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 Montpelier Magazine

JMU's archaeology field school reconstructs early Madison record at Montpelier

FOR the past 14 years, students and professors from James Madison University have collaborated with archaeologists from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to study Montpelier, the plantation of James Madison in Orange County.

Ironically, despite the prestige of this man who would become the fourth president of the United States, virtually all records of his plantation and personal life have been lost. The archaeological field schools jointly sponsored by the National Trust and the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at JMU are reconstructing the historical record of the initial settlement and development of Montpelier. This information has provided a better understanding of the family and plantation community that nurtured Madison's growth.

While Madison's associations with men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry are well known, the research conducted at Montpelier has shown that the love of learning and the strength of character that defined James Madison started with his grandmother, Frances Madison, and continued through the teachings of his mother, Nelly, and father, James Sr. Madison's character was a product of the strength and courage demonstrated by grandparents who were willing to leave the comforts of an established home in the settled Tidewater region of Virginia for the colony's Piedmont frontier. There, the labor of slaves transformed the forest frontier into a successful, prestigious plantation of 2,850 acres.

Following the untimely death of her husband, Ambrose, Frances Madison stood as a testimony to the resilience and fiber of early frontier women as she continued to develop the early plantation. James Sr., through the efforts of slaves numbering from 30 to 150, built on the success of his mother and developed Montpelier to its peak of prosperity. While most slaves worked as field hands and domestics, many were specialists and skilled craftsmen like cooks, millers and blacksmiths. This group of slaves formed a vibrant community on the estate and constituted the economic backbone of the working plantation.

The Early Years at Mount Pleasant

In 1723, Ambrose and Frances Madison sent an overseer and a gang of slaves to their Piedmont land tract to establish a working tobacco plantation that would be the future home of the Madison family. For nine years, the slaves and overseer cleared the land for farming and erected the buildings that would be used to the run the plantation. In 1732, Ambrose and Frances and their children, James Sr., Frances and Elizabeth, moved to their new Piedmont home, known first as Mount Pleasant and later as Montpelier.

Ambrose Madison's life at Mount Pleasant was short. Within six months of arriving, he was poisoned, allegedly by a slave from a neighboring plantation, and by the beginning of the fall harvest had died. Ambrose left 2,850 acres, including a well-furnished dwelling and numerous outbuildings, along with sheep, cattle, horses and a labor force of 29 enslaved Africans. In his absence, Frances raised her family on the frontier and ran the plantation, which ultimately flourished under her leadership. Given the resources under her control, Frances likely attracted many suitors as a young, widowed, planter's wife. Since she did not remarry, it is possible that she made a conscious decision to run her plantation independently. This ensured that her son, James Sr., inherited a prosperous economic venture upon reaching maturity. Even when her son came of age, however, Frances continued to have a hand in the running of the plantation. Through her continued presence as family matriarch, she left a lasting impression on the young James Madison Jr. It was here that the future president was taught to read by his aging grandmother and grew to appreciate the bounty of his Piedmont home.

Documents do not reveal the precise location of Frances Madison's Mount Pleasant plantation complex or the condition of plantation life during those early years. And with no above ground ruins evident, study of the archaeological record by Montpelier archaeologists and JMU professors and students has become extremely important. Near the family cemetery, they have identified an extensive plantation complex marked by a set of structural posts, two root cellars, a kitchen cellar and what appears to be the rear yard of the main dwelling.

Some of the more intriguing archaeological discoveries made at Mount Pleasant come from the kitchen cellar. In the summer of 2000, JMU field school students recovered close to a dozen wine bottles with seals that date to the 1750s, some bearing the name and others the initials of the president's father. A wide range of artifacts reveals the material culture of both the Madisons and the domestic slaves who would have resided near the main house. Food-related artifacts found at the kitchen provide dietary evidence of the enslaved community, and ceramics show plates and storage vessels used in food preparation and service. Students also recovered more personal items, including pins, thimbles, jewelry-type objects such as pressed-glass paste-gems, an inlaid Venetian glass bauble, cuff links, a lice comb and smoking pipes (both locally made and imported). An especially intriguing artifact is a badly abscessed human molar showing clear evidence of having been pulled. While the ornamental and decorative nature of some of these items suggests that they were luxury goods belonging to the Madison family, domestic slaves may also have used them.

The nondomestic slaves of the Madison plantation, those involved with growing crops, caring for livestock, smithing, milling or quarrying, would likely have lived away from the main house and close to the fields, tobacco houses, stables and barns where they labored. Archaeological surveys within the vicinity of Mount Pleasant have identified several possible locations for these quarters. Future excavations focusing on these living spots will add much to the understanding of enslaved communities on the frontier.

Despite all the archaeological work at Mount Pleasant, the exact location of the main house has proven elusive, perhaps because it was a wood-frame structure designed as a temporary dwelling while the family established the economic base of the plantation. A promising location for the original Mount Pleasant dwelling does exist, however, just east of the kitchen cellar. Magnetometer surveys (a method of remote sensing that detects magnetic fields within the ground) in this area have revealed large magnetic signals (known as anomalies) that are likely generated by greenstone, a locally quarried rock used for building foundations. Future work at Mount Pleasant by Montpelier archaeologists and JMU will investigate these anomalies and perhaps discover the remains of the Madisons' first dwelling.

The Move to Montpelier, the Era of James Madison Senior (1760 to 1801)

As the plantation began to reach the peak of its prosperity in the late 1750s, James Sr. built a new brick manor house almost one-third of a mile northeast of the initial Mount Pleasant plantation house. The main road to the town of Orange ran north-south across the west yard, no more than 150 feet in front of the mansion. The archaeological record makes clear that James Sr. was the head of a very diversified plantation that not only sustained his needs but also served the larger community around him. He ran a substantial water-powered merchant's grain mill and had an established iron works on the property. As a farmer, he raised tobacco, wheat, corn and other grains. He also invested substantially in sheep, cattle, oxen and horses. During his tenure, Montpelier expanded to include a large population of slaves. While archaeological research has had some success in locating the quarters for domestic slaves, far less is known of the location of quarters for field slaves, barns, stables and other support structures that would have been scattered purposefully across the plantation. It is possible that many duPont-era buildings are resting on the foundations of these earlier buildings.

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges confronting archaeologists is the extensive development of the Madisons' Montpelier by the socially prominent and active duPont family. Under their early to mid-20th-century ownership the grounds and the mansion were literally reborn and took on an era of social activity not seen since the time of President Madison. While archaeologists initially feared that this duPont reinvigoration had destroyed the structures of the Madison estate, they quickly discovered an extensive complex of Madison-era remains.

These remains show that Montpelier plantation structures were built in a line with the mansion as its center. To the south of the mansion stood several domestic buildings including the mansion's detached kitchen, with a well located to the west and at least one or two slave quarters farther south. East of the southernmost slave quarter, the land appears to be intentionally terraced, suggesting that a formal garden extended into this area, while excavations have exposed the remains of a paling-style fence and what appear to be ornamentally laid brick. While arrayed in a linear pattern, the main house, kitchen, southernmost slave quarter and ornamental garden were all tied together by a curvilinear complex of set stone walkways. These walkways followed the contours of the terrain, facilitating the natural traffic flow among the structures.

Excavations at the detached kitchen have recovered samples of the Madisons' ceramics and provided evidence of liberal portions of pork, beef, chicken and the occasional Chesapeake Bay oyster in their diet. The southernmost slave cabin appears to have been a one-story, wood-frame building with a central chimney opening into rooms to the north and south. Few pottery and food remains have been found with this structure, suggesting that food consumption for the families occupying the structure took place elsewhere or that stews and other one-pot dishes were prepared in this area - meals for which few remains would be present in the archaeological record.

To the south of this structure was a second building that may also have been a slave quarter. Archaeologists have not completed the study of this building, but it is interesting because the of the wealth of food and other domestic debris associated with it, including ceramics and animal bones - again mostly pork - which suggests that food consumption and preparation occurred at the site. Probably designed for a single family or small group, this relatively small structure had a cellar beneath what appears to be a puncheon or wood plank floor.

The complex of structures to the north of the mansion is less well known, but archaeological testing places probable structure sites along a ridge and just east of the road to the town of Orange. Domestic activities are in evidence at the most northerly end of this area, where there is a set of what may be small domestic quarters and artifacts that suggest Madison-era occupation. To the east, a ravine called Walnut Hollow still retains an extensive grove of walnut trees, many of which could date to the Madison occupation. The most significant find in this area is the remains of deeply buried debris associated with an iron works operated by James Sr. The discovery of these remains spurred historic research revealing that the iron used at the smithy came from as far west as the Mossy Creek Forge in Augusta County, while bar iron and occasionally steel were imported from England and Germany. Research into ledgers kept by James Sr. reveals that while the blacksmiths produced many items used in the operation of the plantation, they also produced wares for sale in the larger community.

Ties with the Shenandoah Valley appear to be social as well as economic. In 1783, Nelly Madison, the president's sister, married Isaac Hite Jr., the scion of a very prominent and wealthy family in southern Frederick County. This relationship appears to have been a cordial one, and existing accounts suggest that James Jr. was a regular visitor to Nelly's home of Belle Grove. In fact, James and Dolley spent part of their honeymoon at Belle Grove.

James Madison Junior Period

After marrying Dolley Payne Todd in 1794, James and his new wife lived briefly in Philadelphia. Upon his return to Montpelier in 1797, James increased the size of the main house by extending the north end by 30 feet, creating what was essentially a duplex. The original portion of the house remained the home of his parents, while the young couple and Dolley's son, Payne Todd, resided in the addition.

With James Sr.'s death in 1801, the ownership of Montpelier passed to his son. While James Jr. maintained the working plantation, it is evident that he instituted certain aesthetic changes befitting a man of public office. With an interest in gardening enhanced through ties with Thomas Jefferson, Madison worked to improve the visual landscape around the mansion. He received seeds from Jefferson and others overseas, exchanged plants with him and even participated in a contest with him to see who would produce the first peas of the year. Madison introduced large trees, including cedars of Lebanon, to the lands north and south of the manor and possibly oversaw the expansion of the ornamental garden. He moved his father's smithy, constructed a large icehouse on its site and then embellished it with an ornate temple. To maintain a sense of balance, Madison may have added a small circular hedge garden at the same distance from the house but on the south side. Both of these features remain.

At this point, it is impossible to confirm other changes Madison made to the organization of the plantation complex. Certainly, as James became active in the new nation, first as secretary of state for Jefferson and then as president, he spent much time away from Montpelier. Yet, as the home of the president, Montpelier took on a social identity of international stature, with Dolley Madison being very much a part of this social and political world. At the end of his presidency, James and Dolley retired to Montpelier where James lived out his years compiling his notes on the Constitution and receiving important guests.

Following James' death in 1836, Dolley sold the plantation in 1844 and moved to Washington, where she spent her remaining years actively involved in the social life of the nation's capital. With that sale began the loss of the historical record of James Madison's private life. The Madison record remained largely blank until the National Trust acquired Montpelier from the duPonts in the 1980s, and until 1986 when professional and student archaeologists at Montpelier and JMU began to reconstruct it from the evidence the Madisons and enslaved African-Americans left behind.

By Clarence R. Geier, Ph.D., JMU anthropology professor and Matthew Reeves, Ph.D., Montpelier archaeologist