Montpelier, Archaeology at


Archaeology at Montpelier, the Orange County home of James Madison, began in the 1980s and continued over subsequent decades. Settled in the 1720s by Madison’s grandfather, the site was first called Mount Pleasant and included a modest plantation house. In 1764, Madison’s father arranged the construction of a new, two-story brick mansion about a half-mile away, and in 1797, Madison himself began an expansion project, creating what he called Montpelier. Dolley Madison sold the property in 1844, and in 1901 the du Pont family became its ninth owners, more than doubling the mansion’s size. In 1984 the National Trust for Historic Preservation took over the 2,650-acre estate, and archaeological excavations began soon after, first at Mount Pleasant and then at Montpelier. Investigations revealed that the original Mount Pleasant house was one and a half stories with a shed, kitchen, cellar, and at least one slave quarter. At nearby Montpelier, meanwhile, investigations uncovered a carriage road and fenceline and demonstrated how the formal grounds grew extensively from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, encompassing as much as five acres. Archaeologists also excavated a farm complex that appears to have been abandoned after 1844 and several sites associated with the American Civil War (1861–1865), including the winter quarters of South Carolina soldiers.


Mount Pleasant Farm

Mount Pleasant was one of the earliest sites of English settlement in Piedmont Virginia. Located in what was then Spotsylvania County and later Orange County, the estate was part of a 4,675-acre parcel of land that had originally belonged to Colonel James Taylor, the surveyor of King William and King and Queen counties. In 1723 Taylor gave it to his two sons-in-law, Ambrose Madison and Thomas Chew, who cleared and built on it as the law required. In March or April 1732, Madison—the grandfather of the future U.S. president—moved his family into the overseer’s house, constructed around 1726. Approximately twenty-nine enslaved people lived on the farm, which grew tobacco and corn. In July 1732, or less than six months after his arrival, Madison died; three enslaved people were later convicted of poisoning him.

Architectural Plans for Montpelier

Management of the estate transferred to Ambrose Madison’s widow, Frances Taylor Madison, and their eldest son, James Madison Sr., who continued to build. Sometime about 1764, Madison Sr. arranged the construction of a new, two-story brick mansion about half a mile from Mount Pleasant. From 1797 to 1800, James Madison Jr. and his wife, Dolley Madison, had enslaved laborers expand and improve the house. They lived there with James Madison’s father, Madison Sr., who died in 1801, and his mother, Eleanor Conway Madison, who died in 1829. The younger James Madison called the property Montpelier, which as of 1800 included about 5,000 acres and at least eighty enslaved people. From 1809 to 1812, Madison added another room and one-story wings to each end of the house. He died there in 1836, and eight years later Dolley Madison sold the property to Henry W. Moncure, a Richmond merchant. After six subsequent owners William du Pont Sr. purchased Montpelier in 1901. He more more than doubled the size of the house, adding second stories to the wings and new wings at the rear of the house. In 1984, the du Pont family transferred ownership to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Mount Pleasant

Archaeology at the Mount Pleasant site began late in the 1980s and resumed from 1997 to 2003. Despite having been plowed early in the twentieth century, dozens of features survived, including the remains of four cellars. Two of these are stone-lined and associated with the main house, while two others are sub-floor pits, one for the main house and another for an earlier structure, possibly a slave quarter. One of the first features to be excavated was a root cellar and borrow pit that contained the burnt remains of an early structure dating to the 1720s. (Borrow pits are areas in which material has been dug up and taken for use elsewhere.) This site is likely linked to an overseer and group of enslaved laborers who worked to improve the land prior to Ambrose Madison’s arrival in 1732. It was burned intentionally to make way for construction of the main house.

James Madison Sr.

The layout of the main house complex in which the Madison family lived from 1732 to 1765 was established through excavations of the various cellars at the site. These include the stone-lined cellar of the kitchen, which finally burned late in the 1790s, and the burnt remains of the main house. The latter likely was scavenged for any hardware and building materials as James Madison Sr. built his new house in the mid-1760s then shortly after burned to remove it from the landscape. The layout of the Mount Pleasant complex consists of a one-and-a-half-story dwelling with a shed addition, a kitchen with a cellar, and at least one post-in-ground slave quarter. The architectural remains found in the cellar holes provide excellent information on the interior and exterior appearances of both structures. Some of the most intriguing sets of data come from the post-Madison occupation of Mount Pleasant. Found within the burnt remains of the kitchen are the household ceramics and items of an overseer who lived in this structure during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. These same people used the nearby dwelling’s cellar hole as a trash pit, where archaeologists recovered a rich set of plant and animal remains that provided information on their diet.

Montpelier Mansion Grounds

With the information gathered at Mount Pleasant, the Montpelier Archaeology Department turned its attention to the next large project—the restoration of the Montpelier mansion. From 2002 to 2006, the team conducted a series of surveys to determine both the extent of archaeological remains and the appearance of the mansion grounds. Surveys separated those parts of the grounds associated with the 1901 du Pont additions and those with the Madisons. In particular, excavations in the rear lawn of the mansion revealed how much Madison had reshaped the formal terrain of the mansion grounds between 1808 and 1812. These excavations discovered a series of fill deposits used to establish the level front and rear lawns and side yards. Other work identified rooms that were used for storage, temporary sleeping quarters, kitchens, and general work areas.

Additional excavations helped determine the appearance of the mansion grounds in both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 2002 archaeologists uncovered the remains of two brick walls on either side of the eighteenth-century core of the mansion. In 2009 these walls were revealed to be the remains of flanking outbuildings that once had framed the front grounds of the mansion. A forecourt used to receive guests was located between these two structures, and beyond them lay work areas, including the service complex to the south and a massive blacksmith shop to the north. These buildings were demolished during the construction of 1808–1812, although archaeologists discovered one trash deposit dating to 1797–1801, another dating to the American Revolution (1775–1783), and a rubble deposit dating to 1808.

Excavations undertaken in 2006 and 2007 helped determine the nineteenth-century appearance of the formal grounds, which extended across five acres and were much larger than in the previous century. A carriage road, which had appeared in visitor accounts and sketches, was uncovered, as well as post holes for the front fence and the location of a curved gate entrance to the mansion’s front lawn. In 2008, work on the south yard uncovered a fenceline that defined the southern boundary of the complex and provided evidence that quarters for enslaved house servants had been enclosed within the formal grounds and within sight of the main mansion. Investigations of those quarters continued from 2010 to 2018, revealing evidence for relatively substantial framed structures with wooden floors, brick or stone chimneys, and glazed windows.

Excavations Near Neoclassical Temple at Montpelier

The larger service complex south of the house featured three duplex slave quarters, two smokehouses, and a detached kitchen. All of this was set within the formal grounds for the mansion, and as such the Madisons maintained careful control over the appearance of the structures and others’ ability to see them. These six buildings have been reconstructed based on archaeological evidence. Archaeologists worked with descendants of the enslaved community to uncovered thousands of artifacts in the South Yard.

Excavations at a midden, or trash, deposit in 2007 revealed ceramics associated with the Madisons’ retirement years (1818–1836). Dubbed Dolley’s Midden, it yielded a collection of Paris porcelains, English transfer printed tea and tablewares, and Chinese export porcelains. Combined with the finds from the 1797–1801 trash deposit, the ceramics offer an intriguing look at the couple’s changing style and how their time in Washington, D.C., (1801–1816) influenced their tastes and dining patterns.

Farm Complex

Quartz Crystal

Surveys and excavations carried out from 2003 until 2005, prior to the construction of a new visitor center, revealed the heart of the Madisons’ farm complex. There archaeologists uncovered the remains of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century field-slave quarters; the locations of barns; work areas, including a craft complex; an overseer’s house adjacent to the old Mount Pleasant complex; a blacksmith complex; and roadways that connected this space to the mansion grounds. Excavations suggest that the entire area was abandoned following the sale of the Montpelier property in 1844. The extant structures decayed in place and the area remained in pasture. Several of these slave quarters were excavated in 2012–2013 and revealed well-preserved deposits and intact yard features such as pits, hearths, and work surfaces. Archaeologists determined that the quarters had been log structures with stick and mud chimneys. By way of contrast, enslaved house servants living in the south yard had lived in timber frame houses with raised wooden floors and masonry chimneys.

Archaeologists returned to the Farm Complex in 2019 to excavate the overseer’s house. The overseer’s site overlooks the entirety of the complex. The sites in the Farm Complex will be excavated to achieve a better understanding of the blacksmith shops, stables, and work areas.

Civil War–Era Sites

Confederate General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson

A second group of sites at Montpelier are confined to the vast woodlands on the property. Within the 1,800 acres of woodlots are a series of Civil War camps, the earliest of which dates to the summer of 1862 and the encampment of Confederate soldiers under the command of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. The latest dates to the summer and winter of 1863–1864 and the encampment of Confederate general Cadmus M. Wilcox’s division following the Gettysburg Campaign. Among Wilcox’s men was the South Carolina brigade of Samuel McGowan, which consisted of five regiments that made five camps in a 120-acre woodlot. (Each camp contained Palmetto uniform buttons, found either by archaeologists or relic hunters.) Archaeological surveys carried out in 2002–2003 revealed between 100 and 120 hut features, the most distinctive of which are shallow depressions often arranged in straight rows. These were borrow pits used for daubing the log huts and stick and mud chimneys. Between these depressions are rock mounds, or the remains of stone-lined fireboxes set within the chimneys. Floors maight have been built from clay. Other camps were excavated and, like the McGowan camps, were located in woodlots that dated back to the 1840s, most likely fields abandoned sometime early in the 1800s.

In 2008–2009 archaeologists surveyed a large tract of woods on the northern portion of the Montpelier property. There they found at least six slave quarters from the late antebellum era that also contained assemblages of Civil War artifacts—most notably related to the cavalry. These slave quarters were likely abandoned by the time troops arrived, with slaves escaping to Union lines in Culpeper. These detachments occupied these abandoned slave quarters.

Gilmore Cabin

Another excavated site had once served as the home of George Gilmore, an enslaved man at Montpelier who built a cabin there in the years following emancipation. While dendrochronological borings, used to analyze the patterns of tree rings, revealed the cabin to have been built in 1873, documentary records indicate that Gilmore and his wife, Polly, lived at the site as early as 1867. They leased the land from Madison’s great-nephew, Dr. James Madison, and lived near what remained of huts from a Confederate officers’ camp. These huts featured much more substantial architecture than nearby regimental huts—masonry chimney bases, for instance, and there is evidence of raised wooden floors—and may have served as the general staff quarters for McGowan. Immediately adjacent to these huts were the remains of a small outbuilding with a stone chimney base. The building’s structural outline conforms exactly with a cabin shown in a photo from 1910, suggesting that this may have been the original structure that the Gilmores built after the war. The chimney and logs for this structure were likely repurposed from the officers’ huts and the stones for the chimney were later reused for the standing chimney of the cabin built in 1873.

Colonel James Taylor patents 4,675 acres along the Southwest Mountains in what later becomes Orange County, doing so in the names of his sons-in-law Ambrose Madison and Thomas Chew.
An overseer's house is constructed on land belonging to Ambrose Madison in western Spotsylvania County (later Orange County).
Spring 1732
Ambrose Madison, Thomas Chew, and their families move from Caroline County to their new land along the Southwest Mountains in what later becomes Orange County.
August 27, 1732
Ambrose Madison dies at Mount Pleasant, his estate in the part of Spotsylvania County that later becomes Orange County. He is buried two days later in the family cemetery.
James Madison Sr. and Eleanor Conway Madison arrange for a starter home to be built about half a mile from Mount Pleasant, at the site of the future Montpelier main house.
ca. 1764
James Madison Sr. constructs a two-story brick mansion on his property in Orange County. It would later come to be known as Montpelier.
James and Dolley Madison move from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Montpelier.
James and Dolley Madison expand and improve James Madison Sr.'s mansion, or what they come to call Montpelier.
February 27, 1801
James Madison Sr. dies at Montpelier, his plantation home in Orange County.
James Dinsmore and John Neilson work as craftsmen primarily responsible for the expansion of James Madison's plantation, Montpelier, and the addition of many classical details, including a Doric garden temple.
April 1817
James Madison, his wife, Dolley, and members of their household return to their plantation, Montpelier, after living in Washington, D.C.
February 11, 1829
Eleanor Conway Madison, the widow of James Madison Sr., dies at Montpelier, her plantation home in Orange County.
June 28, 1836
James Madison dies at Montpelier. His slave Paul Jennings will later write, "He ceased breathing as quietly as the snuff of a candle goes out."
Henry W. Moncure, a Richmond merchant, owns Montpelier, in Orange County.
August 8, 1844
Dolley Madison sells the Madison plantation, Montpelier, to Henry W. Moncure.
Benjamin Thornton, of Gomersall, Leeds, England, owns Montpelier, in Orange County.
William H. Mcfarland, a Richmond banker, owns Montpelier, in Orange County.
Alfred V. Scott, of Alabama, owns Montpelier, in Orange County.
Thomas J. Carson, a Baltimore banker and native of Ireland, owns Montpelier, in Orange County. He remains in Baltimore while his brother, Frank Carson, lives on the property.
Business partners Louis F. Detrick, of Baltimore, and William L. Bradley, of Boston, own Montpelier, in Orange County.
Charles King Lennig, secretary to William duPont Sr., briefly owns Montpelier, in Orange County, while negotiating a transfer to his employer. He never lives at the property.
William DuPont Sr. owns Montpelier, in Orange County.
Marion duPont Scott owns Montpelier, in Orange County.
The heirs of Marion duPont Scott transfer ownership of Montpelier, in Orange County, to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Late 1980s
Archaeological investigation of Montpelier, in Orange County, begins.
  • Reeves, Matthew. A Brief Introduction to the Montpelier Mansion Landscape. 2009.
  • Reeves, Matthew and Clarence Geier. Under the Forest Floor: Excavations at a Confederate Camp, Montpelier, Virginia. In Huts and History. Clarence Geier, David Orr, and Matthew Reeves, eds. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2006.
  • Reeves, Matthew and Kevin Fogle. Excavations at the Madison’s First Home, Mount Pleasant (1723–1800); Summary of Archaeological Investigations 1997–2004. 2008.
  • Rich, Melissa and Matthew Reeves. Object Report for Dolley’s Midden. Report on File, Montpelier Archaeology Department, 2009.
  • Schneider, Brian and Matthew Reeves and James Barton. Excavations at the Madison Field Slave Complex (Tobacco Barn Quarter-44OR333): Excavation Seasons 2004–2005. 2010.
  • Schneider, Brian and Adam Marshall, and Matthew Reeves. Excavations at the Madison Farm Complex: Excavation Seasons 2003–2005. 2010.
  • Tinkham, Kimberly and Matthew Reeves. Mansion Cellars Report, Excavation Season 2005. 2010.
APA Citation:
Reeves, Matthew. Montpelier, Archaeology at. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/montpelier-archaeology-at.
MLA Citation:
Reeves, Matthew. "Montpelier, Archaeology at" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 21 May. 2024
Last updated: 2022, January 25
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