What We Know about the “Little Girl”

A young enslaved girl opened the door when Judith Walker Rives stopped by Montpelier in 1837. Rives was unaware that the widowed Dolley Madison had gone out. As she explained in a letter, Rives asked “the little girl who came to the door” whether anyone was home. The girl told Rives that “there was a gentleman,” clarifying that she meant “a colored gentleman” – the enslaved domestic servant Paul Jennings, who invited Rives in and escorted her about the house. [1]

Judith Rives didn’t know the name of the “little girl,” and neither do we. She could have been one of the children of the Stewart or Taylor families, or another girl whose name does not appear in surviving documents. Children made up approximately one-third of the enslaved community at Montpelier. For an enslaved child, answering the door may have been a simple task, but it was also an indoctrination into her future role as a domestic worker.

Who was “the little girl” who opened Montpelier’s front door for Judith Rives in early 1837? Her name is lost to history.

Photo: Jennifer Wilkoski Glass, courtesy of the Montpelier Foundation

References

[1] Judith Page Walker Rives to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, February 23, 1837, Rosenbach Museum and Library, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, accessed July 21, 2020, MRD-S 35010, Montpelier Research Database.

Written By

Hilarie M. Hicks, MA
Senior Research Historian

Hilarie came to Montpelier in 2010 and joined the Research Department in 2011, where she provides documentary research in support of the Montpelier Foundation’s many activities. A graduate of the College of William and Mary (B.A) and the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies (M.A.), Hilarie has a broad background of experience in research, interpretation, and administration of historic sites. She enjoys following a good paper trail, and she thanks past members of the Montpelier research staff who blazed the trail for The Naming Project.

4 Comments

  • My father lost the battle in naming me. He wanted to name me “Grace” after his mother. My mother won the battle so my first name is not Grace. For the rest of his life he called me “Little Girl”. At age 10 my friends laughed at this and I cried and asked him to call me something else so it became “L.G.” in writing prounounced “Ellejee” with a soft French j and no pause so it didn’t sound like two initials. I vote for “Ellejee” or an equivalent diminutive term from an African language.

    • Lisa, thank you for sharing your naming story! What a compassionate thought to look for a new name for the child we know only as “the little girl who came to the door.” Her story is a reminder that there are many people in the enslaved community whose given names we may never know, but whose lives must still be honored.

  • What an interesting little story. I’m constantly searching for names of family members from the past, which is a difficult task if you are African American. I’m very thankful for people like you who are committed to doing the research. Who knows….we may be related….my maiden name is Hicks!

    • Yvette, thank you for your kind words. It’s nice to hear from another Hicks! Please continue to follow the Naming Project as we add more bio sketches, and good luck with your own research!

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