The Louisiana 16’s first cosmic hurdle

I mentioned last week that the offsite research for the Louisiana 16 Project has begun and I am thinking that you may be interested in what that will entail. Sharing the details will be beneficial for the necessary organizing on my part and hopefully, will be somewhat instructional or maybe even entertaining for you.

Following last year’s efforts, several hurdles remain. They may never be conquered conclusively but I am not yet ready to throw in that towel. The fattest elephant in the room is the absence of any official record of the 1834 sale of those owned by James Madison.

A record, be it official or between private parties, could offer significant clues as to exactly how many were sold, when and for what amount of money. Equally as important or more so, the document could include ages, genders, names and possible familial relationships: basic facts that recognize the legitimacy of their existence.

In Virginia during the years that slavery prevailed, it was common practice to require a court document when there was a transfer of property (as these were legal transactions). In the case of the enslaved that history recognizes as legal assets, there were a variety of forms of transference: sale, manumission, inheritance and/or gift. All required recordation, however, not all requirements were enforced.

Several astute researchers have scoured the Orange County Courthouse records for some notation of the sale between James Madison and William Taylor. Regrettably, they have come up empty-handed. Some might posit that there was a fire and all records of the period were destroyed or perhaps the records from that period were stolen. However, they would be mistaken.

There are complete records of deeds, wills and a multitude of other transactions for several years before, during and after 1834. One will have to examine other reasons for the absence of this specific transaction.

Consider the circumstances. Vast and often self-sustaining plantations were miles and miles from the local courthouse and under no one’s watchful eye. People of prominence, wealth and power, not the least of which was a former President of the United States, were often given a waiver out of respect or deference.

Even if the local authorities did not choose to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear, manpower was lacking to adequately monitor slave sales that by 1834 were in an obscene abundance.

Now, let’s take a quick look at Madison’s personal situation.

Documented correspondence between Madison and close friends depicts a scenario of serious debt and a bleak outlook for improvement. In one such letter, Madison bemoans the effect of the declining agriculture and his own less than profitable harvest. In another, he recounts his attempt to reduce the burden of debt through selling portions of his real estate property, suggesting that if he sold additional lands there would not be enough left to sustain the work of his many slaves. He added that he was left with a choice between selling the home and property in the City of Washington or some of his slaves.

The creditors were on his doorstep and in 1834 he made the decision to sell a few of his enslaved people to his cousin William Taylor. He reconciled the act to a friend by stating that they consented to go, and he imagined that Taylor would do better by them than he could, presumably because Taylor was wealthy with ample disposable and discretionary funds.

But why was there no record? Stay tuned for what might be the answer!

Until next week, be well.

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