What We Know About Demas

Born on September 12, 1777, likely at Montpelier, Demas was the middle child of Eliza’s family of five. His older sisters were Joanna and Dianna, his younger sister was Pendar, and his younger brother was Webster.[1] His name was also spelled “Demars” or “Demar” in some documents, which may reflect different ways that people pronounced and understood his name.

“Demar,” at five years old, was listed among the names of other enslaved males on James Madison Sr.’s personal property tax record in 1782. [2] This was the first of five years in which all enslaved people were listed by name on the tax records. Demar or Demas was not listed on Madison Sr.’s tax records in the following years, however. The reason was that in 1783 Demas, along with his mother, sisters, and brother, left Montpelier for Belle Grove, the home of Madison Sr.’s newly-married daughter Nelly Madison Hite, in the Shenandoah Valley.

 

A Marriage, and a Separation

Nelly Madison married Isaac Hite on January 2, 1783. James Madison Sr. had a tradition of giving enslaved people to each of his sons and daughters when they married, likely intending to provide the labor force that would generate wealth for the newly-established household. While the Madison and Hite families celebrated that their families were joining together, other families within the enslaved community were preparing to say goodbye to Eliza and her children. Grandparents, aunts, or uncles would undoubtedly remember five-and-a-half year-old Demas. How well would Demas remember them? Did Demas pick up on the anxiety of the adults around him, without understanding what it meant to “go to Belle Grove”?

Two years after the marriage, Madison Sr. gave Isaac Hite a formal deed to 15 enslaved people, which read in part:

“Know all men by these presents that I, James Madison of the County of Orange, in consideration of an intermarriage which hath taken place between Isaac Hite, Jr. of the County of Frederick and my daughter Nelly Madison, now Nelly Hite, have given and conveyed and do by these presents give and convey to the said Isaac Hite, Jr. by way of advancement to my said daughter Nelly, the following slaves, namely, Jemmy, Jerry, Eliza, and her five children, to wit Joanna, Diana, Demas, Pendar, and Webster;  also Truelove and her four children to wit, Peggy, Priscilla, Henry, and Katey; also Sally and Milley.”[3]

The deed noted that Madison Sr. gave the 15 enslaved people “by way of advancement to my said daughter Nelly,” meaning that they constituted an advance on Nelly’s share of her father’s estate. For this reason, Madison confirmed his gifts of enslaved people to his children when writing his will in 1787. His will stated:

“… and I do also confirm to my daughter Nelly Hite the following slaves, to wit; Jerry, Jemmy, Sally, Milley Eliza and her children Joanna, Dianna, Demars, Pender and Webster, also Truelove and her children, Peggy, Priscilla, Henry and Katey and their increase since the first day of March 1783 and for the future.”[4]

“Demars” and his family were among the 15 enslaved people that James Madison Sr. willed to his daughter Nelly Madison Hite. The actual transfer took place almost two decades before Madison Sr.’s death in 1801. Courtesy of Library of Congress, James Madison Papers.

Eliza and her children (as well as Truelove and her children) were transferred as family groups. They may or may not have been related to the other men (Jerry and Jemmy) and women (Sally and Milley) who were listed singly. The fact that the Hites were given ownership of any children born after March 1, 1783, suggests that the enslaved people left Montpelier for Belle Grove around that time, when traveling conditions were likely better than in the first part of the year.

How did Demas react to the changes in his young life? Did he find comfort being with his mother and siblings? Did he cry for his father or for an older relative who had helped Eliza to care for him?

 

In the Commonplace Book

Isaac Hite recorded the names and birthdates of Demas and the other 14 people in his commonplace book after their arrival at Belle Grove. Possibly Madison Sr. had made note of the dates the children were born, in records that do not survive, or the adults may have told Isaac their own birthdates and those of their children.

Isaac Hite recorded one other piece of information about Demas in the commonplace book. In addition to columns labeled “Names of My Negroes” and “When Born,” Isaac also kept a column labeled “How Disposed.” There he recorded what had happened to the people he no longer enslaved, noting if he had sold them, or if they had died or run away. He eventually recorded next to Demas’s name, “Exchanged with George Hite”[5]

George Hite was Isaac’s cousin, who lived in what is now West Virginia. In the latter part of 1790, George gave three enslaved people (Abba, Harry, and Hannah) to Isaac in exchange for Demas, Peggy, and Soloman. (Peggy was Truelove’s daughter and was among the 15 enslaved people transferred from Montpelier.)[6]

 

Demas was 13 years old when he was traded away from Belle Grove. Unlike his earlier move from Montpelier, this time Demas would not have the comforting presence of his mother and siblings through the transition. Isaac and George Hite no doubt considered Demas, as a young teenager, to be old enough to work and too old to require a mother’s care.

Demas disappears from the historical record at this point, setting out for the home of his third enslaver in his 13 young years.

References

[1] The birthdates of Demas and his family were recorded in the Hite Family Commonplace Book, 1776-1859, Hite Family Papers, Vol. I, MS IH637535a-40, Virginia Museum of History and Culture, Richmond, Virginia, accessed September 9, 2021, 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 September 9, 2021, MRD-S 43968, Montpelier Research Database.

[3] James Madison Sr. to Isaac Hite Jr., Deed of gift for slaves, August 25, 1785, William H. English Collection (Hite-Bowman Papers), Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis, Indiana, accessed September 9, 2021, MRD-S 42048, Montpelier Research Database.

[4] James Madison Sr., Will dated September 17, 1787, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed September 9, 2021, MRD-S 20954, Montpelier Research Database. The deed of gift, written two years after the fact, gives March 31, 1782, as the date after which the Hites owned the “increase” of the enslaved people. The year 1782 was likely written in error, since that would have been more than nine months in advance of the wedding.

[5] Hite Family Commonplace Book, 1776-1859, Hite Family Papers, Vol. I, MS IH637535a-40, Virginia Museum of History and Culture, Richmond, Virginia, accessed September 9, 2021, MRD-S 44306, Montpelier Research Database.

[6] Special thanks to Robin Young and the Belle Grove staff for sharing information about this transfer. The date was deduced from the sequence of events recorded in the Hite Family Commonplace Book surrounding the arrival of Abba.

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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