While visitors are aware that Montpelier is the plantation home of the Madison family and dozens of enslaved families, they are not cognizant that the present-day boundaries of Montpelier encompass five other plantations that date back to the 1820s and earlier. For the enslaved Americans residing at Montpelier and at these various plantations, the proximity between plantations provided opportunities to expand their community and led to friendships and family ties. In almost all cases, there likely existed connections between these communities since the owners of these plantations were interrelated (Madison, Willis, Newman, and Smith family trees all being intertwined with economic if not family ties). The Montpelier Descendant Community of today is made up of descendants from the plantations discussed in this post along with many others. Their ancestors took the opportunity that proximity gave to extend their spheres of interaction, news, and influence. As such, life for enslaved Americans went well beyond the plantation boundaries of their enslavers.
What causes Montpelier to encompass so many plantations is that its land boundaries have changed over time. When Dolley Madison sold Montpelier in 1844, the Montpelier plantation boundaries were back to their earlier 1723 patent boundaries and remained this way well into the late 19th century. In 1901, William duPont purchased Montpelier and immediately started to acquire adjacent land lots. By 1920, the duPont version of Montpelier consisted of around 5000 acres of property. When Marion duPont Scott willed Montpelier to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1984, she had reduced the property to around 2640 acres, which is the acreage The Montpelier Foundation manages today.
So the question remains, what were these other plantations and what portion of them are on Montpelier’s landmass today? The map above shows the present-day boundaries of the Montpelier property (white dashed line) against the various plantations in the area in the 1820s. Archaeological surveys have located sites along these boundaries that potentially relate to intersections of communities. The following list provides a very brief description for each of these plantations and some of the sites we have located on boundaries with Montpelier, many of which have special significance for Montpelier:
Owned by the Newman family, Bloomfield served as Montpelier’s neighbor to the southwest for many generations of enslaved families. The main house at one time stood where Grelen Nursery is located today. Over the course of time between the 1820s and 1840s, James Newman’s original 2000-acre land mass of Bloomfield was divided by his son (Reuben Newman) upon Reuben’s death in 1848 amongst his three sons, distributing land and slaves from James Newman’s original plantation. One of these later-dating plantation homes, Arlington (1848) survives at Montpelier along with the property’s only extant slave quarter. The post emancipation settlement of Jacksontown has origins at the Bloomfield plantation. Archaeological surveys along the property line on Chicken Mountain revealed a cook shed that potentially was used by the enslaved communities when they were working their garden plots in off hours.
Owned by the Smith family, Tetley plantation was formed from several land blocks, one of which was a section of Montpelier, purchased by James Madison, Sr. in 1780 and later sold by his son, James Madison, Jr. to William Smith in 1825. Later the south central portion of this landmass (purple on map) was sold by James A. Madison (who purchased it from Smith) to George and Polly Gilmore and became the site of the present-day Gilmore Cabin. Archaeological surveys revealed a potential slave cemetery at the boundary of the Montpelier/Tetley property line near what is known as Tagg’s Island.
Purchased by John Willis from the south east section of Montpelier lands in 1847, John arranged for his house, Rockwood, to be built off what is today Chicken Mountain Road. Today the eastern area of Montpelier’s woods contains a recently discovered plantation complete with the archaeological remains of barns, slave quarters and field features in a mature hardwood forest. Based on a combination of deed boundary research, archaeological survey, and the study of LiDAR maps, the Willis plantation was formed from a quarter or subdivision of Montpelier that dates back to the 18th century. Of particular interest are the agricultural ditches in the bottom land that likely drained the area where Madison had enslaved laborers plant tobacco. See the following WebMap that discusses sites found at Rockwood.
North East Corner of Property
The remaining area of Montpelier with no plantation boundaries shown on the map consisted of smaller land tracts owned by the Beverly, Houseworth, and Newman families. Sections of this land were purchased in the 1880s by Black families (Walker and Taylor families) and subsistence farms were carved out of these lands. Archaeological excavations in 2014 revealed the homesite of the original Taylor Walker family with the present-day Sarah Johnson House being a later structure built by the family and later (1903) purchased from the family by the duPonts and as staff housing.
Determining the Plantation Boundaries
Determining the boundaries of the plantations was accomplished by detailed deed research, transcription, and digitization of boundaries into GIS maps. Much of this transcription and digitization has been carried out by one of Montpelier’s volunteers, Ron Downes. Ron has spent the past two years plotting the deed boundaries into the computer and then the author has transformed them into GIS.
Once in GIS, all of the land purchased by a single owner can be grouped together to determine the plantation boundary. Many of the plantation names can be associated by names of extant plantation houses. Other were determined by matching owner’s names to plantation names listed in the 1850 and 1860 US Censuses.
Matching the deed boundaries with archaeological sites at Montpelier combined with knowing the dates of both the sites and the deeds allows us to associate what plantation community created and used the sites. This combination of deed research and archaeological survey allows us to reconstruct the landscape of the enslaved communities for Montpelier and neighboring plantations. To learn more about the kinds of work sites we have located through surveys, see the following WebMap that discusses sites found with Rockwood.
Matthew B. Reeves, PhD
Director for Archaeology and Landscape Restoration
Matt Reeves has been the Director of Archaeology since 2000. Over the past two decades, Matt’s research has focused on plantation life and Civil War encampments with a focus on site of the African Diaspora. For the past three decades, Matt’s focus in public archaeology has centered on citizen science in particular to working with descendant communities and metal detectorists. He received his PhD in Anthropology from Syracuse University.