The Journey Through Hallowed Ground

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Enslaved people owned by Ambrose Madison lived there and constructed dwellings and farm buildings even before he moved there with his family in 1732. He died that same year, and three enslaved people were convicted of poisoning him. The leader, Pompey, from a neighboring farm, was executed. Dido and Turk received whippings and Turk may have been sold.

Anthropologist Douglas Chambers investigated this “charter event” and has traced enslaved people in the region at that time to the Igbo tribe in what is now western Nigeria. He traveled to Africa and studied the culture there, part of the Nri civilization that embraced pacifism as a core belief. They also valued a sense of belonging that has both territorial and ancestral elements. Chambers asserts that many African Americans have Igbo ancestry and hopes to facilitate genealogical research.

James Madison Sr. inherited the farm and enslaved people at Montpelier. George and Peter were skilled craftsmen and probably helped construct the brick manor house in 1760. Others operated a blacksmith shop, gristmill, sawmill, and distillery. Others worked in agriculture and the main house and its dependencies. One man named Sawney served at various times as an overseer and a personal servant to future president James Madison Jr. at the College of New Jersey (Princeton), and cared for “Mother Madison.”

To learn more about African Americans at Montpelier you can tour the main house and visit the slave cemetery, where you’ll find an illustrated interpretive sign. You can also follow the Confederate Camp and Freedman’s Farm Trail, which includes illustrated interpretive signs on Post-Emancipation Life in Orange County and the Gilmore farm, where you can see the restored log cabin. On Saturdays you can take the “Montpelier Enslaved Community Tour.” Periodically, Montpelier hosts large descendant reunions. Additional resources are listed below.


Paul Jennings (b. 1799)

With his modest and authoritative account of James and Dolly Madison during James’s presidency Paul Jennings pioneered the genre of “inside the White House” memoirs. He was born at Montpelier in 1799 when his owner--the future president--was thirty-one years old. In 1809, at the age of ten, he accompanied the Madisons to the White House. In 1814 he watched them flee the capital as the British invaded. Later, as James Madison’s valet, he shaved him every other day and attended at his death in 1836. He served Dolley Madison until she sold him in 1846 due to grave financial problems.

Paul Jennings then worked for freedom for himself and others. He persuaded the antislavery senator from New Hampshire, Daniel Webster, to purchase him and allow him to buy his freedom. In 1848 he conceived a way to help enslaved people and their free loved ones escape together to the North. He collaborated with Daniel Drayton, a white sea captain from Philadelphia. Drayton borrowed the schooner Pearl and sailed to Washington. Jennings spread word of his arrival, and freedom seekers boarded the ship at night. Calm winds in the Chesapeake Bay stilled the ship. In the morning, slaveholders noticed absences and a black man with a grudge revealed the conspiracy. A steamer caught up with the schooner and officials arrested the freedom seekers.

In 1865, at the behest of others, Paul Jennings published his memoir of the Madisons. He dispelled the myth that Dolley Madison had cut out the painting of George Washington to save it from the British during the War of 1812. He mentioned the numerous and brave black soldiers in the United States Army during that conflict, and wrote of the Madisons from a black perspective, believing that they earned a high regard.


  • Paul Jennings. Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison . Brooklyn, N.Y.: George C. Beadle, 1865.
  • G. Franklin Edwards and Michael R. Winston. “Commentary: The Washington of Paul Jennings – White House Slave, Free Man, and Conspirator for Freedom.” White House History 1, no. 1  (1983): 52-63.

George Gilmore (b. 1810)

After the Civil War and general Emancipation, many freedmen elected to remain in Virginia. They often cherished their ties to the land—regardless of ownership—and generations of connections to its people. George Gilmore likely occupied a favored position at Montpelier even during slavery. He could read and write and was often hired out for his skills as a carpenter, earning income for the Madisons and likely for himself during his “free” time. Gilmore made saddles as well. He married a seamstress named Polly Braxton in 1850, and together they raised eight children. In 1864, during the Civil War, a federal officer included George Gilmore in a short list of white and “colored” people the Union Army could count on to assist them in their occupation of Orange County.

George and Polly Gilmore elected to stay in Orange County after Emancipation. They rented land near the main house from Dr. James Madison, great-nephew of President Madison, tended a farm, and supplemented their income with their trades. An archaeological study suggested that initially the family may have lived in a hut once part of a Confederate encampment. In 1873, they built a more substantial structure using chestnut logs, and later added a frame addition. Descendants of the Gilmores continue to live in Orange County. In 2006 a great-granddaughter donated land to Montpelier that was had been part of the original farm. Visitors can walk this property and see the restored house.


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