The South Yard Dwellings

Rebuilding a Difficult History

Between 1723 and 1844, more than 300 African Americans, as many as six generations, lived in slavery at Montpelier under the ownership of Ambrose Madison, Frances Taylor Madison, James Madison Sr., Nelly Conway Madison, James Madison Jr., and Dolley Payne Todd Madison.

When his father died, James Madison, Jr. inherited Montpelier and the enslaved persons living on the property. This inheritance included the main house, fields, production buildings, and the South Yard. This cluster of buildings housed some of the enslaved domestic servants who kept the Madison family and their many visitors comfortable, laboring as cooks, scullions, porters, footmen, waiters, maids, and stable hands.


In this series, we will focus on the two spaces that were furnished by the Curatorial & Collections Department which provided duplex-style housing for enslaved domestic servants. The intention in furnishing these two spaces was to recreate the dwellings in as accurate a manner as possible. Often interpretations of the living areas of the enslaved present a stark and often empty or sparsely furnished space –  with the intention of highlighting the harsh reality of slavery. In re-constructing the South Yard, it was important to not only discuss the system of slavery but also to acknowledge the humanity and personhood of those who were enslaved at Montpelier, through the material culture of these spaces. 

Thanks to the rich archaeological record we know quite a bit about the material culture of those who were enslaved and living in the South Yard dwellings. With this wealth of information, we were able to represent those who lived in the South Yard with accurate material culture. 

Each piece helps tell a more full story of those who worked and lived in the South Yard while still educating our visitors about the reality of slavery. You’ll find pieces such as ceramics and goods that were purchased and slates and pencils used to teach reading and writing. Purposely done, the furniture and other objects in the dwellings are all reproductions of period designs and pieces. Our hope is through tactile learning, visitors can experience these spaces and come away with a better understanding. 

It is important to note, however, that while we have chosen to represent the material culture in as full a manner as possible,  this does not and should not detract from the reality that these were people held in bondage. 


We welcome you to learn more about the research done to furnish these important spaces at Montpelier and the enslaved families whose stories are told within them. Through the reconstruction, furnishing, and interpretation of the South Yard buildings, Montpelier is sharing a more complete history of the Madison legacy and the place that nurtured the American Constitution as well as the horrendous system of slavery.

Furniture

While not much is known about the specific furniture owned and used in the South Yard at Montpelier, research into the few documentary resources we have has helped to create as accurate a representation of the space as possible. 

The furniture in the South Yard dwellings was reproduced based on a combination of archaeological evidence and other documented slave quarters in Virginia. Archaeology provides clues to what someone had in their home, such as chests of drawers and “trunks,” but not all things leave behind their evidence.

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Food & Cooking

Much has been written about the food prepared and consumed by enslaved African Americans. From what was provided by the plantation owners, to what was grown or hunted by the individual; from how it was cooked to the social events surrounding eating.

In general, plantation owners provided some food for their enslaved workers—often pork, corn meal, and portions of whatever crop flourished on that plantation. While the plantation owners may have considered the rations sufficient for feeding their workforce, many of the enslaved people did not.

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Household Items

As an enslaved person living in the South Yard at Montpelier some of your personal tools-like a broom, tub, or basket- would have been used to support your family’s daily needs as well as the demands of your owners. Others, like a hunting gun, fishing pole, pots, or clothing fabric, would have been yours, alone. 

Display of personal household items in one of the South Yard dwellings.

Research

Prints, illustrations, and ads are great assets when researching. They provide visual examples of how people lived, what they bought, and how it was used. Oral histories and interviews with the people who experienced past events are invaluable and can help to make something from the past feel much closer to home. Learn more about the interviews conducted with the Works Progress Administration and the images found that helped to shape the South Yard Dwellings at Montpelier. 

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Archaeology

While research into sites like Montpelier can tell us what may have been in enslaved domestic quarters, the archaeological record tells us exactly what was being used here at Montpelier.

From sherds of ceramics, to bits of a writing slate, to beads and bones, what is uncovered by our Archaeology Department  helps create a more detailed story of what life was like for those enslaved at Montpelier.

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The Taylors & Stewarts

Like the buildings they lived and worked in, we do not know everything about the 300 people who were enslaved at Montpelier. As slaves, they were viewed by those who held the power and made the records, as property, not equals. However, we do know some things about a few. The Taylors and Stewarts were two married couples who were likely born at Montpelier and served the Madison family until the death of Dolley’s son, John Payne Todd. The two furnished dwellings in the South Yard have been interpreted to represent their living spaces, with each containing elements of the family’s positions at Montpelier. 

Photo: Proun Design

Transferware

Ceramics such as transferware were available to those who could purchase it- including the enslaved. While forced to carry out the demands of their owners, slaves could have the opportunity to make very little money for themselves doing other jobs, when possible. Produced in varying quality, transferware could be found for sale at different price points and were sold at markets. Whereas the wealthy would obtain exquisite, whole sets from a single source, members of the enslaved community could find pieces at local markets.

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More Resources

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The Naming Project

The Naming Project is an ongoing effort at The Montpelier Foundation, drawing on years of research to uncover and share the names and stories of the Black people who lived, worked, and were enslaved at Montpelier.

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The Descendants' Project

The Descendants’ Project seeks to identify and work with living descendants of the women and men who were enslaved at Montpelier and elsewhere in Orange County, Virginia.

Photo: Proun Design
Putting People in the Picture

We know that enslaved laborers were here – raising crops, tending livestock, plying skills such as blacksmithing and weaving. We just need a little more evidence to connect the names we know with the work they did so that we can put the people back into the picture.

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A Masonic Pipe and Stories of Freedom

The Masonic Order played a strong role in the African American Community. Considering the artifact was discovered among the South Yard why shouldn’t we consider this pipe bowl as something owned by a member of the enslaved community?

2 Comments

  • Did Madison share information with Monroe, Washington, or Jefferson about agriculture or other aspects of plantation life? Realize not much with Madison’s info but the other 3 might have saved letters.

    • Thank you for asking! Yes, Madison did include information about agriculture in many of his letters to Jefferson and others. I’ve noticed that he had a pattern of including plantation updates in either the first or last paragraph of many of his letters to Jefferson. For some examples of Madison’s correspondence regarding sheep husbandry, see my blog post on “Madison and Merino Mania.” https://digitaldoorway.montpelier.org/2020/04/29/merino-mania/

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