A Student of History

May 14, 2007

Montpelier Dig

Filed under: Historic Places — John Maass @ 3:38 pm

This story from the Rocky Mountain News tells of digging at the James Madison estate at Montpelier, in Va.

After digging around James Madison’s sprawling Virginia estate, Matthew Reeves, an archaeologist, has determined that the former president spent a lot of time and money preparing for guests to arrive. Anticipating visits from hundreds of academics and dignitaries once he returned home from the White House, Madison undertook massive efforts to revamp his estate. He directed his slaves to build an artificial lawn, almost unheard of at the time, by moving thousands of tons of earth.

He also built several structures on his 5,000 acres, including a terraced garden and a neoclassical temple that sat over an ice house.

“They’re going to be receiving guests and having parties,” Reeves said. “They’re essentially making the family home not just into a functioning plantation, but something that would be a destination for visitors.” As the head of archaeology at Madison’s Montpelier estate, Reeves has started to research the gardens and lawns as part of a reconstruction project.

And like a lot of archaeologists trying to reconstruct early American estates, he is finding that these landscapes reveal a lot about life in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The third member of the Virginia Dynasty of Presidents, Madison built his Montpelier in Orange County to the north of Jefferson and Monroe. Their plan was to have this layout of estates across the rolling Piedmont region of central Virginia. Only about an hour’s driving time from Monticello and Ashlawn, Montpelier is a magnificent site. As you approach it across the single lane bridge and the private access road, you truly experience the vast expanse of a Virginia plantation estate. Across acres of lush green rises the prominent yellow house which is much more imposing than either Jefferson’s or Monroe’s homes.

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