click on image to enlargeDuring the 2012 season, the Montpelier Archaeology Department has been excavating a set of quarters for field slaves within a larger late 18th/early 19th century farm complex site.  These excavations are part of a larger research project funded by NEH to examine three different sets of slave quarters at James Madison’s plantation dating to the early 19th century.  In 2010 we excavated the Stable Quarter (a site of a log home occupied by enslaved artisans ) and in 2011 excavated the South Yard (a set of frame duplexes that housed the enslaved domestics at Montpelier ).  During the 2012 and 2013 season we are focusing on a set of slave quarters related to the Madison-era farm complex.  The site covers over 15 acres at Montpelier and was abandoned in the 1840s following the Madison family sale of the property.  Up until the present day, the former farm complex has remained in pasture and has never been plowed.  With the exceptional preservation in this area, archaeological excavations have revealed shallow, well-defined features. 

The site we worked on earlier in the 2012 season was first discovered during surveys in 2004 and 2005.  These initial excavations revealed a borrow pit filled with domestic trash.  This borrow pit suggested a log structure (as the clay would be needed for daub) with domestic artifacts indicating use as a slave quarter.  Excavations carried out between April through July of this year (with the help of the James Madison University and the State University of New York at Plattsburgh field schools) have uncovered a set of structures that have a very complex history beyond that of a domestic site.  This history has three phases: initially the buildings were constructed as a tobacco barn complex, then being reused as a residence for field slaves, and finally being repurposed as a threshing machine complex.  This detailed site history was preserved in the undisturbed layers present in the site just below the topsoil.  

Two structures within the farm complex were excavated and are each 16x16 foot and separated by only five feet.  These structures were outlined by a foot-wide trench containing a burnt clay bottom with ash.  Evidence suggests the burnt trench was designed to receive the bottom-most sill for a log structure.  In pondering the reason for a burnt trench for the bottom log, there is potential the brick-like surface drew water away from the log to prevent rot. The ash would have also helped in this process by deterring insect infestations.   The fact that there was such care taken to install the bottommost log in a specially prepared trench suggests a structure with more intensive construction techniques than a log home inhabited by an enslaved family. Usually laborer’s homes were regarded as expendable, and even the slightly better-built log home we excavated at the Stable Quarter in 2011 did not have evidence for such a trench (see http://www.montpelier.org/blog/stable-quarter-site-part-2 ).  While the range of ceramics found across the site and in the borrow pit (which provided evidence that the structures were log) suggested the site was used as a residence, the structure evidence pointed to the buildings beginning life as agricultural buildings.  In addition, setting the log into the surface of the surrounding yard is typical of buildings used for smoke curing.  This hypothesis was further supported by features we found within the buildings (please see the following blog entry for an update on this hypothesis: http://www.montpelier.org/blog/update-tobacco-barn-quarter!.

Within both of these structures, one of the first features we located during the early part of the season was dense stone rubble within the first structure.  While it first appeared to be a floor for the structure, upon excavating this stone concentration, we discovered that it lay atop a clay fill that in turn rested atop a shallow pit that had evidence for burning.  This depression within the structure likely served as a fire pit and suggested these structures could have been used for curing tobacco.  The central fire pit located in the middle structure contained bone and domestic materials that suggested the pit was used as for cooking prior to being filled.  Such a fire pit located in the center of a home was not out of the question for the time period, but seemed to represent a re-use of these structures following their use as tobacco barns.  The final phase of use for the structure and its ultimate demise came from an intensive analysis of artifacts found at the beginning of the season.

Throughout the season we had been locating iron machinery parts across the site that we assumed might be of mid-to-late-19th century origin (post-Madison occupation).  This was in part due to the earlier assumption that these were domestic sites, but also in part to where they were found—resting on occupation surface at the transition to the topsoil that had formed since the site was abandoned in the 1840s.  Upon examination, these iron implements appeared similar to teeth that are used in threshing machines.  In addition, these teeth all appear to be hand-made and date before the 1850s when such parts would be made of cast iron.  Examination of Montpelier’s records revealed that Madison owned a horse-driven threshing machine  (in 1798, Madison writes imploring Jefferson to visit to see his new machine designed on plans devised by Thomas C. Martin).  Found in association with these teeth are iron bearings for a turning mechanism and bushings for a circular wheel—all in character for a spinning mechanism that would bear a large amount of force (such as a threshing machine—see Figure 4).  It was not until we began finding these parts in post holes within the structure that we began to realize the critical link between the machine parts of the structure we had located.

The link to the structure came when we began locating these same machine parts in two post molds within the structure.  The post holes in question are a pair set close against the western wall of the central structure  (See Figures 1 and 3).   Connecting these posts was a trench, and these posts appeared tied into the wall of the building by a cross brace.  As the trench for this cross-brace cut through the 1-foot wide scorched trench outlining the 16x16 foot structure, we knew that the brace-work  post-dated the initial construction of the structure and was some sort of modification to the original building.  A different clay fill found along this wall in question matched the clay fill found in the brace work and post hole trenches and suggested this wall was rebuilt at a later date to accept the framework for the bracing.

What gave the association between bracing and the potential threshing teeth more strength was a court case we came across relating to the activities of John Payne Todd (stepson of President Madison).  John Payne Todd was renowned for his gambling habits and drinking problems.  During the final years of the Madison ownership of Montpelier (following Madison’s death in 1836), he was constantly selling items from the plantation and increasing the debts to the farm.  This courtroom document cited a legal case initiated by Henry Moncure, who purchased Montpelier in 1844, against John Payne Todd for his activities following the sale of the property:

“As against the defendant John P. Todd, this defendant has other just causes of complaint, not before [admitted] to in this answer.  He [retained] possession of the land conveyed by the deed of the 1st of August 1844 long after it should have been surrendered; [removed] between the time of the sale and of giving up possession a [handsome enclosure], whereby not only the value thereof was lost but the property greatly injured by exposure; [removed] from the premises in the same interval a neat newly framed building; and [pulled] to [pieces], for the purpose of carrying the same away a wheat machine which was a [fixture] to the barn, and was only [prevented] from [removing] the same by the arrival of this defendant on the premisis [sic] just at the moment when the [removal] was about to be [effected].  It was then left but so injured as to have been of no use since."

Putting all of this evidence together made us realize the feature and its associated machine parts could be the remains of a threshing machine that was mounted inside the structure.  

With all of this evidence at hand, we have a rich history for the site we have just finished excavating.  Its early history potentially related to the curing of tobacco with the complex of three buildings measuring 60x16 foot (with the three buildings being more of a single complex).  Their life as a set of agricultural buildings was modified sometime in the late 1790s—as determined from the ceramics recovered during the excavation—by their use as a residence for at least one enslaved household.  Given the low quantities of artifacts found at the site, this occupation was potentially short lived.  In addition, the individuals living in this structure had a rudimentary existence with no hearth and chimney and apparently building their fire in the middle of the room.  The final phase of occupation appears associated with the scatter of machinery parts that coincides with the possible threshing machine.  The use of the machine in the middle building appears to have been intense based on the number of broken teeth we have recovered from the site.  The other two buildings could have served as winnowing or storage sheds for the threshing process.  

Perhaps the final phase for this machine was when John Payne Todd arrives on the newly-sold property to retrieve the threshing machine.  Whomever was responsible for the demise of the machine, in the process of its removal, the poles were removed from the ground and several teeth were deposited in the post molds.  Given that these posts did not contain any traces of wood, the posts were pulled and were filled with a darker topsoil.  Whether John Payne Todd is the one responsible for the removal of these posts, we may never know, but the connection is quite intriguing! 

Matthew Reeves