Descendants Speak

Monthly articles written by descendants

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This month, learn about Benjamin McDaniel.

Benjamin McDaniel

HIS LEGACY CONTINUES

In the 1960s, my father told me a story about one of his ancestors. He said that one of his grandfathers was a slave to President Madison and served as one of his livery drivers. He said that President Madison had our ancestor drive him to the inauguration and that our ancestor got him there on time. At the time of this story, my father didn’t know the name of his ancestor, nor did he know how many generations removed he was. Nevertheless, the story came down through the ages and through people who weren’t generally interested in genealogy–they were just passing down family stories. I didn’t know if the story was true or not, but, because it called forth the name of a Founding Father, I was somewhat dubious. We lived in a neighborhood in which everyone was descended from slaves, so I feared that it might be a bit of braggadocio. I was wrong.

I have always been interested in genealogy and started working on our family tree in the mid-1970s.  In 1977, I traveled to Orange County, Virginia, to do research because that’s where my father’s (Horace McDaniel, 1929-2014) family was from.  I knew that my grandfather was named Henry Jackson McDaniel (1893-1963), and I knew the year of his birth.  I also knew that Henry’s grandmother was named Jane, but that was all the information that I had.  I found the records pertaining to Jane McDaniel in the “colored” section of the Orange County courthouse.  That alone made for some interesting drama: because I am light-skinned and usually mistaken for white, the lady at the counter whispered to me about the “colored” section only after I told her that I was not finding a record of my grandmother in the main section.

What I learned was that Jane McDaniel (1857-1944) was born in Orange County and she bore several children, including my grandfather Henry, while unmarried.  In this way, the McDaniel name was passed on through the female line.  Jane later married a man with the last name of Madison which caused me a bit of confusion because Jane’s father was named Madison McDaniel.  I later realized that many people in the local area took the last name of Madison or named their children after the president.

Madison McDaniel (1833-1913) had four children with his first wife Frances Ellis (1830-1900).  One of these children was my great-grandmother Jane.  Although Frances had previously been married, it appears that she had had two children while unmarried because, as was the case with Jane and the McDaniel line, Frances’ children carried the Ellis name.  Census records show that Frances brought her children into the marriage with Madison because, in 1870, all of the children were living together in the Madison McDaniel household.

Madison’s father was Benjamin McDaniel (abt. 1790-1875).  Benjamin was enslaved at Montpelier, likely as a cobbler (this was his occupation as listed on the 1870 census).  While the oral history I received, in which Benjamin served as a liveryman could also be true, I found no evidence of that in the record.  President Madison was inaugurated in March 1809, at which time Benjamin would have been about 19 years of age, so the story of Benjamin getting Madison to his inauguration on time is plausible. Unfortunately, I could not find any records one way or the other.  While enslaved, Benjamin had the surname of McDaniel.  A “slave pass” is on file at the New York Public Library that states, “Please to let Benjamin McDaniel pass to Dr. Henkal’s in New Market, in Shenandoah County, VA and return on Monday or Tuesday next to Montpelier in 1843 for Mrs. Madison.  June 1st, 1843.”  Although many enslaved people had surnames, these often were not recorded, so we were fortunate to find this record. 

The record itself about Benjamin is very sparse.  I attended an enslaved Descendants weekend at Montpelier in 2007, and was interviewed by a researcher while there.  I told the story of Benjamin serving as a liveryman, but the researcher said that they had no information about that, and, in fact, they had very little information about Benjamin at all.  At that time, the work with the descendant’s community at Montpelier was in its infancy, and I was assigned an intern to work with me to gather information about Benjamin.  The intern found much of the same information that I had established through my own family tree, but one of my colleagues, William Cox, directed the researchers to the “slave pass” (which they knew about) as well as Freedmen’s Bureau records (which they did not).  Cox also pointed them to the Dolley Payne Todd Madison’s Deed of Gift of 17 July 1844, in which Dolley Madison gave John P. Todd several enslaved persons, including one “Ben;” we cannot be sure this is Benjamin McDaniel.

In 1867, Benjamin (listed in the Freedmen’s Bureau file as “formerly a servant of President Madison”) filed a claim with the Freedmen’s Bureau stating that he had purchased his freedom from a Joseph Herndon and had also “laid by some money for his old age.”  In his claim, he stated that he lent one Erasmus Taylor (a white man) $50.00 in gold and was paid back $50.00 in Virginia script, which Benjamin declined, and which became virtually worthless.  Although I was not able to determine whether Benjamin was ever repaid, it was obvious that Benjamin was able to amass enough money not only to buy his freedom, but also to have money to lend.  It appears that Benjamin’s son Madison was also in the lending business because the Freedmen’s Bureau records a case in 1867 where a Mr. Perkins had pawned a watch with Madison.

In 1892, at age 25, Madison McDaniel’s son Tucker (my great-grandmother’s brother) moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, from Orange, Virginia, at age to better his opportunities.  He bred and raced horses and was able to buy a house in Pittsburgh, which allowed many of his nieces and nephews to move from Orange.  One such extended family member was my grandfather, Henry, who moved to Pittsburgh in about 1914 when he was 21.  His first wife Mamie died of pneumonia in 1921, leaving two young children.  My grandfather remarried shortly afterward and had nine more children with my grandmother Anna.  By the 1950s, my father’s generation took advantage of better opportunities for African Americans in the Pittsburgh Police Department, and four of the McDaniel brothers, including my father, became high-ranking police officers.  They took great pride in Benjamin and in his story, and they passed it down to the members of our generation and to our children’s generation as well.

Although the historical record is meager, each generation kept Benjamin’s story alive.  They wanted to be sure we wouldn’t forget who we were–who we are–and in so doing, work to make a better future. 

About the author: Patricia J. McDaniel is an attorney with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Austin, Texas.  She is a retired U.S. Army colonel, and a self-trained genealogist who has been researching family history since the 1970’s.

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