What We Know About Polly

The only thing known about Polly’s life is that she was enslaved by James Madison Sr. during the 1780s. Her name appears on the personal property tax list for James Madison Sr. from 1782-1786.[1] Enslaved people were not listed by name on property tax records in other years. We have no way of knowing how many years Madison Sr. had already enslaved Polly by 1782, or how many more years he would enslave her after 1786.

Polly’s life, like the lives of many people under slavery, remains a mystery to us.

Shadowy images hint at the unknown dimensions of the lives of enslaved people like Polly, whose names appear only in documents that reveal little or no personal information. Photo by Mike Morency of The Mere Distinction of Colour exhibition, courtesy of Montpelier.


[1] Personal Property Tax Records for James Madison, Sr., 1782-1786, Orange County, Virginia, Tax Records, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed July 24, 2020, MRD-S 43968, Montpelier Research Database. 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.

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