Slave Quarters Excavation at James Madison’s Montpelier
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Slave Quarters Excavation at James Madison’s Montpelier

September 12, 2019


What we’re excavating right now is the trash
bin. This is the downslope trash deposit where slaves are throwing the broken refuse from
the household. And it makes sense it’s downslope because it’s away from the yard, away from
the house. Looks like we’ve got a little bit of a pin there. That’s pretty cool.
I swear I didn’t put that there before you guys got here. A lot of times people get focused
on the fourth president of the United States, America’s first first lady Dolley Madison.
I’ll move over to a foot and a half. But we know that at any one time there would have
been a hundred enslaved community members living here, and it would have been children
and grandmothers and fathers and all kinds of multi-generations making this place possible.
This is pretty interesting because it’s indicative of you know either women sewing
out in this area or just being present out here in the field which is pretty cool. What
we’re trying to do is understand three different aspects of the site, where the structure is,
where the yard area is and then also recover trash deposits for the household items. It
was abandoned in the 1840s. It’s basically been untouched. Every nail, piece of glass,
ceramic that we find we have the utmost certainty it belongs to the folks that were living here,
which were Madison’s enslaved workers. This is the south yard domestic quarter complex
at Montpelier. This would have been the homes of all the domestic servants that worked and
lived in President Madison’s house. We started the excavation process with the understanding
of an insurance map that was drawn up in 1836 that laid out where the majority of these
buildings were. The guy who came out to draw the insurance map was a little bit off in
his dimensions so the archaeology really bore out the true locations of some of these buildings.
Proximity to the house is really shocking to people. People lived in each other’s
back pockets. When Madison was in the house, maybe writing his notes from the Constitutional
Convention, he would have smelled the fires, he would have heard the cooking, he would
have heard the children. It was a very integrated society in some ways and yet also very very
separate and you can see that juxtaposition here at Montpelier. Let’s go inside here
and you can take a look at some of these architectural features that would have been here.
They were duplex quarters so there were two separate dwellings here for two separate families
with a central chimney with a hearth on each side. Anywhere between eight and 16 people
might have been living in one of these structures, probably a family on each side. They had sash
windows which we know from the immense amount of window glass that we found through the
archaeology. But that’s not what life was like for the people who worked and lived in
the craft complex or further afield in the field quarters. Here there’s no window glass.
Window glass is something typically that an enslaved household is not going to invest
in. We’ve located two structures and possibly evidence for at least two or three others.
You would have had maybe six to eight people living in each one of these houses, so you’re
talking about you know anywhere from 35 to 50 people. This project is a four-year grant.
It was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and it’s focused on comparing
the households within the enslaved community here at Montpelier. We first found this transfer
print pattern in what’s called Dolley’s midden. It’s a trash deposit just down from
the mansion. This ceramic was throughout the slave quarters. We’re thinking that it might
be a way of maybe perhaps getting rid of the evidence of the breakage of a vessel. This
kind of decoration is something we don’t find in any of the Madison household deposits
whatsoever. This is an item that was being purchased by an enslaved individual for their
household. Before these timber structures were built this was a very pristine but very
false landscape. And with the archaeology we’ve been able to rebuild a far truer landscape
and we hope to be able to continue that with the craft complex and the field quarters.
Knowing the story of James and Dolley Madison, we know a lot from letters, from people writing
about them. But there’s this much more intricate and in some ways much more interesting and
a fuller American story when you can use archaeology to reveal what have been these hidden lives.

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  1. Let’s build a Japanese internment camp on the Roosevelt estate and while we’re at it…a Bay of Pigs memorial at the Kennedy compound. As long as you want to keep this disgusting part of history in your face forever lets be fair 

  2. why dont we brand jews with the star of david while we are at it? oh wait, we got that already; its called white privilege bracelets.

  3. Ever heard the old slave narratives recorded in the early 30's. Former slaves wishing they were back "home" as it was much easier and was a good life.

  4. Wow. You don't see blacks discovering their ancestors land and stories because the white man still on the land. We are still struggling with our true freedom.
    So sad to see the reconstruct this part of history. Oh wait American always was stolen

  5. "Winder glass is something typically that an enslaved household is not going to invest in" What an idiotic, white person's statement. Of course slaves are not going to "invest" in something that they are forced to live in. They had no money. They had no rights (like Reeves does). They are SLAVES!!!! Mat Reeves is simply looking at this from his white guy point of view. How ignorant is he? Does he want to whitewash the slave's history? Does he want to make slavery entertaining so it becomes a tourism industry so he and his co-conspirators could make money by showing the slave houses on James Madison's property? Is he trying to excuse himself from the reality of the horrors that black slaves had to endure from white slave masters? Disgusting. And where are the African American archaeologists? Or African American student archaeologists? Reeves probably won't allow it because it would be too controversial. Who ever heard of an African American archaeologist wanting to study his/her own history, right? Again, this is disgusting and typical of whitewashing history. Ugh. I was hoping for something better but this non-sensitive (white washing) real history is what we get. Blah!!!

  6. I think you are all full of crap! Who cares what you think of the way things were and the way things ought to be according to your sanctimonious attitudes. I would say what I think but I won’t expect you to care.

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