Life Story: Sukey (ca. 1795-ca. 1848)

Enslaved by the Madison Family

This resource is adapted from the New-York Historical Society’s Saving Washington: The New Republic and Early Reformers, 1790-1848 curriculum.

Martha Church, Cook in “Ordinary” Costume

Anne Marguérite Joséphine Henriette Rouillé de Marigny, Baroness Hyde de Neuville (artist), Martha Church, Cook in “Ordinary” Costume, 1808-10. New-York Historical Society.

Sukey was born around 1795. From birth, she was enslaved by Dolley and James Madison and lived on their Virginia plantation, Montpelier. When she was still a child, Sukey was selected to move to Washington, D.C. to live and work in the Madison’s new household.

Historians don’t know much about Sukey’s life while James Madison was president. She is not mentioned in Dolley’s letters until after the family moved back to Montpelier. What is known is that the enslaved people of the Madison household were responsible for the hard labor needed to keep the home and family in good order. Sukey would have assisted with the jobs traditionally assigned to women, such as cooking, cleaning, and laundry. When the Madisons moved into the White House, Sukey would have become part of the enslaved staff there. She probably also fled with the Madisons when the White House was attacked by the British during the War of 1812.

The first time Dolley mentions Sukey is in a letter from 1818. Dolley wrote that Sukey was caught stealing and that Dolley sent her away to one of the other Madison farms. Dolley does not acknowledge how traumatic it must have been for Sukey to be separated from her family and friends or why Sukey stole from her enslaver in the first place. Instead, Dolley focuses on her own inconvenience: “[I] find it terribly inconvenient to do without her, and suppose I shall take her again. . . . I must even let her steal from me, to keep from labor myself.” This failure to consider the feelings and experiences of enslaved people was a hallmark of U.S. slavery.

Dolley did bring Sukey back and, in a later letter, called her “my most efficient House servant.” Sukey became Dolley’s personal maid. She was responsible for caring for her enslaver and her enslaver’s wardrobe. Dolley saw her clothing as a source of influence and power, but for Sukey, it was endless work. Like many other enslavers, Dolley developed a close relationship with Sukey. She depended on Sukey to listen to her troubles and keep her secrets. Sukey would have known things about Dolley that others did not; for example, Dolley suffered from painful rheumatism, she had trouble with her eyes, and she was sometimes lonely and depressed.

There is no record of how Sukey felt about her relationship with her enslaver. The Madisons did not give her the opportunity to learn to read and write, so she could not leave a record of her own thoughts. There are also no pictures of Sukey. The watercolor painting included with this life story portrays a cook from the Federal period, who was about Sukey’s age. Sukey probably wore this style of clothing when she was a regular house servant. But when she became Dolley’s personal maid, she would have been frequently seen by visitors, so she was probably given nicer clothing, which would have reflected well on her enslavers. Historians believe Sukey had at least five children, but we do not know the circumstances around their conception. All of her children used the surname Stewart, and they all inherited the status of enslaved people from their mother, in keeping with Virginia law. When they were old enough, all of Sukey’s children became house servants for the Madison family.

When Dolley heard the news about the escape, she flew into a rage and took her anger out on the only person she still had total control over.

Sukey served Dolley for decades. She was so trusted that she attended James as he was dying. After James’ death, Dolley began to spend more time in Washington and brought Sukey with her. But Dolley’s dependence on Sukey did not protect Sukey’s children. Dolley’s son, Payne, was addicted to gambling, and Dolley had to spend all her money bailing him out of debt. To cover the expenses, she started selling her enslaved people. Dolley sold two of Sukey’s sons in 1843. She sold one of Sukey’s daughters in 1844, the same year her third son died while she was in Washington with her enslaver. The grief Sukey must have experienced at each of these separations is inconceivable.

In late 1847, Dolley decided to sell Sukey’s youngest child, 15-year-old Ellen. She instructed slave traders to capture Ellen at the public well while she was fetching water for the household. Ellen escaped the slave traders and went into hiding at a safe house for the next six months. On April 15, 1848, Ellen tried to escape on the schooner Pearl. She was one of 70 enslaved people who participated in this daring escape planned by Paul Jennings. Paul had once been enslaved by the Madisons, which may be how Ellen learned of the plan. Unfortunately, the Pearl was captured before it escaped Southern waters.

When Dolley heard the news about the escape, she flew into a rage and took her anger out on the only person she still had total control over. That very day, she sold Sukey to a local Washington family. Ellen was imprisoned with other runaways, and Dolley sold her to slave traders for $400. Local abolitionists began a massive fund-raising effort on Ellen’s behalf. One newspaper wrote: “Let me ask the good women, mothers and sisters, to pity the poor child. . . . Her mother is overwhelmed with grief.” By July 1848, enough money was raised to buy Ellen Stewart from a Baltimore slave pen for $475. Soon after, Ellen was reported to be living free in Boston. However, there is no record of how Sukey spent her final days. Her story is a testament to the cruelty practiced even by those who claimed to stand for the American ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.


  • Federal period: The early years of the United States, usually defined as 1790–1830.
  • schooner: A sailing ship with two or more masts.
  • War of 1812: A war between the U.S. and Britain fought between 1812–1815.

Discussion Questions

  • What does Sukey’s life story reveal about the lives of enslaved women in the Federal period?
  • Why is it important to know and tell Sukey’s story?
  • How does this story complicate our perception of James and Dolley Madison? Why is it necessary to include these kinds of stories when we learn about the founders of the United States?

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New-York Historical Society Curriculum Library Connections

Source Notes