Research in Progress: Paul Jennings marries Fanny Gordon

In June, we briefly mentioned Paul Jennings, who was a slave of the Madisons and, after gaining his freedom, a notable member of the African-American community in Washington, D.C. Here at Montpelier, Beth Taylor has been conducting extensive research into the life of Paul Jennings. She will be periodically posting vignettes from her research, starting with this post on Jennings’ marriage.

One of Paul Jennings’ duties as a manservant was to accompany the retired James Madison wherever he went. This meant that Jennings met his counterparts at the various plantations to which they traveled, and that these same manservants and lady’s maids would accompany their masters and mistresses to Montpelier. This may well have been the way in which Paul Jennings had the opportunity to meet and court his future wife, Fanny Gordon.

When Paul Jennings met her, Fanny Gordon was lady’s maid to Mrs. Charles P. Howard. Mrs. Howard was born Jane Taylor at Greenfield outside the town of Orange, the daughter of Erasmus and Jane Moore Taylor; Fanny was born at Greenfield, but some three decades after Jane. Erasmus Taylor died in 1794, a year after Jane married Charles P. Howard. In the 1795  inventory of slaves following Erasmus’ death, there is no mention of anyone named Fanny. However, in a document establishing the final distribution of slaves in 1800, the name Fanny appears along with a few other new names clearly belonging to children born in the five years since Taylor’s death. Judging by her listed worth at £18, Fanny was probably born about 1798.

After his marriage, Charles P. Howard, a Quaker from Philadelphia, found himself not only living in the south and husband to a Virginian but the owner of ten slaves. As the years went by, that number grew as children were born, and the Howards and their enslaved families settled on an 890-acre estate known as Howard Place, which bordered Montpelier.

Paul and Fanny, therefore, were about the same age and travelled in the same social circles. They married in 1822. Fanny’s brother Edmund later recalled,

“They were married according to the manner of slave law in Virginia. Each master gave consent. Paul Jennings and Fannie Jennings were given a marriage supper at her master’s home.”1

Despite the fact that the marriage had the consent of their masters, the couple did not live together. Paul at Montpelier was an hour or more walk from Fanny at Howard Place. With his attendance on Mr. Madison so constant, it is likely that he only traveled to see her once weekly, probably on Saturday evening to spend all of Sunday together. Traditionally, Sunday was the one day slaves did not have to work.

Paul and Fanny’s marriage persisted, despite these challenges, and they had children. Keep an eye on the blog for more on Paul Jennings and his family as Beth Taylor continues her research.

1Deposition of Edmund Spotsey, 1896, Franklin Jennings vs. Elizabeth Webb; Case File #470; General Docket Records; Records of the United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia; Record Group 276; National Archives Building, Washington, D.C.


7 Responses to Research in Progress: Paul Jennings marries Fanny Gordon

  1. ralph ketcham says:

    great news about Fannie – all new to me. Could we find and reconstruct a probable/possible path Paul might have taken on his visits to Fannie? And make it part of the visitor experience? Maybe through woods/fields that would make a nice walk/hike? It would be a good way to bring Paul more into the Montpelier picture. Ralph

  2. Charlotte Kerr says:

    This is such a touching, sweet story. So many times I only find surface stories about the slaves, but this has a very good human element. I will look forward to seeing more of their history.

  3. Louise Potter says:

    Congratulations, Beth, on finding this piece of human history that has been totally unknow to Montpelier. We will all look forward to more stories about Paul, Fannie and their family. This makes a whole new dimension of the people at Montpelier come alive. However, from what I understand, after Paul eventually left Montpelier, his life really began! Thanks! Lou Potter

  4. Charles Lockwood says:


    Did Paul Jennings leave any written recollections
    of Washington, D.C. in the Spring of 1861–when the city was virtually defenseless and secessionist troops were threatening to seize the city? Capture Lincoln, too.

    I am preparing a book on those critical weeks in the city’s history. If the Secessionists had seized Washington, D.C. and imprisoned Lincoln, the Civil War might have ended before it really started.

    I am particularly interested in Jennings for three reasons. First, he was obviously a very intelligent, very good man. Second, I want quotes and materials from all kinds of people in D.C. during those critical weeks, not just the well-known figures. Finally, Jennings lived in D.C. when the British
    burned the White House and Capitol in 1814–the true rescue of the painting is a great story–so he would have had a unique perspective on the threatened Secessionist invasion in April 1861.

    Any of his remarks about the possible SEcessionist
    capture would be very good, whether they were recorded at that very time, or written up later.

    I am the author of seven historical books. I appreciate any leads that you can provide. I do hope that I can quote some of his remarks about the 1861 threat.

    Thank you.

    Charles Lockwood

    Charles Lockwood

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  7. Elizabeth Shipley says:

    Would you be able to point to where I might find the inventory of slaves that you reference in this story? I have traced a genealogy lead to this family, but can’t find any records that name the slaves of Erasmus Taylor and who inherited them. The ancestor I am tracing was living free in Albemarle County by 1843 or so, and was listed as “Manumitted by Deed by Eramus Taylor Rose”. I suspect he was originally from the Taylor estate, but would love to be able to confirm it. Thanks for any information– Elizabeth Shipley

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