top of page

Happy Birthday, Dolley!

Watercolor by Quaker Artist John B. Collins - 1869

May 20, 1768 Dolley Payne was born at New Garden settlement in North Carolina. Her parents, John and Mary (Coles) Payne, had moved from Hanover County, Virginia to New Garden in 1765. Dolley was a "birthright" Quaker as her mother, Mary Coles Payne, was Quaker by heritage and her father, John Payne a former Anglican, by conversion. Dolley was not yet a year old when her father moved them back to Hanover County. While the reasons are not clearly established, is was possibly because more family was in Virginia than North Carolina; and family was everything.

Richard Cote expressed the importance of family, friends, and the church in Colonial America very well in his book "Strength and Honor - The Life of Dolley Madison". He wrote "During the colonial period, with no national government or political parties and only weak provincial governments, it was the interrelationship between family members, relatives, friends, and business colleagues, bolstered by the church, that provided the social glue which held society together." Dolley's life-long focus was arguably spent on "nurturing close-knit and cordial relationships with her vast cousinage demonstrated the importance of ancestry, parentage, and family in her life and the life of the young nation." (Cotes, p. 17)

Before Dolley had turned one year old, the family returned to Hanover County, Virginia. Family tradition (lore*) has it that the Paynes lived (did not own) at the estate known as Scotchtown when they arrived. ("Lore" is often respected though not accepted as fact.) In this case it is more likely that they were frequent and extended visitors to Scotchtown because Patrick Henry was their mother's cousin.

Image: Scotchtown, home of Patrick Henry from 1771-1776.

The confusion probably arises because 1771 was when Henry made his first payment on Scotchtown and John Payne purchased 176 acres of Coles Hill, approximately 10 miles from Scotchtown; owned by Dolley's maternal grandfather, William Coles, an Irish immigrant. Her family probably lived in Scotchtown while their home was being constructed on Coles Hill. A modest home in her lifetime, no structures remain on the property today.

"Coles Hill was about six miles from the Cedar Creek Meeting House, a focal point for Quakers in that part of the County. There, John and Mary Payne both served as clerks and elders of the local congregation. According to some accounts, Dolley received at least part of her education at Cedar Creek as well (which would have meant a six-mile trek each way to school). Whether or not that account is true, the Paynes were on the subscribers' list for the school there. Accounts about her early schooling are few and unreliable, but she surely received at least a rudimentary education somewhere -- even if it was at home -- and at some point even acquired a little French. Even if Dolley never went to school at the Cedar Creek Meeting House, it certainly would have been an important center in the lives of this devout Quaker family until they moved away in 1783." (Uzzell)

In 1783, a time when those of the Quaker faith were turning away from owning enslaved people as being contrary to their faith, Dolley's father manumitted his slaves and moved the family to Philadelphia to begin a new life. From this point onward, Dolley's life eventually becomes anything but "typical" for a Quaker woman.

To learn more about the life of Dolley Madison visit:

Other great resources can be found in various books and Internet-based sites as well as through UVA's Dolley Madison Project.


Cotes, Richard N., "Strength and Honor - The Life of Dolley Madison". Corinthian Books (2005), Mount Pleasant, S.C.


bottom of page