Research in Progress: Paul Jennings marries Fanny Gordon

July 30, 2009

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.


Update July 16, 2009

July 16, 2009

New Furniture in the Drawing Room

Last week we installed a pair of card tables in the Drawing Room (M108) that have excellent Montpelier provenance. Card playing, backgammon, and other games were popular pastimes during the late 18th and early 19th century. Several visitors recalled seeing games being played during their visit with the Madisons. During his 1816 visit, Baron de Montelzun mentioned games of chess being played at Montpelier.1 In an exchange of letters between Dolley Madison and her sister Anna Payne Cutts in the spring of 1804, they mention playing Loo, a card game similar to the modern game of Hearts.

The tables were purchased at an undated Montpelier sale by a local family who lived at a neighboring plantation. In the mid 20th century, the tables were separated when one was sold. Both tables maintained their Madison provenance and were brought together for display here at Montpelier after it was confirmed that they were a matching pair. As part of our research, wood sampling was conducted on the tables, indicating they were made in New England based on the types of wood used. It is possible that these tables were shipped to Virginia or were acquired by the Madisons in Philadelphia, a port city with a thriving furniture trade. One of the tables was graciously donated to Montpelier by Mr. and Mrs. Randolph Thompson, and the other is currently on loan to us. We are thrilled to be able to display them together in situ.



New Document in the Grills Gallery

There is a new document now on display in the Grills Gallery in the Visitors Center here at Montpelier. It is an undated memorandum from Dolley Madison to a Mr. Zantzinger; a shopping list of household and personal items for him to purchase on her behalf. The many interesting items include “two [large] Looking-Glasses”, “100 yds best carpeting,” various types of clothing, and “one dozen fanciful but cheap snuff boxes.”

This is not the only time the Madisons made purchases through an agent or friend. In the 1780s, James Madison sent requests for books to his friend Thomas Jefferson, who was in Paris. Shortly after his 1794 marriage, Madison asked his friend James Monroe, then Minister to France, to acquire household goods for him, among which were French carpets and yards of red and green silk intended for curtains for two rooms. Later in their married lives Dolley begins to order goods on her own, not just through her husband. The Zantzinger order is an example of this as is a quite similar order Dolley commissioned in 1810 from merchant and US Commercial Agent in Bordeaux William Lee.2

The Zantzinger memorandum gives us an idea of Dolley’s tastes, and her budget. She wants nice looking glasses and good carpet, but only as fine as can be purchased for $100 each. This was not a spending spree; Dolley was instead a savvy shopper who set a limit on the lengths to which she, or her agent, should go to acquire fashionable decorations for the house. Although she does not set an upper limit for the “print of the bust of N. Bonaparte” listed, she does quote Zantzinger the price that the print was selling for “some months since;” she did at least have an estimate for how much it should cost.

Who was Mr. Zantzinger? His identity is far from apparent in the memorandum, and he was not a regular correspondent with Dolley. There are a few possibilities, two of which seem most promising:

  • The first is the Philadelphia merchant firm of Kepple and Zantzinger. Although the memorandum does not appear to date from the period when the Madisons were living in Philadelphia, they may have kept in touch with useful connections in that city. The firm of Kepple and Zantzinger would have had at least one Mr. Zantzinger in it.
  • The second possibility is one William P. Zantzinger, supercargo, mentioned in a 1819 Supreme Court case. A supercargo is “An officer on a merchant ship who has charge of the cargo and its sale and purchase” ([italic]American Heritage Dictionary), so this Zantzinger would have been in a position to make purchases for the Madisons.
  • Of course, it is possible that William P. Zantzinger was somehow related to the Zantzingers of the merchant firm in Philadelphia; in a letter to a friend written in Tripoli, Dolley Madison’s brother mentions having met “Mr. Zantzinger Supercargo of a vessel from Philadelphia” while in Italy.[note: John Coles Payne to Boyd, May 25, 1807, Private Collection] Merchant firms in the late 18th and early 19th centuries sometimes included extended families – fathers, sons, cousins, nephews – so a supercargo from Philadelphia could be related to a Philadelphia firm.

The memorandum helps us to better understand Dolley Madison’s taste, the limits of her pocketbook and her desire to acquire certain goods in France. But, it also raises further questions about the Madisons’ patterns of consumption, who they used as agents for long-distance shopping and how they made those connections.


We hope that you can come and see this document and other Madison items in our Grills Gallery.

1 Moffatt, L. G. and J. M. Carriere “A Frenchman Visits Norfolk, Fredericksburg and Orange County, 1816.” Virginia Historical Magazine, July 1945
2 Mary Lee Mann, A Yankee Jeffersonian: Selections from the Diary and Letters of William Lee of Massachusetts Written from 1796 to 1840, Cambridge, MA, 1958, p. 133.

Update July 2, 2009

July 2, 2009

Court Records Research

In an earlier post, we explained the concept of “provenance,” and how we use it here at Montpelier. Tracking down an object’s provenance often requires documentary research. In this post, we would like to expand on a type of research we touched on in our last post – documentary research with court records, and how it is helping us better understand the Madisons and their lives at Montpelier.

Court records provide us with a unique approach to comprehending the Madison family through legal transactions. We utilize probate records such as wills, inventories and accounts of estate sales for many Madison family members to create a better understanding of what each person inherited, owned, bought and sold. We then build on this knowledge by examining the records of lawsuits for Orange County, Virginia which are housed at several repositories across the state, including the Orange County Courthouse, the Library of Virginia, and the State Record Center.

These records are spread across several courts, for example, courts for different jurisdictions, such as county and district. Making this a bit more difficult are changes to the structure of the court system itself as the 19th century progressed. Since we want to collect all information possible for James and Dolley Madison, his parents, her son John Payne Todd, and other close family members, we are systematically going through the records of each court in chronological order. It is a slow process, but more thorough than relying just on indexes or making random searches on years of suspected activity. While we are specifically interested in mentions of furniture and interior decoration in our current research, we record all cases for future reference. We have uncovered many court cases that have helped shed light on the history of the Madisons, their changing financial status, the individuals with whom they did business, their slaves, and so much more.

One interesting case involved Dolley Madison and a merchant named Thomas Vial. He brought suit against her for nonpayment of accounts, submitting as evidence a list of all the items she had purchased from him in 1842 and 1843. This list provides us with information on what types of beverages and food she purchased. It also raises more questions for us: Did Dolley buy items from Mr. Vial in other years? If so, were her purchases for entertainment or for the everyday management of the household? Do any records of Thomas Vial’s business survive? In this manner, court documents can provide answers as well as questions that will hopefully lead to further discoveries.

 Orange County Courthouse

The Fourth of July

Although July 4 was not designated as a federal holiday for almost a hundred years after the Declaration of Independence was signed and drafted, it was considered by some a day of celebration from the very first anniversary. The way people chose to celebrate varied from place to place, some holding big parties and others holding prayer meetings.

Two hundred years ago, on July 4, 1809, citizens of the town of Pittsfield, Vermont, chose to celebrate the anniversary of American Independence by writing a letter to their President, James Madison. That letter now belongs to the Library of Congress, and you can see and read it for yourself.

The language of the letter is more formal, and certainly more flowery, than most people today would use, even when writing to the President. The underlying message, on the other hand, still applies today. While these citizens of Pittsfield voted for James Madison, and wanted him to succeed, they closed their letter by celebrating the “Sovreign Lord” of the United States: the People.

Update June 18, 2009

June 18, 2009

Read about us in the Times!

The New York Times, that is. Last Friday’s paper featured a column in the Art and Design section about historic sites interpreting slaves and servants in addition to the homeowners. We are mentioned and there are audio links to an actor speaking the words of Paul Jennings; this is the same audio which you can hear during tours of the house. The first recording, “I was always with Mr. Madison,” can be heard in Mr. Madison’s study (M104), the room in which Madison died.

Jennings was a slave of the Madisons who worked in the White House during Madison’s presidency and later returned to Washington, DC, with Dolley Madison after James’ death. It was in Washington that Jennings earned his freedom. At the end of his life, an interview with him was turned into a short book, A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison. Our own Beth Taylor is currently conducting extensive research into the life of Paul Jennings; you can buy a copy of A Colored Man’s Reminiscences in our gift shop to help support her research.


Mr. Madison's Study


All of the shutters have now been fitted, hung, and stamped with their location information. However, before we can hang them permanently, they need a little more work. We are sending them off to have all newly cut and fitted edges primed and top-coated and for all shutters to receive a copper cap, to get a final coat of paint, and then dry over the next couple of weeks. We will let you know when they come back and are hung again.

In Brief: Court Records

Another area of research we are investigating is court records. These can be helpful in a number of ways: to find lists of Madison property; track family inheritance and land ownership; and trace social and business connections by looking at who was involved in suits with, or against, the Madisons.

We started by looking at the records for the county in which Montpelier is located – Orange County, Virginia. The county courthouse has copies of the original deed and will books, which recorded the wills, inventories, and deeds of sale for the whole county. However, we are also searching through court proceedings to find mentions of the Madisons, some of which were moved to Richmond during the 20th century. There is a lot of material to sift through, complicated by the fact that how courts were organized changed more than once during James Madison’s lifetime. So far we have found some good leads, which are followed up by even more research in the court records!

Update June 4, 2009

June 4, 2009

Recently we were fortunate to have four furniture experts from The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation come on-site to consult with us on furnishings at Montpelier, both from our permanent collection and items on loan. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation staff who came were Ron Hurst, vice president for collections and museums; Tara Gleason Chicirda, curator of furniture; Christopher Swan, conservator of furniture; and Albert Skutans, conservator of furniture.

Staff from The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the Montpelier Foundation discussing and taking notes

Staff from The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the Montpelier Foundation discussing and taking notes


Chris Swan examining one end of a daybed.

Their expertise helped to further confirm much of the research that we have already done on several of our pieces, and led us as well to many new avenues of research. They identified the types of woods used in the construction of many objects, and hypothesized about their likely dates and regions of origin. This information has allowed us to do even more pointed research, and has already helped us begin to decide which pieces are most suitable to represent the furnishings at Montpelier during James and Dolley Madisons’ residence.

Albert Skutans examines the construction of a drawer.

Albert Skutans examines the construction of a drawer.

Some of the details that Ron, Tara, Chris, and Albert looked for in determining the origin of pieces such as beds and tables included the types of joints holding pieces of wood together, the patterns of detailing such as turnings and inlay, and nearly-microscopic evidence of paint residue or upholstery on stripped pieces.

Many times their expert opinions helped to prove the possibility that James and Dolley could have owned a piece based on the period of construction. However, there were also a few objectswhich were judged to have been of a style or form that did not come into being until after James died and Dolley left Montpelier, therefore making them inappropriate for display at Montpelier.

Albert Skutans and Tara Gleason Chicirda examine drawers of a desk-bookcase

Albert Skutans and Tara Gleason Chicirda examine drawers of a desk-bookcase

Chris and Albert, whose specialty is furniture conservation, spoke with us about the condition of many of the pieces, and advised us on what kinds of treatment to consider for objects which need to be stabilized and conserved before they can be safely put on display.

The day that we spent with our colleagues from The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation could not have been more productive and valuable for the Montpelier furnishings project. It was also a reminder of the importance of collaboration between museums and historic sites, and the exciting theories and advances in research that can be made when we get together to learn about each others’ collections.
Ron Hurst explains to Cheryl Brush that the depth of the case, plus the short shelves, means this might be a china press.

Ron Hurst explains to Cheryl Brush that the depth of the case, plus the short shelves, means this might be a china press.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation staff wore these headset magnifying glasses

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation staff wore these headset magnifying glasses

Update May 14, 2009

May 14, 2009

Constitutional Exhibit

Now open in the south wing room of the house (M118), which is accessible from the back yard, is our exhibit “James Madison: Architect of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights”.









Those of you who visited Montpelier prior to April, 2009, may have seen the exhibit in our Education Center. The exhibit is self-guided, with commentary available on the audio tour. The exhibit describes James Madison’s role in the development, writing, and implementation of two of America’s most important documents – the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. In addition to text, the exhibit uses images and excerpts from historical documents.










The room is arranged so that you can view the exhibit at your leisure and utilize the chairs.  We hope our visitors will discuss the exhibit, the Constitution, or James Madison with each other.  In the future we would like to have staff lead discussions with our visitors that would include topics relevant to how the Constitution affects us today.










The shutters continue to be hung. This week they are installing more shutters on the front of the house20090514-2cs





Gene Lyman stamps the top of a shutter.

Since the shutters and their fittings are handmade, each shutter only fits in one window of the house. Thus, both window and shutter are assigned an identifier code.  Stamping the shutters allows them to be removed to be repainted or fixed and then be returned to their correct location.

In Honor of Mother’s Day

May 8, 2009

What better time than Mother’s Day to consider how the design and furnishings of Montpelier reflected the presence of the matriarch of the Madison family – James Madison’s mother Nelly Conway Madison – and how one family accommodated two generations under the same roof. Montpelier was built by James Madison senior in the 1760s to house his immediate family. In 1797 when James, Jr. took a temporary hiatus from politics and moved home with his bride Dolley, father and son added a two-over-two room duplex with a side passage to house the younger couple. When, following his father’s death, James junior enlarged and remodeled the building once again, he did the opposite carving out a suite of rooms on the first floor for his widowed mother.

Nelly Conway Madison was a remarkable woman. She oversaw the domestic management of her husband’s plantation, gave birth to twelve children, helped to educate them, and lived to age 98. In recognition of the important role she played in the Montpelier community and to illustrate the inclusion of two households under one roof, Mrs. Madison’s Best Room (M112) is one of four rooms which have been singled out for refurnishing.

Mrs. Madison’s “apartments” encompassed two rooms from the 1763 house and two rooms and storage areas in the adjacent wing James junior added between 1809 and 1812. Visitor James Paulding remembered that this wing was “appropriated to the mother of Mr. Madison then upwards of ninety years of age. The Old Lady seldom joined the family circle but took her meals by herself, and was visited everyday by Mr. & Mrs. Madison…”[1]

Our challenge will be to show how different Nelly Madison’s apartments were from the rooms occupied by her son and daughter-in-law. Even when empty, her Best Room shows a fondness for the past retaining features from the 1760s era house including a high wainscot which lines the walls and the British-made sandstone fireplace surround with its weighty egg and dart carving.


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