The Gilmore Family
Oral history suggests George Gilmore was born into slavery at Montpelier ca. February 1810. The Orange County Court House does not list a birth date for Gilmore, but according to the 1900 Census, he was a 90-old black Virginian. After Madison’s death in 1836, Gilmore stayed on the Montpelier property, possibly under the ownership of several different masters. Gilmore likely met his wife, Polly (d. 1908), while laboring at Montpelier. Oral history further suggests that Polly was of Cherokee descent. Married ca. 1850, the couple had eight children, five of whom lived to maturity – Philip (b. 1858), Jeremiah (b. 1861), William (b. 1865), Mildred (b. 1867), and Ida (b. 1871). The Gilmores were emancipated at the close of the Civil War, and after the defeat of the Confederacy, George Gilmore used the skills he acquired during his 50 years of bondage and established his own farm only a mile away from Montpelier. Census records indicate that George and Polly resided on or near the land where they cabin now stands as early as 1870.
Gilmore provided for his family through the early years of emancipation by continuing to employ himself in the skills he likely acquired as a slave – carpentry, saddle-making, and farming. He is listed in the 1880 Census as a farmer, rather than a laborer, indicating he held control over his own crop production. Additional cash income was most likely derived from the Gilmore’s two older sons’ work as wage laborers. Archaeological surveys uncovered multiple beads, buttons, and sewing materials under the cabin floor suggesting that Polly Gilmore contributed to the family’s income as well, as a seamstress. Beyond his skills in manual labor, Gilmore was also noted for his intellect and character. He was listed in an official Freedman’s Bureau document as one among six other Orange County “colored” men known for his ability to read and write, being of “good character and not disfranchized.”
Gilmore built his cabin in the early years of the 1870s from the remains of the deserted Confederate camp just to the north and subsequently established a homestead for his wife and children. For freedmen, land ownership provided sustenance and shelter for their families and also secured their role as members of the community. However, Gilmore constructed the cabin on property belonging to another man – Dr. James A. Madison, President James Madison’s nephew. Madison’s nephew eventually sold this land to George Gilmore on February 28, 1901, shortly before Madison’s death. After having occupied the property for thirty years, the ninety-one-year-old Gilmore purchased the 16.1 acres on which the cabin now sits for $560. George Gilmore died a free yeoman farmer at the age of 95 in July 1905. He left his property to Polly who owned and may have occupied the land until her death in late 1908.
At least three more generations of Gilmores occupied the cabin until the 1930s. In 1909, William, the third son of George and Polly, moved into the home of his late parents, along with his wife Albertha (b. 1879). The 1910 Census states that William and Bertha occupied the cabin with six of their children. By 1911, the tax assessment records show that the value of the total buildings on the property doubled as a result of “erecting buildings and planting a valuable orchard thereon; enclosing the same with a substantial fence, and otherwise materially increasing its value.” This extensive improvement to the property at this time likely included the addition of the frame portion of the structure to the original log building. This one-room addition has since been removed to return the cabin to its original 1870s condition.
In 2005, The Montpelier Foundation restored the Gilmore Cabin to give visitors the opportunity to see the transition from slavery to freedom for African Americans. It stands as the only restored Freedman’s home in Virginia.
1930s photo of William Gilmore's children. Courtesy of Debra Mills.