Monticello Plantation was home to Thomas Jefferson, his family, and scores of enslaved African Americans and their families from about 1770 until Jefferson’s death in 1826. Thomas Jefferson’s landholdings in Albemarle County totaled some 5,000 acres. Initially Jefferson grew tobacco at Monticello, as did nearly all eighteenth-century Chesapeake slave owners, including his father. However, in the early 1790′s, induced by increased local competition among tobacco producers and changes in wheat prices on Atlantic markets, he moved toward a more diversified agricultural strategy, centered on the cultivation of wheat for sale on European markets. From the 1770′s until his death, the total number of enslaved laborers working at Monticello and Jefferson’s Bedford, Virginia plantation, Poplar Forest, fluctuated around 200, with 120 to 140 working at Monticello (Stanton 2000).
Archaeological research at Monticello has a long history, dating back to the 1950′s. That history falls neatly into two periods, each with a different spatial focus. In the first period, extending to the mid 1990′s, fieldwork concentrated on the areas immediately adjacent to Monticello mansion, the house Jefferson began building in 1770, and especially on Mulberry Row, the thousand-foot long path adjacent to it. The second period of research began in 1997 and is ongoing. Field research is organized around the Monticello Plantation Archaeological Survey, an ongoing project which aims to cover the roughly 2000-acre core of Jefferson’s Plantation, currently owned by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, with a shovel test pits on 40-foor intervals (Neiman 2008). Intensive area excavations target specific sites found during the survey. Data from Mulberry Row excavations, the Plantation Survey and from the site-focused excavations it has spawned are available in DAACS.
Monticello Plantation was home to Thomas Jefferson, his family, and scores of enslaved African Americans and their families from about 1770 until Jefferson’s death in 1826. Jefferson inherited most of Monticello’s roughly 5000 acres from his father Peter, who was among the first English settlers to patent land at the western edge of the Virginia Piedmont, where the Rivanna River slices though the Southwest Mountains. By about 1740 Peter Jefferson had built a house on the north side of the river at Shadwell. Soon thereafter a small group of his slaves were living on an outlying quarter farm established on the south side of the river on what his son would rename Monticello Mountain. In 1768 Jefferson began leveling the top of the mountain for construction of his neoclassical mansion. He organized Monticello plantation into four satellite or quarter farms: the home farm on Monticello Mountain, Tufton, Lego, and Shadwell. In addition to Monticello, Jefferson operated a second plantation at Poplar
Forest, just south of Lynchburg on the James River. From the 1770′s until his death, the total number of enslaved working on these two plantations fluctuated around 200, with 120 to 140 working at Monticello (Stanton 2000).
Initially Jefferson grew tobacco at Monticello, as did nearly all eighteenth-century Chesapeake slave owners, including his father. However in the early 1790′s, induced by increased local competition among tobacco producers and changes in wheat prices on Atlantic markets, he moved toward more diversified agricultural strategy, centered on the cultivation of wheat for sale on European markets. He attempted to diversify sources of income further by setting up a nailery in which enslaved children and teens made nails by hand for sale on local markets. Diversification further increased in the 1800′s as Jefferson tried to game Atlantic markets by occasionally growing tobacco crops as well as wheat.
Archaeological research at Monticello is ongoing. It is clear from current evidence that economic diversification in the 1790′s had profound effects on the lives of all of Monticello’s inhabitants, enslaved and free, as well on the plantation’s agricultural ecology. Advancing our understanding of these effects and the causal dynamics behind them is a major goal of current research.
Archaeology at Monticello
Archaeological research at Monticello has a long history, dating back to the 1950′s. That history falls neatly into two periods, each with a different spatial focus. In the first period, extending to the mid 1990′s, fieldwork concentrated on the areas immediately adjacent to Monticello mansion, the house Jefferson began building in 1770, and especially on Mulberry Row, the thousand-foot long path adjacent to it. The first period was largely consumed by intensive, area excavations of slave houses, dependencies, and workshops, which stood along Mulberry Row. There were two major excavation campaigns. The first was directed by Oriel Pi-Sunyer in 1957 and the second by William Kelso from 1979 through 1986 (Kelso 1997, Sanford 1994, 1995).
The second period of research began in 1997 and is ongoing. Field research is organized around the Monticello Plantation Archaeological Survey, an ongoing project which aims to cover the roughly 2000-acre core of Jefferson’s Plantation, currently owned by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, with a shovel test pits on 40-foor intervals (Neiman 2008). Intensive area excavations target specific sites found during the survey. Data from both the Plantation Survey and from the site-focused excavations it has spawned are available in DAACS.
Beginning in 2001, the Monticello archaeologists began work on the Mulberry Row Reassessment. The goal of this project is to digitize using DAACS protocols all the artifacts and context records from Kelso’s excavations and make these data available on the DAACS website. As a result of the Reassessment, data from the Mulberry Row sites are available in DAACS.
Thomas Jefferson used the term ‘Mulberry Row’ to refer to a straight section of the First Roundabout, the uppermost of four roads which encircled his Monticello mansion and its ornamental grounds. In the 1770s, he planted mulberry trees for shade and ornament along it – hence the name. Enslaved, free, and indentured house servants and craftsmen lived and worked in the small stone, frame, and log buildings on the narrow strip between the southeast side of the Row and Jefferson’s vegetable garden. During the ensuing fifty years, structures came and went on Mulberry Row to accommodate the changing needs of Jefferson’s architectural projects, his household, and his manufacturing initiatives.
Both Pi-Sunyer’s and Kelso’s research programs were structured by the 1796 Mutual Assurance plat. The plat is critical to understanding their work and the site nomenclature that they developed. In 1796, Jefferson filled out an application to the newly founded Mutual Assurance Company of Richmond, Virginia. As part of it, he included a plan that shows the first Monticello mansion, the South Pavilion, and the buildings along the Row. Each of the buildings is given a letter designation (a to t) keyed to brief descriptions of the structures: type, function, dimensions, and the distances to adjacent buildings. Two of these buildings are still standing without substantial modification: the South Pavilion (Building b) and the workmen’s house (Building e), today known as the Weaver’s Cottage. Measuring from these known points enabled archaeologists to identify the location of the other, long since demolished structures. Archaeologists have recycled the letter designations on the 1796 plat as site names.
The fixation on the 1796 plat has tended to obscure the obvious: it is a snapshot of a single instant in time. In fact, change on Mulberry Row was continuous. It is convenient to describe it in three periods or phases.
Phase 1 runs from about 1770 to 1790. During this period, Jefferson began construction of Monticello I. During the first few years of the project, he lived with his wife Martha Wayles Skelton in the top floor of the detached, two-story South Pavilion. A kitchen occupied the bottom floor. Several excavated structures on Mulberry Row date to this period. The earliest of these is the Dry Well, an exterior storage cellar that is part of the West Kitchen Yard complex. A second early building was referred to by Jefferson in a document from the 1770′s as “the negro quarter”. This slave house lies at the east end of Mulberry Row, on the Building t Site. Building o, a slave house shown on the Mutual Assurance plat, also dates to this period.
Phase 2 runs from about 1791 to 1809. It was during this period that Jefferson began the massive reconstruction of the mansion, doubling its size, that resulted in the house we see today. This building campaign, begun in 1796, also included construction of the northern and southern terrace wings, excavated into the sides of the hill and the subterranean passages that connected them to the basement of the mansion. The northern terrace wings contained storage bays for carriages. The southern one housed a new kitchen, three rooms that served as living spaces for enslaved domestic workers, a smokehouse, and a dairy. The rebuilding was largely complete by 1809.
On Mulberry Row, Building m or smokehouse-dairy dates to this period. An earlier version of this building, dating to Phase 1, was probably located closer to the South Pavilion, but it was moved to Mulberry Row to make way for terrace construction. Several slave houses date to this period, including Buildings r, s, and t, at the east end of Mulberry Row. Building l, adjacent to the smokehouse-dairy, served initially as a shop for tin smithing and later nail making, and as a dwelling. Further to the west lay the Smith’s shop and the Nailery. These last three buildings represent Jefferson’s new manufacturing initiatives.
The third phase begins with the completion of the second Monticello mansion and its new terraces. It ends at Jefferson’s death in 1826. By the beginning of this period, both the north and south terraces had been completed. This symmetrical configuration is what Monticello visitors see today. With the completion of the new kitchen in the south terrace, the original kitchen in the South Pavilion was converted to a wash house. Two new slave houses on Mulberry Row date to this period. The so-called 1809 Stone House was built on the site of an earlier wooden wash house, shown on the 1796 plat. Slightly later a second, nearly identical stone house was build opposite it on Mulberry Row. This building, now called Mulberry Row Structure 1 (MRS1) is part the West Kitchen Yard complex.
Third Roundabout Sites
During the late 1980′s and early 1990′s Monticello archaeologists investigated two other sites close to the mansion, but not on Mulberry Row. Both sites were located on the Third Roundabout, and like the Mulberry Row sites, both were located using documents, in this case Jefferson’s surveys of the roundabout road system. The Stewart Watkins site was home to Philadelphia blacksmith William Stewart from about 1801 to 1808 and to Elisha Watkins, a carpenter in 1809 (Heath 1999). The Betty Hemings site was home to the matriarch of the Hemings family from about 1776 to her death in 1807. (Neiman et al. 2000). These two sites were also included in the Mulberry Row Reassessment and data from them are available from DAACS.
The Monticello Plantation Archaeological Survey is a long-term study of changing settlement and land use at Monticello. The MPAS began in 1997. The methodological foundation of the project is an ambitious program of shovel-test-pit (STP) survey whose goal is to cover the roughly 2000 acres of land that is owned by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (TJF) with STPs on 40-foot centers. The 2000-acre holding includes most of both the Monticello home farm and the Tufton quarter farm on the south side of the Rivanna River. On the north of the river, it includes about half of the Shadwell quarter farm, and a small portion of Lego. As of 2010, about 17,000 shovel test pits had been excavated on Monticello Mountain, completing coverage of TJF’s Monticello home farm holdings.
Sites located during the Plantation Survey are considered for more intensive excavations. So far, two sites have been explored in this way: Sites 7 and 8. Sites 7 and 8 are located adjacent to one another, about a half mile to the east of Jefferson’s mansion. Archaeological evidence reveals that Site 7 was initially occupied in the middle of the eighteenth century by small group of slaves, perhaps along with a resident overseer, who initially began to clear Monticello Mountain as an outlying quarter farm operated by Peter Jefferson (Thomas’ father)
from his home farm at Shadwell, two miles to the east. After an apparent hiatus, Site 7 was reoccupied around 1770. An overseer’s house was built on the northern half of the site, while one or more slave dwellings were built on the southern half. At about the same time one or more slave houses were constructed at Site 8. Both Sites 7 and Site 8 were abandoned about 1800.
During the last quarter of the eighteenth century, Sites 7 and 8 were home to most of the enslaved agricultural laborers who worked in the fields of the Monticello home farm. Two nearby domestic sites also date to this period: Sites 1 and 30. Neither of them has been intensively excavated.
The Plantation Survey has also located ten domestic sites located outside the third roundabout that date to the early nineteenth century. Documents reveal that one of these is the location of an overseer’s house (Site 17), however the rest represent slave houses, which are more widely scattered on the landscape than their predecessors.
Monticello’s archaeology department and Professor Alison Bell in the anthropology department at Washington and Lee University began a research collaboration at Site 17 in 2009. Monticello archaeologists began intensive testing at one of the 9 slave sites (Site 6) in 2010. Data from these ongoing excavation projects will be available from DAACS soon.
Fraser D. Neiman
Thomas Jefferson Foundation