LOST IDENTITIES: Local historian searches for 16 slaves owned by a president

Part two of a two-part series. 

Even former presidents can suffer financial woes.

For James Madison, U.S. president from 1809 to 1817, this meant selling off pieces of his estate toward the end of his life—including 16 people he owned.

“I’m pretty convinced it wasn’t what he wanted to do,” said local historian Zann Nelson, director of the African American Descendants’ Project for James Madison’s Montpelier Foundation.

Early last fall, Nelson began months of painstaking research with the end goal to attach names to 16 enslaved individuals sold by Madison in 1834 to a Louisiana relative named William Taylor.

After four intense months of delving into repositories—with the help of Montpelier’s research associate Lydia Neuroth—and cataloging some “educated guesses,” Nelson was ready for the next step: a trip to the Taylor’s southern sugar plantation.

With few verified facts to go on—some pieces of correspondence and one given name, “Betty”—Nelson spent the better part of three weeks at the end of January in Point Coupee Parish, near New Orleans, looking for records that might lead to the 16 Virginians transplanted to Taylor’s sprawling estate.

“Often slaves were listed in deed records or bills of sale,” Nelson said. “In this case, it might have been a gentleman’s agreement or the records were lost.”

Between 1810 and 1860, about one million enslaved people of color were exported to southern states, with Virginia sending the most. With tobacco sales falling and cotton and sugar thriving, many plantation owners began using people in bondage as a financial asset.

With the backing and blessing of the Montpelier Foundation, Nelson boarded a plane to the Pelican State to attempt to give the forgotten names and, with luck, locate their living descendants.

‘She opened eyes’

Nelson and Neuroth pored over paperwork in the local library and courthouses, chasing leads, no matter how vague.

“Ms. Neuroth was on the investigation for the first week and without that assistance I could not have waded through the wealth of information,” said Nelson.

On several return visits to Point Coupee Parish, Nelson raced to area churches to give short talks about her mission. She painstakingly inspected grave markers in the local cemeteries.

Then she met Albert Burns, a retired police officer and current deacon at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, who introduced her to many other families in the area.

“She was so dedicated to what she was doing,” Burns said. “It reminded me of my investigative days when I was with the police department.”

And as Nelson located possible new sources of information, Neuroth helped wade through the vast amount of material.

Still, not everyone wants to know they were descended from a slave, Burns said. Keeping familial ties a secret could hinder some genealogical investigations.

“There are plenty of people here still keeping their African heritage in a closet, marrying into lighter-skinned families and ‘passing the brown bag test,’” he said. “But any names a family remembers can really help fill in the gaps.”

Although she couldn’t yet help Burns with his own stonewalled search for ancestors, he’s not giving up hope. Nelson, he thinks, is a woman with a God-given gift.

“If you give people like her a little bit,” Burns said. “They’re going to find a whole lot. I may never find out, but it would sure mean a hell of a lot.”

‘Who is this woman?’

Destiny Hinson dabbled on Ancestry.com. She’d been away for a while when she logged into the popular online genealogy service to find a message from a woman in Culpeper, Virginia.

“Who is this lady,” Hinton remembers thinking. “And what could she possibly have on an ancestor—my ancestor.”

Hinson’s great-great grandfather on her maternal side, a man named Luke Long, had caught the interest of Nelson. He’d been mentioned in William Taylor’s diary. The researcher from Virginia had tracked his name and believed with 98 percent certainty he was one of the 16 working on the plantation at the time of the sale.

Hinson, 42, works in human resources and lives in a suburb of New Orleans. When Nelson came to Point Coupee Parish, Hinson brought her mother to meet her at a restaurant.

“That side of my family has been really hard to track,” Hinson said. Her mother’s grandparents died in a car accident, but she knew they were from “up north.”

Hinson said she’s more invested in her heritage now.

“Everybody figures ‘I come from somewhere,’” she said. “It doesn’t become real until you learn who. And now I can pinpoint it. It makes you want to keep going, digging and learn more.”

Quite a coincidence

Warren Jones, a Spanish teacher for Jefferson Parish Public Schools near New Orleans, claims genealogy among his hobbies. He’d already tracked several ancestors to Virginia, including his great-great grandfather Edward Davis.

Jones happened to be listening to a weekly internet blog talk called Research at the National Archives and Beyond when he heard Nelson speaking about her search for the 16 Virginia slaves. Some of the names sounded familiar and he called in to the program. Since she happened to be in Louisiana, the two agreed to meet for lunch.

By connecting the dots, Nelson believes Jones may be a descendent of Jenny Cook, one of William Taylor’s slaves who may have come from Virginia. In the 1850s, the inventory of the Taylor plantation listed 106 enslaved people, Cook among them.

And as a side note, there may be a connection between Jones’ ancestor Davis and Hinson’s ancestor Long. Marriage certificates listing witnesses might establish the men, at a minimum, knew each other.

“The world is so small,” Jones said. “I’m very grateful. There are so many untold stories and reserves of family history to be tapped into.”

The advent of the internet, low-cost DNA testing kits and renewed layman’s interest in genealogy as a hobby fills Jones with excitement. Where previously black Americans could only find information from Census records, with nothing before 1870, and possibly the Freedman’s Bureau or Army pension records, now greater numbers of people are instantly able to share their oral histories across the globe.

“I really see a bright future for the retelling of American history,” he said. “When you learn about who you are, you can then appreciate what makes you. You can strive for higher attainment because they lived through adversarial times. And they survived.”

Nelson is a driving force in the effort, Jones said.

“I’m so impressed with what she’s done.”

Like finding gold

Edie Harris learned of her ties to Montpelier by accident. The retired deputy attorney general for the state of Illinois had traced her roots as far as she could go, but her mother was 3 when she was adopted, World War II had scattered the family across the country, and the quest hit a dead end.

One name she had: George Walker, gleaned from a World War I draft record in Pennsylvania.

Located by Nelson on Ancestry.com, Harris had learned about another ancestor, Dangerfield Walker, who lived in the Orange County area. She also found a great-great grandparent, Nancy Rose Barber, whose life spanned three centuries. Born in 1798, Barber died in 1901 or ‘02.

And she’d worked for the Madisons.

Barber had been interviewed for a biography, Harris explained, and said she’d “liked Master Jimmy because he was fair and if he said something you could take it to the bank.”

She didn’t, however, like the president’s wife because “Dolley wasn’t very nice.”

Harris believes that Madison had wanted to free his slaves upon his death, particularly the older ones who’d been with the family their whole lives.

No one was freed.

“I think her (Dolley Madison’s) son was a gambler and a ne’er do well and they sold them off and didn’t honor the president’s wishes,” Harris said.

None of Harris’ ancestors were among the 16 sent to Louisiana, but, like many of the others Nelson has helped over the years, she’s grateful for the help in locating more information about her family.

And like Jones, she’s enthusiastic about keeping up the hunt for more names and connections.

“When you find someone, it’s like striking gold,” Harris said.

“You’re forced to face the realities of that situation,” she said. “You know who they are and you can walk upon the ground they walked on.”

Still searching

Nelson’s hunt for the 16 hasn’t waned.

“We’ve got to find more names,” she said. She’s open to anyone with information that might help. “They’d be born in Virginia. We don’t know all of the genders. It’s improbable that any were children, they were probably born between 1800 and 1819 and would have been around 15 to 35 years old at the time of the sale. They might have a name based on a trade.”

The Taylor plantation still exists.

William Taylor married Culpeper resident Lucy Thom in 1834 and the couple immediately left for Louisiana. Madison’s slaves arrived about a month before the Taylors. William Taylor died in 1850 and records show that Lucy still owned the plantation at the time of her death in 1864.

Despite a Louisiana law passed in 1831 requiring owners who imported slaves to appear before the parish judge, Nelson could find no record at the courthouse of the Taylors registering their new property.

“But we’ve really only skimmed the surface,” said Nelson.

In William Taylor’s diary housed at Louisiana State University, all of his slaves are listed; however, three slaves are identified that may yield significant clues in the search. Jack Virgina (sic), a field hand, his wife Mary and their 2-year-old son Madison.

Nelson won’t be satisfied until the facts support conclusions.

“It’s not enough to postulate on where one comes from,” she said. Each declaration needs the backing of documentation. She questions each new discovery, she said, because she knows others will have the same questions.

Elizabeth Chew, Montpelier’s vice president for Museum Programs, said outreach programs like the Descendants’ Project are vital to the foundation’s mission.

“It’s opened up a whole new avenue of exploration for learning who these people were,” she said.

And in early June, four of six reconstructed slave dwellings discovered by archaeologists in the Orange County mansion’s “South Yard” will be open to visitors during a special new exhibit, “Mere Distinction of Colour.” The exhibit is funded through a $10 million gift from financier and philanthropist David Rubenstein.

Some of those funds also go to the Descendants’ Project.

Since her return from Louisiana, the pace hasn’t slowed. Nelson recently connected with several direct descendants of an individual known to have been enslaved by the Madisons. She’s been invited to speak in Williamsburg, Richmond and New Jersey and she’s looking forward to an upcoming three-family reunion in Pittsburgh for folks with Orange County roots.

To top it off, she interviewed another Louisiana resident who’s a direct descendant of the Long ancestral line.

“Doing all of this work for the Montpelier Foundation is especially gratifying,” said Nelson, noting that the foundation’s departments—research, archaeology, historic preservation, education and the Center for the Constitution—are all collaborating and engaged with sharing “this amazing piece of American History.”

A lasting legacy

Culpeper pastor Sanford Reeves said he’s known Nelson for about 25 years and isn’t surprised she’s so involved in tracking down the histories of the forgotten. It’s in her nature, he said.

He’s seen her organize Black History Month programs, give speeches, enlist assistance where needed and devote endless hours to the pursuit documenting Culpeper’s past.

“She knows more about African-American history than we do,” said the past president of Culpeper’s NAACP. “She doesn’t judge anybody. She’s always there to help try to lift people up. She’s always willing to give you as much wisdom as she has. It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, Hispanic, she’s just always there helping out.”

So, Nelson continues to dig. She may not be black, but she’s driven by a sense of justice—a selfless imperative—to pursue answers for those who want them.

And she’s certain that there’s a tantalizing story coming about the 16 Virginians sent to Point Coupee.

“Being acknowledged for your humanity, your worth, even your very existence is a basic right—or it should be,” she said. “If I can facilitate that for someone else, especially those who have been denied, then frankly it’s a responsibility. Beyond the moral accountability, I have come to love the historical investigations. I love the hunt and if it brings knowledge that enlightens and empowers, then that is fantastic.”

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