After the Father of the Constitution dies on June 28, 1836, his wife, Dolley P. Madison, has to distribute $9,000 within three years to his many nephews and nieces. Here are the court records of the ordeal, to fulfill the conditions of the President’s Last Will and Testament. These records also reveal the names of his nephews and nieces, for anyone doing genealogical research.
Dorothea (Dolly) Payne was born in a Quaker community in North Carolina and was raised in Hanover County, Virginia. Her father moved his family to Philadelphia in 1783. When James met her while he worked up there, she was a twenty-six year widow of a Quaker lawyer with one son named John (called Payne), who grew up to be an alcoholic. gambler and debtor. Her husband John Todd and son William had died on the same day of the yellow fever, in 1793. James and Dolley married on September 15, 1794. After serving as Secretary of State and President, and going through the War of 1812, they eventually retired to Montpelier, a five-thousand acres plantation in Orange County, Virginia, where his will was probated.
President Madison had no natural children, but he did have six siblings. As noted, per the terms of the Will, First Lady Madison was required to distribute the huge amount of $9,000 to James’s twenty-five nephews and nieces (another document says thirty-one) within three years. The problem: some of them died and others moved out of state.
If she pays them within the timeframe, she is devised the estate in fee simple. If she does not pay in time, then the property is to be sold.
These records explain that she is doing the best she can to distribute the shares in difficult circumstances.
The President Madison’s Will is available online:
The following is a (slightly reformatted) transcription of the distribution of the money ordered in the Will.
MADISON v MADISON
To the Honorable RICHARD H. FIELD, Judge of the Circuit Superior Court of Law and Chancery for the County of Orange, Humbly complaining sheweth to the Court your oratrix DOLLY P. MADISON, in her own right and as Executrix and devisee of her deceased husband, JAMES MADISON; that her Testator departed this life on the 28th June 1836 having first duly made and published his last Will and Testament which has been duly proved and recorded together with a codicil thereto by which Will your oratrix was left sole Executrix thereof and duly qualified as such and taken upon herself the burden of the Execution thereof. By one of the clauses of the said Will (a copy of which is herewith exhibited), it is provided as follows, to wit:
“I devise to my clear wife during her life the tract of land whereon I now live held by me, except as herein otherwise devised, and if she shall pay the sum of nine thousand dollars within three years after my death, to be distributed as hereinafter directed, then I devise the same land to her in fee simple. If my wife shall not pay the said sum of money within the period mentioned, then and In that case It Is my Will and I hereby direct that at her death the said land shall be sold for cash or on credit as may be deemed best for the interest of those entitled-to the proceeds thereof. If my wife shall pay the said sum of money within the time before specified as aforesaid, was to become entitled to the fee simple of the said, then I bequeath the said sum of money to be equally divided between all my nephew and nieces which shall at that time be living, and in case of any of them being dead leaving issue at the time living, then such issue shall take the place of its or their deceased parent.”
In the codicil aforesaid, it is provided: “It is my will that the nine thousand dollars to be paid by my wife and distributed among my nephews and nieces may be paid into the Bank of Virginia or into the Circuit Superior Court of Chancery for Orange within three years after my death.”
Your oratrix shews to the Court that immediately after the decease of her husband as well for the purpose of securing to herself the benefit of the devise in said clause above recited as to carry Into effect without delay the benevolent purposes of the Testator towards his relations, she provided the sum of nine thousand dollars and deposited the same in the Bank of Virginia in Fredericksburg with a view to be distributed as directed by her Testator, and supposing it to have been the intention of her Testator that she should be relieved from the burden and responsibility of distributing it enclosed to the Board of Directors of said office of the Bank of Virginia extracts from the Testator’s Will and requested them to receive the deposit for distribution as therein directed. The said Board however declined this task but agreed to receive the money on deposit to the credit of the oratrix and to pay the same upon her checks to the parties entitled as they might be presented.
Your oratrix thereupon deposited the money to her own credit and was about proceeding to notify those whom she supposed entitled, that she was repay to pay them their share upon the principle of distribution which she supposed proper under the Will, when she understood there was some conflict of opinion as to the proper construction of the Will as to the persons entitled to take, which instead of making 31 shares would exclude some that your oratrix presumed was intended by the Testator to be embraced within the provisions.
In consequence of this difficulty which she was advised she was no obligation and which she feels entirely incompetent to decide and especially as the Bank of Virginia has refused to accept the deposit otherwise than as above stated. Your oratrix has been advised to request this honorable Court to take control of the said fund now in Bank and which she will bring into Court when required, and to direct the distribution thereof according to the rights of the parties, the facts out of which these rights are to be ascertained and the above question as well as any others that may arise upon the above clauses of the Will to be determined are these.
Mr. MADISON had six brothers and sisters to wit:
All of whom had children (who were nephews and nieces of course), who either were living at the death of the Testator and are now living, or died before the Testator having children now living.
FRANCIS MADISON’s children were:
- CONWAY MADISON now living in Alabama;
- CATLETT MADISON;
- NELLY WOOD who died before Mr. MADISON leaving six children of whom all died before Mr. MADISON without issue except two: MARGARET, wife of —– TAPPAN & JOSEPH WOOD (of Tennessee);
- FANNY, now the wife of THOMPSON SHEPHERD;
- CATHERINE, wife of SPOTSWOOD TALIAFERRO;
- ELIZABETH SHEPHERD, widow of ALEXANDER SHEPHERD;
- MARY SMITH who died before Mr. MADISON having two children viz. to wit: WALTON SMITH Mississippi and NANCY BUCK wife of JOHN BUCK.
WILLIAM MADISON’s children who were living at the Testator’s death & now are dead having children then living.
1st. REBECCA.CHAPMAN, wife of REYNOLDS CHAPMAN;
- ROBERT L. MADISON who died before Mr. MADISON leaving three sons viz. T. COOPER MADISON, WILLIS and ROBERT;
- AMBROSE MADISON;
- LETITIA SLAUGHTER, wife of D. F. SLAUGHTER, died before Mr. MADISON leaving two sons viz. infants EDWIN SLAUGHTER and PHILIP SLAUGHTER;
- ELIZA WILLIS wife of LEWIS WILLIS died before Mr. MADISON leaving one daughter, FRANCES WILLIS, an infant.
AMBROSE MADISON died before the Testator leaving one child viz. NELLY C. WILLIS.
NELLY HITE married ISAAC HITE, her children are two viz. JAMES M. HITE of Frederick County and NELLY who married —- BALDWIN & died before the Testator leaving seven children viz.: ELEANORC. wife of —- DAVIDSON (later shown as EDWARD J., MARY B. BALDWIN, ANN BALDWIN, ISAAC HITE BALDWIN, JAMES M. BALDWIN, CORNELIUS, ROBERT STUART BALDWIN, all living.
SARAH MACON whose children living at the death of the Testator and still are viz.
CONWAY C. MACON
JAME M. MACON
LUCY CONWAY wife of REUBEN CONWAY
REUBEN MACON besides one or more children who died before Testator without having children.
FRANCES wife of ROBERT ROSE, deceased, her children are viz.
AMBROSE ROSE of Alabama;
NELLY NEWMAN widow of —- NEWMAN who died before the Testator;
ROBERT ROSE, Alabama;
FRANCES & SAMUEL, the last two believed to be Infants.
Then it will be seen that there are twenty-five nephews and nieces who were living at the death of the Testator and who are still living; that there were six who died before the Testator, leaving children then living & living when your oratrix was ready to pay the nine thousand dollars deposited in Bank and which she is now repay to pay as soon as it is ascertained who are entitled. Indeed she is now willing and Intends to go on to pay the surviving nephews and nieces the sum they will be respectively entitled to on the division of the whole into 31 parts which will be their full proportion if the children of the above named six deceased nephews & nieces be entitled, as they insist they are and who it is contended by the surviving nephew and nieces not entitled to any participation in the said fund and some of whom claim to hold your oratrix responsible if she shall allow them any portion of the same and therewith to throw the risk and responsibility of this controversy upon your oratrix, who is no way interested in it except to have the fund properly paid according to the Will of the Testator and so as to perfect her fee simple to the estate devised to her.
Your oratrix further shews to the Court that since the death of Mr. MADISON, THOMPSON SHEPHERD, who is entitled in right of his wife to one share, has taken the oath of an insolvent debtor whereby the said share is vested in the Sheriff of Orange County, GEORGE MORRIS, who executed the process under which he swore out and it Is insisted by the said Sheriff that he is entitled to said share for the benefit of the creditors, and the said SHEPHERD and wife still claim to be entitled to receive the same.
All of which is contrary to equity and good conscience and tends to the manifest wrong and oppression of your oratrix, and for as much as she Is remediless in the premises save by the interposition of this honorable Court where matters of this sort are properly cognizable and relievable. To the end [goal or purpose] therefore that the said:
CONWAY MADISON of Alabama, CATLETT MADISON of Madison County, —- TAPPAN and his wife MARGARET, & JOSEPH WOOD both of Tennessee; THOMPSON SHEPHERD & FANNY his wife; SPOTSWOOD TALIAFERRO and CATHERINE his wife, all of Madison; ELIZABETH SHEPHERD of Culpepper, WALTON SMITH of Mississippi; JOHN BUCK and NANCY his wife of F’burg [Fredericksburg];
REYNOLDS CHAPMAN & REBECCA his wife; AMBROSE MADISON of Orange; T. COOPER,WILLIAM & ROBERT MADISON, infant children of ROBERT S. MADISON deceased; EDWIN SLAUGHTER & PHILIP SLAUGHTER Infant children of LETITIA SLAUGHTER deceased;
NELLY C. WILLIS of Orange;
JAMES M. HITE and the children of NELLY BALDWIN deceased viz.— DAVIDSON and ELEANOR C. his wife, MARY B., ANN, ISAAC H., CORNELIUS, JAMES M. & ROBERT S. BALDWIN, all of Frederick County, except NANCY, who is absent in foreign parts;
CONWAY C. MACON, JAMES M. MACON, REUBEN CONWAY & LUCY his Wife, AMBROSE MACON, HENRY MACON and REUBEN MACON of Orange;
AMBROSE ROSE, HUGH ROSE, NELLY NEWMAN, ROBERT, JAMES, ERASMUS, HENRY, FRANCES & SAMUEL, all of Alabama, and the two last being Infants;
And GEORGE MORRIS Sheriff of Orange County may be made parties Defendants, have the said Infants Guardians to be appointed by the Court to defend them, and make true and perfect answers to the premises; that this honorable Court will take into its custody and under its control the said sum of nine thousand dollars and distribute the same or direct Its distribution among those entitled under the true interpretation of the Will; that your oratrix may be declared to have complied with the conditions of the Will which entitles her to a fee simple estate in the land in which the Testator resided & that she may have such other and further relief as is consistent with Equity and the nature of the case may require may it please the Court to grant the Commonwealth’s most gracious writ of subpoena.
The sheriff subpoenas the relatives and writes this note about the whereabouts of some of the nephews and nieces:
NOTE of the Sheriff on one subpoena:
Copies of the within delivered to Mrs. DAVISON, wife of EDWD. J. DAVISON, for herself and husband, he being from home, & she is free white person over the age of sixteen years. Copy delivered to ANN BALDWIN & copies left with Mrs. DAVISON for ROBERT &. JAMES BALDWIN, they being from home (Mrs. DAVISON being also a member of the same family).
CORNELIUS BALDWIN is dead
JAMES M. HITE lives in Clarke County.
MARY B. BALDWIN &. ISAACH. BALDWIN are non-residents of Virginia.
GRIFFIN FROST, D [Deputy] for M. TAYLOR, Shff. Fred’d Cty [Sheriff, Frederick County]
Mrs. Dolly P. Madison had difficulty depositing $9,000 into the Virginia Bank. This petition also shows payments to some of the nieces and nephews.
To the Hon. RICHD. H. FIELD, Judge of the Circuit Superior Court of Law and Chancery for County of Orange. The petition of Mrs. DOLLY P. MADISON respectfully represents that she filed her Bill in this Honorable Court setting forth that her deceased husband, JAMES MADISON, had devised her a large real estate upon condition that she paid to his nephews and nieces within three years the sum of $9,000, which payment was to be made by depositing the money in the Va. Bank or in the Chancery Court of Orange. Your petitioner stated also the difficulty she had encountered in an effort to deposit the money in the Bank and also that controversies had arisen as to the persons entitled to distribution of the fund. In consequence of these difficulties, your petitioner filed her said Bill concerning those claiming a division of the fund and praying the Court to decide who are entitled to participate and to direct its distribution.
Your petitioner has proceeded to pay many of the legatees the sum to which they are entitled and she herewith exhibits the receipts of fifteen of said legatees for the sum of $290.32 each and one legatee for $290.00, which sums amount to $4644.80, leaving in the hands of your petitioner the sum of $4355.20, and she prays she may be authorized and directed by the Court to pay the same into Court or to deposit the same to the credit of the suit in which her said Bill is filed in the Bank of Va. at Fredericksburg or wherever else the Court may prefer so that all possible difficulty or doubt may be removed as to her having complied strictly with the condition on which the estate devised her by her deceased husband was to be complete and absolute. .
And your petitioner will ever pray,
D. P. MADISON, Executrix &. Devisee of J. MADISON, dec’d
The file contains a number of receipts or checks made by D. P. MADISON (most are numbered), one unnumbered to AMBROSE MADISON $290.32, dated Aug. 30, 1836; another unnumbered, a receipt of JAMES M. HITE for $290.00 received Oct. 11th 1836. The others, all for $290.32, are numbered.
Received October 4, 1836 REYNOLDS CHAPMAN
Received October 5, 1836 WILLIAM MADISON JR.
Received October 13, 1836 WILLIAM A. MACON
Received October 13, 1836 LUCY H. CONWAY
Received October 14, 1836 HENRYMACON
Received October 15, 1836 NELLY C. WILLIS
Received October 15, 1836 ELIZABETH C. SHEPHERD by FRANCISM. SHEPHERD, legal attorney for Elizabeth C. Shepherd.
Received October 17, 1836
Received October 17, 1836
Received November 5, 1836
Received October 31, 1836
Received October 31, 1836
Received October 31, 1836
Received December 14, 1836
JAMES MADISON MACON
ERASMUS T. ROSE
CONWAY C. MACON
CATHERINE B. TALIAFERRO
FRANCES T. SHEPHERD
This document is designed to inform the legatees that the distribution of the $9,000 will be suspended until the court determines whether the grand-nephews and grand-nieces are entitled to the money.
Montpelier. September 17, 1836
By the Will of MR. MADISON, his Widow is directed to deposit $9,000 in the Bank of Virginia within 3 years after his death “to be equally divided between all my nephews and nieces which shall at that time be living and in case of any of them being dead leaving issue at the time living, then such issue shall take the place of its or their deceased parent.”
As one of the legatees under this clause of Mr. MADISON’s Will, you are hereby notified that the deposit has been made and the Bank having declined the task of distribution, Mrs. MADISON’S will check for the separate amounts due, but a question has arisen among some of the legatees as to the construction of the clause, she will limit the amount to be paid to each to the share produced by a division of the whole sum among 31 nephews and nieces including those now living and those who are dead leaving issue now living, but the payments to the latter will be suspended ’till the decision of the Chancery Court is had whether they are entitled to the money. Where personal application for the check is inconvenient it should be made by formal power of attorney legally authenticated.
This note simply says that some of the nephews and nieces reside out of state.
A Sheriff’s Note.
Orange County to wit:
JOHN. P. TODD this day appeared before me, a Justice of the Peace for the County, and made oath that he is satisfied from information derived from WINNY MADISON, the widow of the late CONWAY MADISON, who was a nephew of the late JAMES MADISON, that MARY, FRANCES, JAMES, WILLIAM, EUGENIA E., and ELIZABETH MADISON, the children of the said CONWAY MADISON, reside out of the State of Virginia. In testimony whereof I hereto put my hand this 3rd day of May 1837.
JOHN F. TALIAFERRO
This amended bill says that nephew Conway Madison had died, though Mrs. Madison had assumed that he was alive. Also, the children of nephew Ambrose Rose are entitled to their shares.
(A PORTION OF AN AMENDED BILL)
…. your oratrix, DOLLY P. MADISON, executrix and devisee of JAMES M. MADISON decd, that some time during the last year she filed her Bill of interpleader in this Court to which she made one CONWAY MADISON, a party Defendant, believing that he was then alive, in which fact she has since learned that she was mistaken and now by way of amendment of her said Bill by leave of the Court first had and obtained, she respectfully represents that the said CONWAY MADISON departed this life before her Testator and devisor, leaving a Widow and six children viz. WINNA MADISON, his widow, MARY, FRANCES, JAMES, WILLIAM, EUGENIAE, and ELIZABETH MADISON, two of whom viz. MARY and FRANCES MADISON, are of age & the others infants of Tender years as she has been informed and so charges. ‘She prays that (those named) be made parties Defendants to this Bill and her original Bill herein before referred to ….
A partial decree provides that the infant children of AMBROSE J. ROSE decd, FRANCES T. and JANE N. ROSE, are entitled to their Father’s share of $290.32. The file includes three newspaper clippings notifying absent Defendants of the suit and the need to appear. Each appeared in the POLlTIC4L ARENA, “a newspaper printed in Fredericksburg,” bearing dates 25 November 1836, 27 January 1837 and 30th June 1837, each certified by WM. M. BLACKFORD, Editor.
There is a final decree in draft form appearing to confirm the payments noted before but the file has no papers indicating the payment of the balance, $4355.20.
The next brief excerpt identifies the children of Ambrose L. Rose:
A partial decree provides that the infant children of AMBROSE L. ROSE, decd., FRANCES T. and JANE N., are entitled to their father’s share.
This affidavit informs the court that the children of Winny Madison, widow of the late Conway Madison, a nephew of President Madison, reside out of state.
Affidavit of JOHN P. TODD
Orange County to wit:
JOHN P. TODD this day appeared before me, a justice of the peace for the county, and made oath that he is satisfied from information derived from WINNY MADISON, widow of the late CONWAY MADISON, who was a nephew of the late James Madison, that MARY, FRANCES, JAMES, WILLIAM, EUGENIA E. and ELIZABETH MADISON, the children of the said CONWAY MADISON, reside out of the state of Virginia.
In testimony whereof I hereto put my hand this 3rd day of May 1837.
This letter says that Ambrose L. Rose, living out in Missouri, decd., left two young daughters who are entitled to President Madison’s estate.
December 20, 1837
JOHN G. HOLLADAY} Esqr.
Your letter of the 28th ultimo was received this morning. No guardian has yet been appointed for the children of my deceased friend, AMBROSE L. ROSE Esqr., and none will be unless the business in Virginia requires it. Mr. ROSE devised the whole of his Estate (which is small) to his Wife, ELIZABETH K. ROSE who was also appointed by the Will sole Executrix and has Qualified as such in the Probate Court of this County. The Will specifies “both real and personal estate of any nature and kind whatsoever and wheresoever his will to speak from the time of his death as to his real as well as his personal property,” which is a good Will under the statutes of this State.
He left two children, both daughters, the elder, FRANCES T. ROSE, aged eight years 9th July
1837, and the younger, JANE N. ROSE, aged four years, 24th August 1837. They are both alive. No mention however is made of them in the Will, but if the money in Virginia you consider as coming to them and not Mrs. ROSE, Mrs. ROSE will take out letters of guardianship and send you as a power of attorney to receive the money. Be pleased to advise me on the subject and direct in what manner the power of attorney is to be authenticated. Your own judgment, on which we have every reliance, will be your guide concerning the business touching GENL. [General] WILLIAM MADISON’s accounts. –
JAMES T. HARRIS
The records in the abstract books don’t show how successful Dolley P. Madison was in distributing all of the money in time. It is not clear why Mr. Madison put this demand on her, instead of requiring his nephews and nieces to come forward, whether in person or by letter, and claim their share in three years. This puts the burden on them (it’s not as if he was an obscure figure whose passing didn’t make the newspapers). If some of the legatees do not step forward in three years, then the remainder of the estate goes to her.
She did live in poverty. Then President Polk, recognizing her unique status as the last of the Founders’ generation, took her under his wings. She died in 1849.
Ruth and Sam Sparacio, Will Abstracts of Orange County, Virginia (1821-1838) (privately published 1986)
—, Virginia County Court Records: Chancery Suits (Superior Court of Law and Chancery, Orange County, Virginia, 1831-1845 (McLean, vA: privately published, 1988)