What We Know About Peter

Peter first appears in the documentary record in 1805, while Dolley Madison was in Philadelphia undergoing medical treatment for an ulcerated tumor on her knee. From three letters that Dolley wrote to James, we can infer that Peter’s role during this sojourn included assisting the Madisons as they traveled (managing their horses and driving their carriage) and running errands on their behalf. Peter had apparently traveled with the Madisons from Washington to Philadelphia. Peter then drove James from Philadelphia to a stop where James could pick up a stage wagon back  to Washington. Dolley was awaiting Peter’s return to Philadelphia on October 23, when she wrote to James, “I shall be better when Peter returns,” since “an assurance that you are well and easy will contribute to make me so.”[1] Three days later she wrote, “Peter returned safe, with your letter, and cheared me with a favorable account of your prospect of getting home in the stage.”[2] Peter also ran Dolley’s errands in Philadelphia; Dolley mentioned on November 1, “I have sent Peter to the office for letters.”[3]

Documents related to the estate of James Madison’s mother Nelly Madison indicate that she enslaved Peter. (There is also the possibility that we are looking at two different enslaved men with the same name: Peter who accompanied the Madisons to Philadelphia, and Peter who was listed in Nelly Madison’s estate.) Nelly’s will, written in 1807, stated that the people she enslaved should be given the opportunity to choose which of her heirs would inherit them, within certain constraints, and specifically named eight enslaved people – including Peter – who “shall at all events have their choice as before mentioned.”[4]

Nelly Madison died on February 11, 1829. Five months later Nelly’s estate administrator explained the options to Peter and other members of the enslaved community – a scene described by two neighbors who witnessed the proceedings for the county court:

Reynolds Chapman having in our presence, this 15th day of August 1829, called together the negroes belonging to the estate of Mrs. Nelly Madison, deceased, and informed them that by the will of their mistress they were allowed to choose for their masters or mistresses, Mr. James Madison, General William Madison, Mrs. Macon or either of the children of Mrs. Frances T. Rose, deceased, or if they preferred any other persons he was authorized to sell them to such persons at their valuations and requested them to inform him whom they chose.[5]

Was this news to Peter and the others? Or did they know this would happen, and had already weighed their options and made their choices?

Peter chose to be enslaved by Nelly’s daughter Sarah Madison Macon, who lived at the nearby plantation Somerset. Sam, James, and Pamela (with her children Solomon and Judy) made the same choice, which could suggest that there were ties of kinship among the group, or that they had kinship ties to enslaved people whom James Madison had previously given to his daughter Sarah. The inventory of Nelly’s estate valued Peter at “nothing,” implying that he was either too old or too infirm to work by that time. [6]

Peter and the other people who selected Sarah Macon may have remained at Montpelier while Nelly Madison’s estate was settled. In a lawsuit concluded in 1833, the court ordered that Sam, James, Pamela, Solomon, and Judy should be delivered to Sarah Macon’s trustees, but noted impassively “Peter [was] since dead.”[7]

The fact that Peter had died by 1833 confirms that his appraisal four years earlier was likely based on advanced age or infirmity. In the eyes of enslavers, a Black body worn out by years of work was – at the end – worth “nothing.”

The appraisers of Nelly Madison’s estate estimated most of the enslaved adult men to be worth $300 to $375, reflecting their ability to do work. The appraisers apparently considered Peter unable to work, setting his value at “nothing.” Microfilmed by the Library of Virginia’s Circuit Court Records Preservation Program.

References

[1] Dolley Payne Todd Madison to James Madison, October 23, 1805, Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed July 28, 2020, MRD-S 25219, Montpelier Research Database.

[2] Dolley Payne Todd Madison to James Madison, October 26, 1805, Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed July 28, 2020, MRD-S 28337, Montpelier Research Database.

[3] Dolley Payne Todd Madison to James Madison, November 1, 1805, Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed July 28, 2020, MRD-S 28341, Montpelier Research Database.

[4] Will of Nelly Conway Madison, November 28, 1807, and Codicils of September 16, 1808, January 8, 1817, and May 7, 1818, Will Book 7: 134-138, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia, accessed July 28, 2020, MRD-S 24466, Montpelier Research Database.

[5] Relocation of Slaves, August 15, [1829], folder August H-N, 1833, Orange County: Microfilm Reel 275, Judgments, August 1833, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed September 23, 2020, MRD-S 31456, Montpelier Research Database.

[6] Estate of Nelly Conway Madison, Valuation of Slaves and Other Property, June 30, 1829, Orange County Chancery Causes, 1833-023, Chapman, Admr vs. Madison et als., Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed July 28, 2020, MRD-S 24469, Montpelier Research Database.

[7] Decree, 1833, folder August H-N, 1833, Orange County: Microfilm Reel 275, Judgments, August 1833, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed July 28, 2020, MRD-S 31209, 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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