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.

M104

Mr. Madison's Study

Shutters

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!


Provenance

April 17, 2009

After our last update, we were asked: what is “curatorial research” and how do Montpelier’s researchers go about figuring out whether an object belonged to the Madisons or not. Curatorial research can be very involved, but let’s start with “provenance” and continue from there over the next few posts.

So what exactly is provenance? You may have heard the term if you have visited a museum, watched “Antiques Roadshow” or “History Detectives”, or collect antiques. A good definition for “provenance” is, “a history of who owned an object”. As you can imagine, at Montpelier, we are very interested in objects that were previously owned by James and Dolley Madison; one way to describe these pieces is to say that they had “Madison provenance”.

Figuring out an object’s history often starts with finding out how the current owner acquired it. From there, many times we can work backwards from one owner to the next – and, if we are lucky, we may be able to trace the piece all the way back to James and Dolley Madison. For some objects, we are able to easily determine provenance because others have already documented it or a clear chain of ownership exists. For other pieces there are gaps in the chain of ownership. Our goal then becomes filling in the gaps. Read the rest of this entry »