What We Know About Harriet

Harriet was born ca. 1809, probably at Montpelier.[1] By the time she was in her twenties, she had become a skilled weaver, according to a letter than Dolley Madison wrote to her brother John Coles Payne in December 1829. Dolley was writing from Richmond, where James Madison was attending the Virginia Constitutional Convention. Since John lived near Montpelier, Dolley asked him to take care of several things she would ordinarily attend to. In the midst of ordering supplies and authorizing John to sell excess butter and turkeys, Dolley offered to have an enslaved woman do John’s weaving:

“I insist on Harriots weaving for you—or Amey’s doing it whichever you like best.”[2]

Harriet likely performed other domestic tasks in addition to weaving, since cloth production at Montpelier was not a constant, large-scale operation.

Harriet the weaver may be the same woman that Dolley mentioned in a July 1826 letter to her son John Payne Todd. Dolley had previously sent him letters of introduction to two of her friends in Philadelphia, and now wrote, “I should like to know that you [received] them & to know whether Hariot embarked & took them.”[3] This suggests that Harriet may have been with John Payne Todd in Philadelphia, where she would have delivered the letters of introduction.

 

“Goods and Chattels”

Harriet and several other enslaved people became caught up in a lawsuit when Dolley Madison was sued for a debt in 1844. In December 1842, Dolley Madison had given her bond for $1,111.97 to Orange county merchants Thomas Robinson and James Walker, doing business as Thomas Robinson & Co.[4] This suggests that Dolley had borrowed money from the merchants, although it is possible that the bond also covered some debt for purchases made at their store. Dolley did not repay the $1,111.97, so Robinson & Co. initiated a lawsuit in January 1844.[5]

After Dolley failed to appear in court, the court ordered the sheriff to execute an attachment on Dolley’s “goods and chattels” so that Robinson & Co. could receive the $1,111.97 that Dolley owed them. The deputy sheriff noted on the March 5 order: “Executed upon one negro woman named Harriett, one negro boy named John & one negro man named William the property of the defendant.”[6]

Written along the edge of the document ordering Dolley Madison’s goods and chattels to be sold for debt is this notation that the order was executed upon three members of the enslaved community: Harriet, John, and William. The notation was signed by Orange County deputy sheriff William S. Frazer, acting for Ambrose Madison, who was the the sheriff of Orange County and a nephew of James Madison. Courtesy of the State Records Center, Richmond, Virginia.

As in some similar cases involving lawsuits against the Madisons, it seems that Harriet, John, and William were not immediately sold or taken by the sheriff, but remained at Montpelier while legal proceedings played out. When enslaved man Paul Jennings made a trip from Dolley Madison’s house in Washington DC in April 1844, he wrote back with news of the enslaved at Montpelier: “the peaple ar All well except stephen[,] hariet is much better…”[7] Although we don’t know what kind of illness Harriet had experienced, this would not be the last time that her health was discussed.

The debt to Robinson & Co., as well as other debts, were probably on John Payne Todd’s mind when he drew up a list of enslaved people with their ages and estimated values, entering it into his journal sometime in June 1844. John River, William, and Harriet – presumably the three people attached in the Robinson & Co. suit – were at the top of the list; their ages and valuations were not listed.[8] Todd drew up another list at some point in 1844, this time listing Harriet’s age as “supposed 35” and her value at $200. Next to her valuation he added, and underlined, “if In health.”[9]

Harriet’s name is at the top of a list of 25 enslaved men, women, and children, drawn up by John Payne Todd in 1844. (A later hand added the date “1845?”, which we now know to be incorrect, as some of the people on the list were sold by Todd to Henry Moncure in 1844.) As a 35-year-old woman, Harriet’s valuation of $200 depended on her being in good health. The identity of Mr. Trice is unknown. Possibly he had assessed the value of the enslaved people, or perhaps he was someone that Todd saw as a potential buyer for the enslaved. Courtesy of the Papers of Dolley Madison, Library of Congress.

In July 1844, Harriet was one of the 37 enslaved adults that Dolley Madison transferred to her son John Payne Todd, along with an undetermined number of enslaved children belonging to the adults.[10] This transfer took place the month before Dolley and her son sold Montpelier, and may have been intended to make it easier for Todd to sell enslaved people as well. Dolley may also have hoped to prevent the court from selling the enslaved as assets to satisfy her creditors. If that was her intent, it is not clear whether the transfer had the desired effect.

In April or May of 1845, John Payne Todd made another list in his journal. By this time he had sold some members of the enslaved community to Henry Moncure, the purchaser of Montpelier, as well as selling other enslaved people individually. Presumably the names on this list were of the remaining people he enslaved, who were living either at Toddsberth, his plantation in Orange county, or at Dolley Madison’s house in Washington. Harriet’s name appears on the 1845 list, along with the names of John River and William, although they are not grouped together. [11]

 

Selling Harriet

In late 1845 John Payne Todd began a concerted effort to sell Harriet, apparently in order to settle the debt to Robinson & Co. or to another creditor. In November Todd sent Harriet to the Coles family on a trial basis, but recorded in his journal on November 17, “Went to Mr Coles to enquire about Harriet who did not [suit] …”[12]

Todd next tried to sell Harriet to a Mr. Hiden. In a letter to his mother, which he drafted in his journal, Todd wrote that “Mr Hiden asked if he could be accommodated with the purchase of a young woman for the house.” Todd offered to send Harriet “for trial to Mrs. Hiden,” suggesting that Harriet would be preferable to another enslaved domestic worker who “understood nothing but common work.” (Harriet’s weaving skills were evidence that she could do more than “common work.”)

Hiden apparently found that Harriet would “suit,” but Hiden “objected only to the Title to be given with Harriet.” Todd claimed he did not have enough time to show that he had clear title to Harriet. His convoluted explanation to his mother – that his title to Harriet was “good altho’ sold [originally] to satisfy a levy for which I was security to give time to choose a purchaser” – hints that Harriet may still have been attached to the Robinson & Co. suit, or entangled in another case.[13]

Todd copied into his journal the letter he sent to Hiden on December 22, explaining that since Hiden preferred “to decline the purchase of Harriet a woman sent on trial she will be disposed of to some else…”

On December 18, Todd noted in his journal that he had given “a bill of Sale for Harriet & Violet” (perhaps a daughter of Harriet?) to deputy sheriff William Frazer, the bill of sale to be returned when Todd paid off a debt to R. M. Chapman. Frazer sold Harriet to Thomas Carpenter for $275. Todd wrote that

“Mr Fraser thought her worth considerably more; but it could not be got, for her to be retained which was the condition imposed for sale at any price.”

Todd apparently did not want to sell Harriet to a slave trader, but to a buyer who would retain and enslave her himself. Todd noted that Carpenter said “that he had a farm over the ridge as well as this Side,” suggesting that Harriet would remain in the general vicinity of Orange.

Carpenter claimed that Harriet was not worth more than $275 at her age, especially once he examined her and discovered that she had “a leg broken out” (probably a skin rash or infection; a broken bone would likely have been apparent without close inspection). Carpenter added afterwards “that no trader would buy her.” Todd expressed his intent to buy Harriet back in three months, apparently believing that by then it would be possible to pay off the debt to R. M. Chapman, or that the court would ultimately issue an injunction in favor of Todd.

On December 24, Todd received a receipt from Carpenter and copied it into his journal:

“Received from John P Todd a bill of Sale for a negro Woman by the name Harriet which upon the delivery of the said Woman on tomorrow I promise to pay 275$ Thomas Carpenter.”

Presumably Todd delivered Harriet to her next enslaver as planned on the following day, December 25.[14]

 

Closing without Closure

What we know about the sale of Harriet comes primarily from John Payne Todd’s point of view. How did Harriet herself experience the events of 1844 and 1845? What was it like to live for months with the unsettling knowledge that she was likely to be sold? to be sent on a trial basis to an enslaver who wasn’t satisfied with her? to endure the indignity of having her body examined and devalued, while her skills as a weaver apparently went unnoticed? Did the sale to Thomas Carpenter rupture Harriet’s family ties, or had Harriet already lost the people most important to her in the turbulent time surrounding the sale of Montpelier? Did Harriet have loved ones she hoped to return to, if Todd was able to repurchase her?

Despite Todd’s intention to buy Harriet back from Thomas Carpenter, her name never again appears in his surviving journals or correspondence, nor is she listed in his estate inventory. No records of Thomas Carpenter have come to light. Harriet and her story simply vanish from the documentary record after Christmas Day 1845.

References

[1] John Payne Todd estimated her age as 35 in 1844-45. See John Payne Todd, List of slaves, foodstuffs shipped, and draft to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, [1844], box 2, folder June–Dec 1845, Papers of Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed October 21, 2020, MRD-S 28677, Montpelier Research Database.

[2] Dolley Payne Todd Madison to John Coles Payne, December 4, 1829, private collection, accessed October 21, 2020, MRD-S 25906, Montpelier Research Database.

[3] Dolley Payne Todd Madison to John Payne Todd, July 6, 1826, Unlocated, accessed October 21, 2020, MRD-S 31379, Montpelier Research Database.

[4] Declaration of Thomas A. Robinson and James W. Walker, Received on November 1, 1844, box 36, folder 12, Orange County: Judgments, Circuit Superior Court of Law and Chancery, 1844 May-Oct, State Records Center, Richmond, Virginia, accessed October 22, 2020, MRD-S 25379, Montpelier Research Database.

[5] Order to Take Dolley Payne Todd Madison, January 30, 1844, box 36, folder 12, Orange County: Judgments, Circuit Superior Court of Law and Chancery, 1844 May-Oct, State Records Center, Richmond, Virginia, accessed October 22, 2020, MRD-S 25384, Montpelier Research Database.

[6] Decision Regarding Dolley Payne Todd Madison, March 5, 1844, box 36, folder 12, Orange County: Judgments, Circuit Superior Court of Law and Chancery, 1844 May-Oct, State Records Center, Richmond, Virginia, accessed October 22, 2020, MRD-S 25382, Montpelier Research Database.

[7] Paul Jennings to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, April 23, 1844, Dolley Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed October 22, 2020, MRD-S 26439, Montpelier Research Database.

[8] John Payne Todd, List of Slaves, [June 1844], excerpted from John Payne Todd’s Journal, The Peter Force Collection; Series 8, MS 17134, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed October 22, 2020, MRD-S 29157, Montpelier Research Database.

[9] John Payne Todd, List of slaves, foodstuffs shipped, and draft to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, [1844], box 2, folder June–Dec 1845, Papers of Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed October 21, 2020, MRD-S 28677, Montpelier Research Database.

[10] Dolley Payne Todd Madison, Deed of Certain Slaves to John Payne Todd, July 17, 1844, box 3, folder Deeds Conveying Slaves and other property from Dolley Madison to John Payne Todd, 1844 Jun 16-Jul 17 , Papers of Notable Virginia Families, MS 2988, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Virginia, October 24, 2020, Montpelier Research Database, MRD-S 27218.

[11] John Payne Todd, List of Slaves, [April or May 1845], excerpted from John Payne Todd’s Journal, The Peter Force Collection; Series 8, MS 17137, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed October 27, 2020, MRD-S 29610, Montpelier Research Database.

[12] John Payne Todd, Journal and Letterbook, 1844-1847, Peter Force Papers and Collection; Series 8, MS 17137, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed October 21, 2020, MRD-S 27454, Montpelier Research Database.

[13] John Payne Todd to [Dolley Payne Todd Madison], December 29, 1845, excerpted from John Payne Todd’s Journal, The Peter Force Collection; Series 8, MS 17137, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed October 27, 2020, MRD-S 31252, Montpelier Research Database.

[14] John Payne Todd’s Notes on the Slave Harriet, December 18-24, 1845, excerpted from John Payne Todd’s Journal, The Peter Force Collection; Series 8, MS 17137, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed October 21, 2020, MRD-S 27454, 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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