What We Know About Solomon Taliaferro

In the 1990s, a book titled A Brief Concordance to the Holy Scriptures surfaced briefly in an antiques shop in Fredericksburg, Virginia. An inscription identified the book as a gift to Solomon Taliaferro[1] from his friends Mrs. Thompson and Miss Lizzie Cave, and gave the outlines of Taliaferro’s life story. Enslaved by Nelly Madison, Taliaferro was born at Montpelier and was baptized there by Parson Belmaine. In 1846 he joined the United Brethren, and in 1849 married Sarah Taylor. Taliaferro was freed by Reuben Macon in 1853. He had no living children. The inscription was dated July 28, 1887, in Orange County.[2]

Rarely do we come across such a detailed life story for a member of the enslaved community at Montpelier. What’s more, Solomon Taliaferro’s name appears in additional documents that allow us to flesh out his biography even further.

 

In the Estate of Nelly Madison

Solomon Taliaferro was born at Montpelier ca. 1819, the son of Pamela Barbour Taliaferro and Frank Taliaferro. [3] (It is not clear whether Frank Taliaferro was one of the several men named Frank who were enslaved by the Madisons.) The earliest document in which Solomon Taliaferro’s name appears is the estate appraisal of Nelly Madison, mother of President Madison, which was taken after her death in 1829. “Soloman” was valued at $275.[4] Nelly Madison had indicated in her will that the people she enslaved would be allowed to choose which of her heirs would inherit them. Their choices were recorded in another document related to Nelly’s estate.  Rather than being listed as an individual in that document, Solomon appeared with members of his family: “Pamela has selected for herself, Son Solomon & Daughter Judy who are under fourteen years Old: Sarah Macon.” [5]

Solomon’s name appears in Nelly Madison’s estate papers, showing that his mother Pamela chose for her family to be inherited by Sarah Macon. Orange County Chancery Causes, microfilmed by the Library of Virginia.

Sarah Madison Macon was Nelly Madison’s daughter, who lived with her husband Thomas at the nearby plantation Somerset. Sam, Peter, and James also selected Sarah Macon. They may have been related to Solomon and his family. Some or all of the group may have had kinship ties to people already enslaved by the Macons, including the enslaved people who were given by James Madison Sr. to his daughter soon after her marriage.

Part of Nelly’s estate was settled through a lawsuit in 1833, when the Orange County Court ordered that Solomon and his family, as well as the other enslaved people who had chosen Sarah Macon, should be delivered to Sarah’s trustees, “for the separate use and benefit of the said Sarah during her life, and at her death to be delivered to the defendants James M Macon, Ambrose Macon, Henry Macon and Reuben Macon.”[6] These were the four sons of Sarah Macon still living in Orange County.

 

From One Macon Estate to Another

Sarah Macon died a widow in October 1843. Somerset had been sold when her husband died, and it is not clear where she and the people she enslaved were living at the time of her death. When Sarah’s estate was appraised in January 1844, Solomon was valued at $400, reflecting the fact that he was now an adult.[7] He was inherited by Sarah’s son, Reuben Macon. Reuben also inherited Solomon’s sister Judy, who by this time had a child. Solomon’s mother Pamela is not listed in the estate appraisal; her whereabouts are unknown.

The inscription in Solomon’s Brief Concordance tells us that he married Sarah Taylor in 1849, which was during the time he was enslaved by Reuben Macon. Possibly Sarah too was enslaved by Reuben Macon (a woman named Sarah was later listed on Reuben’s estate inventory), or she may have been enslaved on a neighboring plantation.

The 1850 census showed that Reuben Macon enslaved 26 people, who were listed by age, sex, and color, rather than by name. There was only one 32-year-old man in the list. Presumably he was Solomon Taliaferro, since other sources indicate that Solomon was born ca. 1819.[8] Sometime after 1850, Reuben moved in with his sister Lucy Macon Conway, whose plantation Greenwood was adjacent to Montpelier. Solomon may have moved to Greenwood as well.

“Transporting My Slaves to Liberia”

Reuben Macon died on May 1, 1853, having written his will only the day before, and having made some unusual provisions in it. He instructed that his land, livestock, “household & Kitchen furniture, Dogs, and every particle of perishable property I possess in the world to be Sold except my servants.” The people Reuben enslaved, including Solomon, were to be leased out. That income, and any other proceeds from Reuben’s estate, would provide annual support for Reuben’s unmarried brothers Henry and Ambrose during their lifetimes. After Henry and Ambrose died, Reuben’s executors were to emancipate the people he had enslaved and use the remainder of his estate to send the newly-freed people to Liberia. Reuben, perhaps expecting some resistance from his family or executors, reiterated at the end of the will:

“In order that I may not be misunderstood, I give and bequeath to my executors, all the residue of my estate both real and personal, to my executors in trust to pay the expense of transporting my slaves to Liberia.”[9]

Reuben’s will indicates that he supported the colonization movement, which aspired to end slavery in the United States by emancipating enslaved people and resettling them in Liberia. (Many emancipated people, whose families had been in the United States for generations, understandably had no desire to be relocated to a country they had never seen.) Reuben may have been influenced by his uncle, President James Madison, who had at one point been the president of the American Colonization Society.

It took years to settle Reuben’s estate. His two brothers died in 1853 and 1856, but it was not until 1859-1860 that the court ordered an appraisal of the enslaved people in Reuben’s estate. “Somon” (Solomon) was valued at $1000. Half of the enslaved people on the list were valued at $1000 or higher, suggesting that Solomon’s increased valuation reflected a general inflation in prices, or perhaps a desire to maximize the valuation of the estate, rather than any increase in Solomon’s individual skills or strength. (Solomon’s sister Judy is not listed in the estate appraisal; she may have died or been sold.)[10]

Solomon’s status is somewhat unclear in the years between Reuben Macon’s death and the settling of his estate. Reuben’s will directed that Solomon and the other enslaved people in the estate be hired out as long as Reuben’s brothers were still living. The court clearly still considered Solomon to be part of Reuben’s estate in 1860. Yet according to the inscription in A Brief Concordance to the Holy Scriptures, Solomon dated the start of his freedom as 1853, the year Reuben died. Perhaps Solomon had been told that Reuben’s will freed him. Perhaps the estate administrator (appointed by the court when the executors refused to serve) did not closely attend to hiring out Solomon and the other enslaved people, and they were left to their own devices for periods of time. Did the administrator ever present Solomon with the opportunity to go to Liberia? We don’t know, but Solomon appears to have stayed in Orange County the rest of his life.

 

A Free Man in Orange County

Solomon Taliaferro’s name can be found in a number of Orange County public records after the Civil War. He now appeared on tax rolls as the owner of his own personal property, rather being listed as the property of an enslaver. In 1867 he paid 62 cents tax on three hogs valued at $8. [11] In 1869 he paid 75 cents tax on a horse valued at $50, and was listed as living “[near] Barnett’s Ford.” [12]

The 1870 census found 51-year old Solomon, a farm hand, living with his 55-year-old wife Sarah, who “Keeps House” (meaning that she stayed home to run her family’s household). Neither Solomon nor Sarah could read or write. Also in their household were 27-year-old farm hand Jefferson Taylor, 19-year-old Lucy Taylor (keeping house), and 4-month-old Rachel Taylor. Thomas Jefferson Taylor was Sarah’s son from her previous marriage to Edmund Taylor, and he married Lucy Jane on December 27, 1870, according to the Orange County Marriage Register.[13]

Solomon Taliaferro’s household as it appeared in the 1870 census. The columns on the left indicate that this was the 402nd dwelling and 493rd family to be recorded on the census list. The columns after the names indicate each family member’s age, sex, color (Black or Mulatto), and occupation. Although Lucy and Rachel were listed as Mulatto, we don’t know whether the census taker ascertained that they were of mixed race, or whether he simply perceived them as light-skinned.

Throughout the 1870s, Solomon Taliaferro continued to appear on the personal property tax rolls in Orange County with a limited amount of livestock and other possessions. In 1873 he paid $1.05 tax on personal property worth $10, including four hogs valued at $5. [14] In 1874 he paid $1.30 tax on personal property totaling $62 in value, including furniture worth $10 and a horse worth $50. [15] In 1876 he paid $1.22 tax on $43 worth of personal property, including $10 worth of furniture, a horse worth $30, and a hog worth $3. [16] In 1876 he paid $1 state tax, with no personal property listed on the form. [17] While the details may seem tedious, they paint a picture of Solomon Taliaferro as a man of very modest means, owning a little furniture and livestock, but none of the stocks and bonds, clocks, jewelry, pianos, or sewing machines that were part of the taxable personal property of wealthier Orange County residents.

 

A Changing Household

Significant changes took place in Solomon Taliaferro’s household between the 1870 and 1880 census. Solomon, now a 61-year-old laborer, had been unemployed for three months in 1880. The Taylor family no longer lived with the Taliaferros, but Solomon and Sarah’s granddaughter had joined their household. (The 1887 inscription on Solomon’s Brief Concordance stated that he had no living children at that time; perhaps a daughter had already died by 1880, leaving Solomon and Sarah with a grandchild to raise.) Sarah was listed as being unable to read or write, but Solomon’s name was marked “cannot write,” implying that he could now read. This shows that within the previous 10 years, Solomon had achieved a milestone of literacy. Solomon and Sarah Taliaferro may have had hopes of even greater achievement for their young granddaughter. The census shows that 12-year-old Sarah Johnson was attending school in 1880; she could read but not yet write. (Like Lucy and Rachel Taylor on the 1870 census, Sarah Johnson was identified as “Mulatto.” It is unclear whether the census taker based this on skin color alone, or asked if she was of mixed race.) [18]

A series of land deeds in 1887 shows that Solomon Taliaferro became a landowner, if only for a short time. In May, Solomon paid $185 for a four-acre parcel. [19] When he sold the same parcel for $250 in October, the deed referred to it as the “land upon which Solomon Taliaferro now resides.” The purchaser gave Solomon a part payment of $50 and a $200 lien on the property, [20] then immediately sold the property to another purchaser, arranging four payments of $50 to Solomon, so that he would eventually receive the entire selling price.[21] It is unclear why Solomon held the property for only a few months, but it does appear that he made a profit on its sale.

 

Loss and Remarriage

Solomon’s wife Sarah Taylor Taliaferro died at some point after the 1880 census was taken. Solomon was listed as a widower in the Orange County marriage register when he married 55-year-old widow Sarah Brown, also of Orange County, on October 10, 1889. (His age is listed as 65, although it was likely closer to 70, according to other records.) This marriage register provides the evidence for the full names of Solomon’s parents: Frank Taliaferro and Pamela Barbour. In the column for the wife’s parents, the only name entered is “Dorcas.” This could be Sarah’s family surname, or more likely the first name of her mother. [22]

The October 10, 1889 wedding of Solomon Taliaferro and Sarah Brown was recorded on line 10 of this page from the Orange County Marriage Register. Courtesy of the Orange County Clerk’s Office.

How did this marriage change the makeup of Solomon’s household? Did the newlywed couple live alone? Was Solomon’s granddaughter Sarah Johnson, now in her early 20s, still living with him? Had she married? Did Sarah Brown Taliaferro bring any of her own family members into the household? The 1890 census might have answered these questions, but unfortunately the records of that census were destroyed after a 1921 fire in Washington DC.

Solomon Taliaferro’s death notice appeared in the Orange Observer on January 15, 1892. The wording, while offensive, is revealing in light of the racial tensions of the 1890s. Taliaferro’s white neighbors apparently liked him, but was that because he related to them with an “old-style” deference? Was his “type” seen as “rapidly passing away,” in comparison to a new generation of African Americans who spoke out against Jim Crow restrictions?

Ordinary and Extraordinary

Solomon Taliaferro, aged about 73, died at home in January 1892 of pneumonia, as noted in the local newspaper. [23] While in some ways an ordinary man – a farm hand and laborer – his life followed an extraordinary arc from slavery to freedom, from being considered property to being a property owner himself.

Solomon’s birth family was broken apart in the estates of his enslavers. The family he created with his first wife endured from slavery through freedom. In his last years he married again, and unlike his first wedding, this ceremony was recognized under the law and was formally recorded in a county record book. Thanks to the inscription in his Brief Concordance, and the clues recorded in county records and census documents, the pieces of Solomon Taliaferro’s remarkable life story come together to form a fascinating, if fragmentary, picture.

References

[1] The family name “Taliaferro” is usually pronounced “Tolliver” in Virginia.

[2] Solomon Taliaferro Book Inscription, July 28, 1887, Montpelier Research Files, Montpelier Foundation, Orange, Virginia, accessed September 29, 2020, MRD-S 38150, Montpelier Research Database. The original book had been sold before its existence was brought to the attention of The Montpelier Foundation, and its current location is unknown.

[3] Solomon Taliaferro’s parents’ names appear on his 1889 marriage record in the Orange County Marriage Register, No. 2: 1854-1912, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia, accessed September 30, 2020, MRD-S 45780, Montpelier Research Database.

[4] Valuation of the Personal Estate of Nelly Conway Madison, April 2, 1829, folder August H-N, 1833, Orange County: Microfilm Reel 275, Judgments, August 1833, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed September 29, 2020, MRD-S 31452, Montpelier Research Database.

[5] 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 September 29, 2020, MRD-S 24469, Montpelier Research Database.

[6] Decree, 1833, folder August H-N, 1833, Orange County: Microfilm Reel 275, Judgments, August 1833, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed September 30, 2020, MRD-S 31209, Montpelier Research Database.

[7] Inventory and Appraisement of Sarah Macon, January 1, 1844, Will Book 10: 57-60, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia, accessed September 30, 2020, MRD-S 24641, Montpelier Research Database.

[8] Schedule 2 (Slave Schedule) of the Seventh Census of the United States, Orange County, Virginia, 1850, United States National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, accessed October 13, 2020, MRD-S 42693, Montpelier Research Database.

[9] Reuben Macon, Will, April 30, 1853, Will Book 12:56-57, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia, accessed September 30, 2020, MRD-S 45736, Montpelier Research Database.

[10] Inventory and Appraisement of the Estate of Reuben Macon, December 26, 1859, Will Book 12: 419-420, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia, accessed September 30, 2020, MRD-S 45743, Montpelier Research Database.

[11] Personal Property Tax Book, Orange County, Virginia, 1867, Personal Property Tax Records, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia, accessed October 2, 2020, MRD-S 45687, Montpelier Research Database.

[12] Personal Property Tax Book, Orange County, Virginia, 1869, Personal Property Tax Records, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed October 2, 2020, MRD-S 45754, Montpelier Research Database.

[13] Ninth Population Census of the United States, [Madison District], Orange County, Virginia, 1870, United States Census, United States National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, accessed October 2, 2020, MRD-S 45322, Montpelier Research Database; Orange County Marriage Register, No. 2: 1854-1912, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia, accessed October 15, 2020, MRD-S 45780, Montpelier Research Database.

[14] Personal Property Tax Book, Madison District, Orange County, Virginia, 1873, Personal Property Tax Records, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed October 2, 2020, MRD-S 45764, Montpelier Research Database.

[15] Personal Property Tax Book, Madison District, Orange County, Virginia, 1874, Personal Property Tax Records, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed October 2, 2020, MRD-S 45765, Montpelier Research Database.

[16] Personal Property Tax Book, Madison District, Orange County, Virginia, 1875, Personal Property Tax Records, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed October 2, 2020, MRD-S 45766, Montpelier Research Database.

[17] Personal Property Tax Book, District No. 2, Orange County, Virginia, 1876, Personal Property Tax Records, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed October 2, 2020, MRD-S 45767, Montpelier Research Database.

[18] Tenth Population Census of the United States, Madison District, Orange County, Virginia, 1880, United States Census, United States National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, accessed October 2, 2020, MRD-S 45348, Montpelier Research Database.

[19] E. T. Revely trustee of F. Robinette Revely to Solomon Taliaferro, Land Deed, May 10, 1887, Deed Book 53: 26-27, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia, accessed October 13, 2020, MRD-S 46353, Montpelier Research Database.

[20] Solomon Taliaferro to John G. Williams trustee of Agnes M. Ellis and Jefferson Ellis, Land Deed, October 17, 1887, Deed Book 53: 27-28, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia, accessed October 13, 2020. MRD-S 46354, Montpelier Research Database.

[21] John G. Williams, trustee of M. Agnes Ellis and Jefferson Ellis to Richard Chapman, trustee, Land Deed, October 17, 1887, Deed Book 53:28, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia, accessed October 2, 2020, MRD-S 46360, Montpelier Research Database.

[22] Orange County Marriage Register, No. 2: 1854-1912, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia, accessed September 30, 2020, MRD-S 45780, Montpelier Research Database.

[23] [Pertains to Colored People], The Orange Observer, January 15, 1892, accessed October 2, 2020, MRD-S 42627, 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.

Join the Conversation!