of a person who was enslaved at Montpelier. One example is Benjamin McDaniel, born ca. 1790–1800, likely on the plantation. Thanks to additional research from Patricia McDaniel, one of Benjamin’s descendants, and family stories, Benjamin’s biography includes rich details of his duties at Montpelier, the wife and children he had there, and how he spent the last decade or so of his life as a free man.

Patron exploring Montpelier's Mere Distinction of Colour exhibit.

photo by: Proun Design

View of the Montpelier exhibition "The Mere Distinction of Colour."

Patricia McDaniel says that generations of her family “took great pride in Benjamin and in his story,” passing it down from one generation to the next. “Although the historical record is meager, each generation kept Benjamin’s story alive. They wanted to be sure we wouldn’t forget who we were — who we are — and in so doing, work to make a better future.”

Hicks hopes that the stories The Naming Project brings together will similarly educate and inspire readers. “Focusing on these people individually and trying to understand what their lives were like is an important part of history,” she says. “It is part of creating historical empathy and a better and more well-rounded view of what happened in the past.”

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Marianne Dhenin is a historian and journalist covering social and environmental justice and politics.

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