Resurrecting Montpelier

A compelling quest turns tedium into a captivating vacation.

 Illustration by Doaly

After weeks of meticulous digging and sifting near the stately plantation house of President James Madison, volunteer archeologist Helen Bauer unearthed a tiny shard of porcelain. It was clearly fine china. As Bauer looked closer, she believed she saw a maker’s mark. Sure enough, under the microscope, there was clearly a two-letter maker’s mark. 

Bauer has been traveling to James Madison’s mansion, Montpelier, near Orange, twice a year for the last 12 years to assist a team of archeologists working to resurrect the full story of Madison, his family’s sprawling plantation, and the village of slave workers who spent their lives there. 

Montpelier’s director of archeology, Matt Reeves, started the weeklong Excavation Expedition program 13 years ago. The deal is pretty simple: People from all walks of life pay about $1,000 to spend a week receiving immersive, hands-on training in modern archeological digging and archiving techniques, and Reeves gets some extra help on an expansive archeological dig unlike any in the country. “We have a uniquely pristine landscape here to learn about and reconstruct what daily life was like on one of the country’s biggest 18th-century plantations,” Reeves says. 

Frankly, even considering Bauer’s big find and Reeves’ lifelong passion, I was profoundly not excited to visit Montpelier. I’m a nerd, but my obscure hobbies don’t involve tedium and dirty fingernails and an aching back. And, while I’m fascinated by Madison’s writings and the source material he used, most archeology at Montpelier isn’t really about Madison. If you want to learn about the lives of James and Dolley Madison, you tour the restored 18th-century main house and the visitor’s center. If your passion is Madison’s writings—the Federalist Papers, the Virginia Plan, the Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution—Montpelier has displays and programs to show you the influences that formed the man who was a leading architect of this country’s form of government.

But the story of the plantation’s other residents was buried and lost. Montpelier was a bustling agrarian community where, over the course of a century, at least 300 slaves lived. Besides working in the fields and as house servants, many were carpenters, woodworkers, and artisans at a mill, forge, and wheelwright. While the main house survived the disappearance of the plantation economy, the vibrant slave village vanished. 

After James and Dolley Madison passed away, the plantation bounced through several owners. In 1901, William and Annie Rogers DuPont bought the property and turned it into a world-class private equestrian facility. Upon the death of Marion DuPont Scott in 1983, the property was bequeathed to the National Historic Trust along with a $10 million trust. The visitor center and other structures were built, and the main house was restored to its Madison-era splendor. 

The DuPonts drastically changed parts of the property, but they never disturbed the fields where the Madison-era plantation structures once stood. The fact that the long-vanished village was covered only with grass or crops made Montpelier a promising dig site. Just below the surface were the undisturbed foundations and artifacts of the massive 18th-century plantation. “It took very unique circumstances to give us a very unique opportunity to learn and tell their story,” Reeves says. 

Reeves and his staff, with the help of trained volunteers like Bauer, have discovered the foundations of dozens of structures, determined what the structures looked like, what they were used for, and what life was like for those working or living in them. In recent years, the team has been building replica structures to the west of the main house. The Montpelier known to James Madison is slowly beginning to reappear from the fields.

The vast majority of finds by volunteers and their professional partners further the story of the slave community and, in fact, many of those now involved in the Excavation Expedition program are descendants of that community. And that’s what hooked me. After five minutes in a trench with Reeves, I realized I’d become part of a massive collective effort to resurrect a lost village and document a story too often left undocumented. I could see why Bauer and dozens of others use their vacation time to come sift through dirt. 

And, occasionally, there’s still something new learned about the Madisons. By putting Bauer’s shard under the microscope, researchers confirmed that the china pattern matched that of a fruit dish that descendants of the Madisons had given to the Montpelier trust. Family lore suggested that the china had been owned by Marie Antoinette. While he was Secretary of State, James Monroe brought the china back from France to give to the Madisons, after which it was proudly used during major occasions at Montpelier. 

There was no hard proof of the story, though, until Bauer and her partner found a piece of the same French china on the grounds of Montpelier among objects known to have been used while the Madisons owned the property. The maker’s mark suggested it was made by one of France’s finest porcelain craftsmen during a two-year period in the years prior to Marie Antoinette’s execution. The story of the china’s full royal provenance could be true. “That was pretty exciting,” Bauer says.

But the high of a great find isn’t what keeps her coming back. “My passion is the process,” she says. “And there’s the goal here. The china find was interesting, but the important work here is telling that lost story of the people who lived their lives here. They deserve to have their story told.” 

This article originally appeared in our August 2019 issue.

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