What We Know About Shadrach

Shadrach was born on January 7, 1767, probably at Montpelier. His mother was Daphne; his father’s name is unknown. Shadrach’s sister Anna was born five years later. (James Madison Sr. presumably recorded this information in a document that no longer survives; the information was later shared with his son-in-law Isaac Hite, who recorded it in his commonplace book.)[1]

Shadrach likely worked in the fields at Montpelier, raising tobacco, wheat, and corn. His name appeared in James Madison Sr.’s personal property tax records from 1782-1786, which were the only years in which enslaved people were listed by name.[2] On November 2, 1787, when James Madison Sr. distributed shoes to the enslaved community at Montpelier, Shadrach was listed as receiving a size 12 shoe, the largest size on the list. This suggests that Shadrach, then almost 21 years old, was one of the taller members of the enslaved community.[3]

Only Shadrach and Simon wore size 12 shoes at the time that new shoes were issued to the enslaved community on November 2, 1787. Taken from miscellaneous loose notes from an unknown account book belonging to James Madison Sr.  Courtesy of the Library of Virginia, which microfilmed the document from a private collection in 1941.


Shadrach eventually became an overseer at Montpelier. We know this because after James Madison Sr. died on February 27, 1801, there are several references to a tract of land called “Shadracks.” (This was not the only instance where a tract was called by the name of the enslaved overseer who worked it; “Sawney’s tract” is another example.) In March 1801, Madison Jr. listed “Shadracks” as one of the land tracts to be divided among his father’s heirs.[4] When the final crops produced on Madison Sr.’s lands were sold by the estate, Amos Williams bought “10 Barrels Corn at Shadracks” on November 30, 1801.[5]

In these jotted notes, James Madison seemed to be trying out scenarios for his father’s seven heirs to divide five parcels of land, which his father had acquired after writing his 1787 will: Shadrach’s tract, the Chew tract, the Winslow tract, the mill tract, and a tract of land in Kentucky. Courtesy of James Madison Papers, Library of Congress.

James Madison Sr.’s death had an even more direct effect on 34-year-old Shadrach’s life. When Madison Sr.’s estate was divided among his heirs, Shadrach was assigned to Madison Sr.’s son-in-law Isaac Hite. (Madison Sr. had already given 15 enslaved people, including Sally and Webster, to Nelly and Isaac Hite when they married in 1783. Shadrach was not part of this previous gift.) A receipt from Madison Sr.’s son and executor William Madison, dated October 10, 1801, listed the 12 enslaved people Hite received from the estate, including Shadrach, who was valued at £120.[6] Shadrach, along with his sister Anna, was then taken to the Hites’ Shenandoah Valley plantation, Belle Grove. The move meant leaving family and friends behind at Montpelier, but also offered a chance to reunite with former members of the Montpelier enslaved community who had been at Belle Grove since 1783.

It was probably at this time that Isaac Hite recorded Shadrach’s name and birthdate in his commonplace book. There is nothing in the commonplace book to indicate that Shadrach was later sold. Presumably Shadrach was enslaved at Belle Grove for the rest of his life, although no further details are known.

A year after Shadrach left Montpelier, his name was still associated with the tract of land he once oversaw. In November 1802, as Madison Sr.’s heirs continued to haggle over the distribution of the estate, executor William Madison wrote to his brother James to suggest a resolution with their brother-in-law Robert Rose: “What think you of the following as a ground of compromise? Rose to have Shadracks upon payg. £400 & to relinquish to you & myself his intt[erest]. in all other lapsed & undivided land.”[7]

“Shadracks” tract, of course, was Shadrach’s in name only, despite the toil and effort he had invested in raising crops there for an unknown number of years. Both the man and the land were used as cogs in the wheel of James Madison Sr.’s complex agro-business enterprise – generating wealth during Madison Sr.’s lifetime, and discord after his death.


[1] Hite Family Commonplace Book, 1776-1859, Hite Family Papers, Vol. I, MS IH637535a-40, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia, accessed December 21, 2020, MRD-S 44306, Montpelier Research Database.

[2] Personal Property Tax Records for James Madison, Sr., 1782-1786, Orange County, Virginia, Tax Records, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed December 21, 2020, MRD-S 43968, Montpelier Research Database.

[3] James Madison Sr. Miscellaneous Loose Notes from Unknown Account Book, Miscellaneous Reels, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, accessed December 21, 2020, MRD-S 26491, Montpelier Research Database.

[4] James Madison, Statistics and Notes on Land and Slaves, [ca. March 10, 1801], James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed December 21, 2020, MRD-S 21206, Montpelier Research Database.

[5] Account of Sales of Estate of James Madison Sr., 1801, box HB 606, Chancery Cause Ended 1838, File No. 2 Loose Papers, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia, accessed December 21, 2020, MRD-S 24748, Montpelier Research Database.

[6] Receipt, Distribution of Slaves, October 10, [1801], box HB 606, Chancery Cause Ended 1838, File No. 2 Loose Papers, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia, accessed December 22, 2020, MRD-S 24758, Montpelier Research Database.

[7] William Madison to James Madison, November 1, 1802, James Madison Collection, MS C0207, Princeton University Library, Princeton, New Jersey, accessed December 22, 2020, MRD-S 23727, 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.


    • Appreciate the kind words, Patrick. Research has been a team effort over the years at Montpelier, so thank you on behalf of the team!

  • What is the origin of the name “Shadrack?” Was it common among enslaved persons or free blacks? Shadrack Minkins was the center of a famous escape from a Massachusetts jail where he was being held under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Robert Morris, Sr. was subsequently tried for complicity in the plot that successfully broke Shadrack out of jail and sent him through the Underground Railway to Canada. Roberts was defended by Richard Henry Dana (Two Years Before the Mast).

    • Great question! Shadrach is a Biblical name. In Daniel 3:16-28, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego miraculously survive being thrown into a fiery furnace after refusing to worship an idol. Having survived a fiery trial and stayed true to his beliefs, Shadrach’s name would be rich with symbolism. (It sounds like Shadrack Minkins survived a fiery trial of his own.) The name Shadrach/Shadrack shows up fairly often among African Americans in the 19th century. We’ve come across a couple of other Shadrachs in Orange county. The name was also used outside the African American community; for example, the first state governor of Illinois in 1818 was a white man named Shadrach Bond.

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