What We Know About Aleck

Aleck, who served as James Madison’s enslaved wagoner in the 1820s and 1830s, may be the same person as Alexander, the son of Sinar. Prior to 1787, James Madison had received several enslaved people from his father, including Sinar and her children Dinah, Alice, Winney, Alexander, John, and Amey. This gift was confirmed in Madison Sr.’s will.[1]

Aleck first appeared in the documentary record as a wagon driver on May 14, 1821, when James Madison wrote a letter to the Fredericksburg merchant firm MacKay & Campbell, alerting them to expect several barrels that had been shipped by the Alexandria merchant Alexander Casenove, which he wanted Aleck to pick up:

“Sh[ould]d they have come to hand, the Waggoner Aleck will bring them up. … The Bearer will bring also a Garden Watering Pot if you can have one delivered to him.”[2]

Madison initially referred to Aleck as “the Waggoner Aleck” in the first draft of the letter, changing to “the Bearer Aleck” in the second draft. Madison may have considered “the bearer Aleck” to be clearer, since Mackay & Campbell would initially encounter Aleck as the bearer of the letter.

As it happened, there was only one item for Aleck to transport in the wagon. The shipment from Alexandria had not yet arrived, but as Mackay & Campbell wrote in their reply to Madison’s letter,

“Alick has the watering pot with him.”[3]

Mackay & Campbell wrote to Madison on May 16, 1821 that Aleck would bring the requested watering pot back to Montpelier with him. They also discussed sending Madison’s upcoming tobacco shipment to England in mid-July, “for it does not answer to have it sampled in England before Septr. or, until the arrival of Cool Weather.” Courtesy of James Madison Papers, Library of Congress.

Connecting Montpelier to Markets

Aleck’s name appears frequently in Madison’s correspondence with Fredericksburg and Richmond merchants between 1821 and 1835. On March 29, 1826, Madison wrote to Bernard Peyton in Richmond,

“Waggoner Aleck will deliver 2 Hhs Tobo [hogsheads of tobacco[4]] which will be followed by others as fast as they can be made ready. … I inclose a list of a few Articles for the return of the Waggon.”[5]

In other words, Madison was sending a shopping list of items he wanted from Bernard Peyton’s store, for Aleck to bring back after delivering the barrels of tobacco. An August 4, 1830 letter from Madison to William Allen in Fredericksburg showed Aleck once again bringing agricultural products for a merchant to sell, and returning with goods that Madison purchased from the merchant’s store:

“Please to send by Waggoner Aleck about 50 [weight] of Java Coffee. … He will be down the day after tomorrow with a load of Wheat from the Sale of which, the article may be paid for.”[6]

Madison wrote to William Allen on August 4, 1830, requesting to have Aleck pick up a large quantity of coffee after delivering Madison’s wheat to the merchant (probably already milled into flour). The coffee purchase was a debit on to Madison’s account with Allen, to be paid off with a credit after Allen sold the wheat or flour on Madison’s behalf. Courtesy of James Madison Papers, Library of Congress.

On September 23, 1830, William Allen sent various goods to Madison “By Aleck who left here yesterday,” including tea, black cloth, and a half ton of plaster. (Madison bought plaster, which contained lime, for use as fertilizer for crops.) The letter implied that both Aleck and another wagoner, John, were transporting the goods on their return trips after delivering wagon loads of flour for Allen to sell.[7] On November 20, Allen reported, “Alleck left here this evening & takes with him” a long list of goods including sugar, brandy, wine, oil, cayenne pepper, mustard, pickled oysters, gunpowder tea, lemons and lemon syrup, snuff, stationery, and cloth.[8]

For the most part, it is Allen’s side of the correspondence that survives. Presumably Madison had requested the listed items in letters that do not survive. The available correspondence, however, provides a revealing window into plantation economics. The Madisons used the proceeds from the sale of tobacco and flour, raised by enslaved laborers at Montpelier, to purchase items that could not be produced at Montpelier. The Madisons’ purchasing power depended not only on the work of enslaved agricultural workers, but also on the work of enslaved wagoners bringing products to market. In his role as a wagoner, Aleck provided an essential link between Montpelier and the markets.

 

“Fifty Cents for the Purpose of Shoeing His Horses”

Aleck made another trip to William Allen’s store just a week later. On November 27, 1830, Allen wrote to Madison that he had sent, “By Alleck who left here this day,”  brown sugar, loaf sugar, coffee, buckwheat meal, two bushels of oysters in the shell (which Allen had hesitated to send the week before, due to the warm weather), and a pair of gum elastic overshoes. Allen noted at the end of the letter,

“I have also furnished Alleck at his request with fifty cents for the purpose of shoeing his horses which he said was absolutely necessary for him to have done.”[9]

This remark is revealing. It shows that Aleck was conscientious and knowledgeable about the horses in his care – he knew they wouldn’t make it back to Montpelier without being reshod – and was confident enough to assert himself. It also shows that William Allen was willing to take Aleck at his word, putting another credit onto Madison’s account with the assumption that Madison would agree with Aleck’s call.

Aleck continued to wagon flour to Fredericksburg and return with the Madisons’ goods. On December 4, Allen wrote, “I have sent up by Alleck this morning,” six sacks of salt, a barrel of whiskey, ink powder, and a bundle of goods from William F. Gray, who operated a stationery shop in Fredericksburg.[10] Aleck’s travels and deliveries may have been fewer during the winter; Madison wrote Allen on January 14, 1831, “The residue of my crop will be got down as soon as the roads & weather will permit.”[11]

Aleck had resumed deliveries by March, if not earlier. Madison wrote to William Allen on March 11, 1831, “My Waggon will probably be in Fredg. on monday next,” without naming the wagoner.[12] William Allen, however, wrote of Aleck and the return trip in his March 15, 1831 reply, noting that “I send by Alleck who left here this morning” a half ton of plaster, bottles of claret, a barrel of porter, beeswax and tallow, coffee, sugar, lemons, mustard, two stew pans, and two Britannia metal teapots. [13]

Aleck wagoned flour to William Allen not only for Madison, but also for Madison’s brother-in-law John Coles Payne, who farmed a section of the Montpelier property. Allen noted in the March 15 letter the low price obtained for “the load brought down by Alleck for Mr. Payne.”

Richmond merchant Bernard Peyton noted the supplies that Aleck would wagon back to Montpelier after delivering two hogsheads of tobacco on July 30, 1833. Courtesy of James Madison Papers, Library of Congress.

In July 1833 Aleck was on the road to Richmond, wagoning tobacco to Bernard Peyton in Richmond. Peyton wrote on July 30, “I Received of Aleck Two Hhds. Tobo.” and in return “I have forwarded by Aleck in good order To your address” candles, silk, writing paper, cotton yarn, rice, and spices including mace, pepper, and cinnamon.[14]

 

“The Wagons Set Off Today”

Aleck undoubtedly made more trips than the ones described in letters where he is mentioned by name. Many letters between Madison and merchants do not specify who wagoned the goods on a particular trip.

On December 31, 1833, Madison referred in retrospect to Aleck having wagoned supplies when he wrote William Allen,

“The bottle of magnesia sent by Aleck having been broken please send two more of the same kind…”

In the same letter Madison noted, “The wagons set off today,” indicating that wagoners would continue to drive back and forth to Fredericksburg, delivering flour and returning with loads of plaster, until all the flour was carried to market.[15] Presumably Aleck was among those wagoners.

In a similar letter on May 10, 1835, Madison expressed satisfaction to Bernard Peyton with the price Peyton had recently obtained for two hogsheads of his tobacco, noting “I hope we may prove as fortunate in the two my wagon will set off with tomorrow.” He did not state whether Aleck would be driving the wagon the next day. His comment that he had received the bill for “articles sent by Aleck” suggests that Aleck had made the trip recently.[16]

 

Aleck on the Road

The correspondence between James Madison and merchants suggests there were periods of time when wagoners made repeated round trips to get tobacco or flour to market. How did Aleck feel about having responsibilities that kept him frequently on the road? Did he enjoy being on his own for extended periods of time, away from Madison’s oversight, or did he resent being apart from his family? Was he ever challenged by slave patrollers or other white men who might suspect him as a runaway? Or did Aleck travel these routes often enough to be recognized as President Madison’s wagoner?

 

Letters and Packages

Aleck sometimes picked up Madison’s mail – letters that may have been sent to the Orange post office, passed through an informal network of Madison’s acquaintances, or possibly delivered in care of the merchants Aleck visited. On May 2, 1827, Madison began a letter to his friend Andrew Stevenson by noting that Stevenson’s most recent letter “is safely delivered by Aleck.”[17]

In January 1834, Aleck carried a package from Madison to be shipped out from Fredericksburg. The Naval Lyceum in Brooklyn, New York, had requested a book from Madison to add to its collection of books autographed by former presidents.[18] Madison selected sixteen books to donate to the Lyceum’s library, noting that the number of volumes was “too bulky for the mail.” [19] Instead, Madison requested that William Allen put the box on the next ship bound for New York, explaining to Allen that

“Aleck will deliver you a box addressed to Mr. Governeur, New York. It contains books for the ‘Naval Institute’ at that place.” [20]

 

Aleck and Ellick

After James Madison’s death in 1836, the name “Aleck” almost disappears from the documentary record. However, legal documents from the 1840s, as well as John Payne Todd’s writings, do refer to an enslaved man named “Ellick.” Given the similar sound of the two names, the fact that “Ellick” often worked as a wagoner, and the timing of “Ellick” appearing in the documentary record just after “Aleck” disappears, it is highly likely that “Aleck” and “Ellick” are different phonetic spellings of the same person’s name.[21]

Ellick was listed on a deed by which the widowed Dolley Madison transferred 20 enslaved men and women to her son John Payne Todd on July 17, 1844. Dolley had transferred 17 adults and at least 6 children to her son the previous day by another deed. The July 16 document included the ages of each enslaved person, but the July 17 document did not, leaving Ellick’s age unknown.[22] (These transfers were probably intended to prevent the enslaved from being seized in lawsuits, including one that Dolley’s brother-in-law William Madison had brought against her, relating to money that he believed James Madison had owed him in relation to their father’s estate.) Ellick was apparently already in Orange county, either at Montpelier or at Todd’s plantation called Toddsberth, so the transfer may have had significance mainly on paper, without affecting Ellick’s daily life.

 

Ellick in Court Documents

John Payne Todd, however, was also involved in lawsuits. After local merchant Richard Chapman won a suit against Todd for $447.54 with interest in October 1844, the sheriff was ordered in March 1845 to seize several people Todd enslaved, including Ellick, Ben, Tydal, and John.[23]

This writ ordered the Orange County sheriff to seize “goods and chattels” of John Payne Todd equal to the amount he owed to merchant Richard M. Chapman. On the reverse of the writ, deputy sheriff William Frazer noted that the order had been executed on Ben, Tydal, Ellick, and John, essentially placing a lien against their monetary value. Courtesy of State Records Center, Richmond, Virginia.

On May 22, 1845, Todd gave his bond to Chapman for $978.56 (an amount which apparently included additional costs), using the same four enslaved men as security. The printed bond form stated that the sheriff “hath taken the following property” (with the names of Ben, Tydal, Ellick, and John written in) to satisfy the judgement in the lawsuit. Todd’s name was written where the printed form stated that he, “being desirous of keeping the same in his possession until the day of sale thereof,” offered his bond and would present the four men to be sold on the appointed date, which was May 26. [24] This suggests that the sheriff did not actually take Ellick and the three other men into his custody. After Todd failed to repay the bond, and apparently did not present the enslaved men to be sold, Chapman won another suit against Todd in October 1845 for failing to discharge the bond.[25]

The outcome of the lawsuits, and their impact on Ellick, are unclear. Despite the standardized wording of the bond, it is likely that Ellick remained at Toddsberth as the cases proceeded. How alarmed was Ellick about the possibility of sale? Did Todd eventually find a way to pay off the bond? Or did the legal proceedings simply stall at some point?

 

Ellick in Todd’s Journal

John Payne Todd mentioned Ellick several times in his journal, the first time being just before Todd gave his bond to Chapman on May 22, 1845. Ellick’s name appeared on a list of 36 enslaved people that Todd wrote in the journal, located between entries dated April 30 and May 19. Benjamin, Tydal, and John were also listed, although the four men were not grouped together.[26] The timing of the list suggests that Todd may have realized that he would need to resolve his debt to Chapman soon, and may have been considering which of the enslaved people to sell or retain.

Todd mentioned Ellick in the journal several times after losing the second suit to Richard Chapman in October 1845, which indicates that he had not surrendered Ellick for sale as the bond had stated he would.

In November 1845 Todd wrote that he had

“Sent Ellick with 51cts to Orange. C. H [Orange Court House] to buy 1 Quart of Spanish brandy & rum mixed to give a little to James Chapman who paid a visit yesterday & seems Sick for the want of it.”

On February 10, 1846, Todd wrote,

“Ellick goes & returns with 4 bushels only from the Mill & with a price of 12 ½ pounds get candles & whiskey from Nicholls.”

On March 12, 1846, Todd wrote,

“I sent Ellick to Mr Howerd with 4$ 21cts,”

and on the next day Todd wrote,

“send … Ellick for Meal to Beadles Mill the 1st with 57cts.”

On June 8, 1847, Todd

“Sent Matthew & Ellick after the Bey Horse with a Note not to use my bond…” [27]

While some of Todd’s entries are cryptic, they depict Ellick discharging the same duties that “Aleck” had performed for James Madison: transporting agricultural products, picking up merchandise from merchants, and handling monetary transactions. The entries also confirm that Ellick had not been sold, despite the legal judgments against Todd.

 

Aleck as Heir, Aleck as Asset

John Payne Todd wrote his will on December 31, 1851, describing himself as “weak and sick of body and having in view the certainty of death and the uncertainty of the time thereof.” In the first item of the will, Todd stated:

“I do give and bequeath unto all my slaves whether in the District of Columbia or the State of Virginia or else where and by whatever name or names they may be called and designated their immediate freedom.”

Fifteen people who had been enslaved by Todd were listed by name to receive $200 each, “to aid them in the Settlement and maintenance of themselves & their families.” Among the named group was Aleck. (Todd’s use of this spelling is further evidence that Aleck and Ellick were the same person.)[28]

John Payne Todd died three weeks after writing his will, on January 17, 1852. In making the grand gesture of freeing the people he enslaved, Todd apparently had not taken into account the extent of his debts. The people he had enslaved were his heirs (since he willed them their freedom and a monetary bequest), but they were also his assets – assets who would have to be sold to pay the estate’s debts, before any bequests would be paid out.  As the administrator of Todd’s estate, James McGuire, later reported:

“the assets in his [McGuire’s] hands were wholly insufficient to pay the just debts of the deceased and nothing could by law be paid to the legatees until such debts were satisfied.”[29]

Ten enslaved people, including “Ellic,” were appraised along with Todd’s possessions at Toddsberth on September 28, 1852. Ellick was valued at $150. Nine of the ten people were valued at either $100 or $150; only Mathew Stewart was valued at $400. [30]  (This suggests that most of the people enslaved at Toddsberth were older or less able to do strenuous work, which in turn suggests that Todd had scaled back his agricultural enterprise at Toddsberth.)

 

An Uncertain End

What happened to Ellick next is unclear. James McGuire never filed a complete accounting of the settlement of the estate, since there were no assets to distribute after debts were paid.[31]  Catharine Taylor, who was enslaved by Todd in Washington, successfully sued for her family’s freedom, based on the fact that Todd had imported the Taylors from Virginia to Washington at a time when he himself was not a resident of that city. (Any enslaved person who was illegally imported in this way became free, according to the laws of Washington D.C.)

Unlike the Taylors in Washington, those enslaved at Toddsberth had no legal recourse to claim the freedom that Todd’s will had promised them. It is likely that Ellick and the other nine enslaved people were sold, either when Todd’s material possessions at Toddsberth were auctioned on November 11, 1852, or in separate sales.[32]

 

Ellick, or Aleck, disappears from the historical record after this point – with freedom just out of his grasp.

References

[1] James Madison Sr., Will dated September 17, 1787, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed April 15, 2021, MRD-S 20954, Montpelier Research Database. The possible connection between Alexander and Aleck was suggested by former Montpelier research associate Lydia Neuroth, in her notes on Aleck’s name record in the Montpelier Research Database.

[2] James Madison to MacKay & Campbell Co., May 14, 1821, Papers of Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed April 13, 2021, MRD-S 22375, Montpelier Research Database.

[3] MacKay & Campbell Co. to James Madison, May 16, 1821, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed April 13, 2021, MRD-S 16906, Montpelier Research Database.

[4] A hogshead was a barrel 48 inches tall and 30 inches in diameter, holding about 1000 pounds of tobacco. See Coopers: The Backbone of Virginia’s Tobacco Economy, National Park Service, accessed April 13, 2021.

[5] James Madison to Bernard Peyton, March 29, 1826, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed April 13, 2021, MRD-S 17775, Montpelier Research Database.

[6] James Madison to William Allen, August 4, 1830, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed April 13, 2021, MRD-S 18786, Montpelier Research Database.

[7] William Allen to James Madison, September 23, 1830, Shane Manuscript Collection, Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, accessed April 13, 2021, MRD-S 23623, Montpelier Research Database.

[8] William Allen to James Madison, November 20, 1830, Shane Manuscript Collection, Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, accessed April 13, 2021, MRD-S 23624, Montpelier Research Database.

[9] William Allen to James Madison, November 27, 1830, Shane Manuscript Collection, Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, accessed April 13, 2021, MRD-S 23625, Montpelier Research Database.

[10] William Allen to James Madison, December 4, 1830, Shane Manuscript Collection, Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, accessed April 13, 2021, MRD-S 23626, Montpelier Research Database.

[11] James Madison to William Allen, January 14, 1831, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed April 14, 2021, MRD-S 18900, Montpelier Research Database.

[12] James Madison to William Allen, March 11, 1831, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed April 13, 2021, MRD-S 18924, Montpelier Research Database.

[13] William Allen to James Madison, March 15, 1831, Shane Manuscript Collection, Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, accessed April 13, 2021, MRD-S 23628, Montpelier Research Database.

[14] Bernard Peyton to James Madison, July 30, 1833, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed April 13, 2021, MRD-S 19367, Montpelier Research Database.

[15] James Madison to William Allen, December 31, 1833, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed April 13, 2021, MRD-S 19388, Montpelier Research Database.

[16] James Madison to Bernard Peyton, May 19, 1835, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed April 14, 2021, MRD-S 19592, Montpelier Research Database.

[17] James Madison to Andrew Stevenson, May 2, 1827, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed April 13, 2021, MRD-S 18053, Montpelier Research Database.

[18] William Wood to James Madison, January 1, 1834, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed April 14, 2021, MRD-S 19392, Montpelier Research Database.

[19] James Madison to Samuel L. Gouverneur, January 22, 1834, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed April 14, 2021, MRD-S 19403, Montpelier Research Database.

[20] James Madison to William Allen, January 24, 1834, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed April 14, 2021, MRD-S 19406, Montpelier Research Database.

[21] This hypothesis was convincingly argued by former Montpelier research associate Lydia Neuroth, in her notes on Aleck’s name record in the Montpelier Research Database.

[22] Dolley Payne Todd Madison, Deeds of Certain Slaves to John Payne Todd, July 16 and 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, accessed April 16, 2021, MRD-S 27300 and MRD-S 27218, Montpelier Research Database.

[23] Judgment in Favor of Richard M. Chapman, October 1844, Orange County: Record Series: Law Execution Book, Circuit Superior and Circuit Courts, 1843-1853: 67, State Records Center, Richmond, Virginia, accessed April 21, 2021, MRD-S 34635, Montpelier Research Database; Order to Take the Goods and Chattels of John Payne Todd, March 29, 1845, box 6, folder 1845 A-Z, Orange County: Record Series: Execution (fifas), 1829-1845, State Records Center, Richmond, Virginia, accessed April 21, 2021, MRD-S 34687, Montpelier Research Database.

[24] John Payne Todd, Bond with Philip S. Fry and Richard M. Chapman, May 22, 1845, box 38, folder 1, Orange County: Judgments, Circuit Superior Court of Law and Chancery, 1845 Oct-1846 May, State Records Center, Richmond, Virginia, accessed April 22, 2021, MRD-S 25395, Montpelier Research Database.

[25]Judgment in Favor of Richard M. Chapman, October 1845, Orange County: Record Series: Law Execution Book, Circuit Superior and Circuit Courts, 1843-1853: 96, State Records Center, Richmond, Virginia, accessed April 22, 2021, MRD-S 34649, Montpelier Research Database.

[26] John Payne Todd, List of Slaves, [April or May 1845], excerpted from John Payne Todd, Journal and Letterbook, 1844-1847, The Peter Force Collection; Series 8, MS 17137, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed April 15, 2021, MRD-S 29160, Montpelier Research Database.

[27] John Payne Todd, Journal and Letterbook, 1844-1847, Peter Force Papers and Collection; Series 8, MS 17137, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed April 15, 2021, MRD-S 27454, Montpelier Research Database.

[28] John Payne Todd, Will dated December 31, 1851, with Certificate of Register of Will of the Orphan’s Court of Washington, DC, box 22, RG 2; Superior Court, District of Columbia Archives, Washington, DC, accessed April 27, 2021, MRD-S 24594, Montpelier Research Database.

[29] Answer of James McGuire, January 15, 1873, box 45, RG 21; Entry 115, Probate Court: Old Series Administration Files 1801-1878, United States National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, accessed April 27, 2021, MRD-S 24464, Montpelier Research Database.

[30] Inventory and appraisal of John Payne Todd’s Estate, September 28, 1852, Will Book 12:18-20 and loose papers, Orange County Courthouse, Orange, Virginia, accessed April 27, 2021, MRD-S 23936, Montpelier Research Database.

[31] Answer of James McGuire, January 15, 1873, box 45, RG 21; Entry 115, Probate Court: Old Series Administration Files 1801-1878, United States National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, accessed April 28, 2021, MRD-S 24464, Montpelier Research Database.

[32] List of items bought at Toddsberth sale, E. Rowe [Elhanon Row], November 11, 1852, box Causten Family: A through Causten, James—Notebook, folder Causten, James H. Jr.—Financial documents (accounts, bills, receipts), Dolley Madison Collection, MS 47, Greensboro History Museum, Greensboro, North Carolina, accessed April 28, 2021, MRD-S 32274.

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.

2 Comments

    • Thank you, Patrick! Aleck has always been interesting to me, from the time I first started researching tobacco and wheat production, and regularly came across his name.

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