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'Understanding this lost plantation'

'Understanding this lost plantation'

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House slaves lived in the South Yard at James Madison's Montpelier, where timber frames represent the footprint of the enslaved community. photo courtesy the Montpelier Foundation

  The compelling stories of an early American president's slaves continue to emerge from the soil at James Madison's Montpelier in Orange County.

  Archaeological discoveries stemming from the ongoing dig that began three years ago provide a glimpse into the life of African Americans living in bondage at various sites adjacent to and around the presidential estate.

  Most recently, two newly revealed subfloor pits at a site near the Montpelier Visitor's Center, a distance from the mansion, provide an initial footprint for the quarters of the president's field slaves.

  "Because the fields have lain fallow since Madison's time, the sites we are discovering are virtually undisturbed," Matthew Reeves, director of archeology and landscape restoration, said. "We are meticulously documenting available evidence from the sites so we can begin to reconstruct the farm in a way that will authentically represent the complexity of life on the plantation."

  With the aid of an insurance plat dating to 1837, archaeologists have found more than a dozen sites where field, house and skilled artisan slaves once lived.

  The dig in the South Yard next to the presidential mansion occurred in 2011 with timber frames since resurrected on the site to represent the footprint of an enslaved complex that waited on a president, first lady Dolley Madison and their many guests. Enslaved domestics lived in the South Yard in three duplexes working in two smokehouses and a detached kitchen, according to discoveries.

  Excavations in this area also revealed a roasting pit - likely the location where the meats for Dolley's famous July 4 barbecues were prepared, according to Reeves' recently published article in a 2012 edition of the Journal of Mid Atlantic Archeology, Slave Households at James Madison's Montpelier.

  "The buildings within the South Yard were laid out on the same orientation as the mansion house and placed such that their walls aligned with the mansion walls," the article said. "These slave homes were also designed to be seen from the mansion as they were less than 50 feet away, in direct sight of the rear lawn where Dolley held her famous fetes, and in direct sight of the terrace atop the one-story south wing."

  A fascinating aspect of the South Yard's situation to the main house was that the slave dwellings and work buildings "were designed to be seen by guests," Reeves said. "There are period reminiscences by visitors who recall walking from the house to the quarters to bring the enslaved residents 'scraps' from the breakfast table."

  Evidence suggests Madison designed the living space for his house slaves to represent idealized worker housing: duplexes and tidy cottages with raised wooden floors, sashed windows with glass, masonry chimneys and space below structures to allow for air circulation, Reeves notes. A disadvantage of the formal design would have been felt in the physical warmth of the structure, more exposed to drafts and cold weather, the archaeological study found.

  Most recently excavated from a different site at Montpelier, a ways from the main house, were the aforementioned living quarters for Madison's field slaves who worked his farm in the early 19th century. Two rectangular pits filed with hearth ash and trash deposits sit about 80 feet apart suggesting the location for the log structures that the field slaves called home, Reeves wrote in a blog at

  Surprising at the site was the lack of hearths or other structural elements like glass or brick, an indication that "the homes contained the barest of manufactured materials and consisted of logs, clay floors, and stick and mud chimneys," Reeves said. "Similar to other quarters for field slaves in the Virginia Piedmont, slaves at Montpelier were provided very little for the construction of their homes."

  Most exciting about the site of the field slave dwellings was its relatively undisturbed condition.

  "Once abandoned in the 1840s, the homes decayed and the site was used as pasture for the next 160 years," Reeves said. "It is one of the few field quarters in Virginia that has escaped the plowing of the late 19th and 20th century and is an archaeological treasure."

  Following the former president's death in 1836, the enslaved families at Montpelier were sold and dispersed over a 10-year period before Mrs. Madison sold the home in 1844. By the time he died, the Father of the Constitution and architect of the Bill of Rights owned 108 slaves, including one Paul Jennings, a house slave who shaved the president every day for 16 years and traveled with him to Washington.

  Jennings, born a slave at Montpelier in 1799, eventually purchased his own freedom and in 1865 published what is believed to be the first White House memoir, “A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison." Less than 100 copies of the thin volume were ever published though one survives on display at Montpelier today.

  Upon gaining his own freedom, Jennings went on to get a federal job in the pension office and became a homeowner. He was activist for freedom whose three sons fought for the Union in the Civil War, according to Elizabeth Downing Taylor's excellent book, "A Slave in the White House," published last year.

  Other slave dwelling sites previously excavated at Montpelier include the Stable Quarter (homes for enslaved livestock handlers) and the Tobacco Barn Quarter, another field slave site uncovered last year. While the enslaved artisans who worked with horses and in the gardens did not come in direct contact with the many guests who visited the Madisons, they did come in contact with the slaves that accompanied guests, Reeves' paper said. This contact brought a daily flow of activities and bustle of news into the service space.

 "As such, while activities in the Stable Yard were spatially distinct from the mansion grounds, this space allowed inhabitants to be privy to the events that took place at the mansion and provided the opportunity for them to meet new contacts from the outside world," said Reeves.

  Further evidence from the many digs revealed that house and field slaves shared household goods including ceramic dishes cast out from the mansion, equestrian-related items and woodworking tools. With the movement of these objects would inevitably have come the passing of ideas and knowledge, according to Reeves. Deeper study of this sharing of objects could offer more clues about the degree of interaction between the various slaves at Montpelier, the archaeologist said, which could then be compared to the labor role and spatial order Madison imposed on his slaves.

  "By seeing how these two variables interact, we can gain a better understanding of community formation within confines of plantation slavery and begin to measure agency and identity within the community," said Reeves.

  The ongoing research and discovery at the various slave home sites at Montpelier, funded by a four-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, is creating a more complete picture of life on the plantation.

  "What remains 'invisible' today at Madison's home is the plantation itself - the homes of the enslaved work force, the network of fields, the work areas, and the roads that characterized this Virginia plantation," Reeves said in his paper. "The first step in understanding this lost plantation landscape is conducting in-depth research on the enslaved community that called Montpelier home."

  At a 2011 ceremony in the basement of the mansion where slaves once worked, descendants of those born into bondage there honored their ancestors while the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court of Virginia offered challenging remarks.

  "We have to remember that though we speak today in terms of archeology and science, digital reconstructions, shovel test pits and electromagnetic conduction to see if we can find a fragment or a bone, we are talking abuot the lives of people," said Judge John Charles Thomas of Richmond. "I don't think we ever have to dig into the ground to understand the pain of not being free."




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