The Case of the Missing Posts at Willow Gate


In between snow storms, the Montpelier Archaeology Department completed the Willow Gate excavations. We knew about a Madison-era gate present in this locale from a description by John H.B. Latrobe following his 1832 visit to Montpelier.  He described a high red gate hung upon white posts. During Madison’s day, such gates served a practical purpose to keep animals out of the grounds.  The gate also distinguished the formal environs of the mansion from the larger working plantation.

Over the past two months we searched for the Madison-era gateposts at the bottom of the hill, in front of the mansion.  In the end, we found three generations of 19th century post holes at Willow Gate. Through a deductive process we dated each  post to determine which are the remains of the Madison-era post.   

The two post holes we located that relate to the Madison-era gate posts were large square holes that ran approximately four feet deep from the present ground surface.  To locate these post holes, the team had to cut and remove the asphalt road and gravels with a backhoe. This allowed us to reach the early 20th century surface.

We used a 1908 map that showed the position of the later-dating gate posts at Willow Gate to determine where to begin our excavations.   We assumed the posts shown in early 20th century and late 19th century photographs would be somewhere close to the original position of the Madison-era posts.  Very quickly, the team located  key features shown on the 1908 map and determined where to look for the posts and ended up finding two sets of posts. The question remained as to which related to the Madison-era post described by Labtrobe in 1832.

We had a major clue that allowed us to differentiate between the late 19th century post holes shown in the photographs from the Madison-era posts: the late 19th-century gate at Willow Gate.  This gate is 12.5 feet wide. When we measured between the two large square posts, we found the distance to be 12 feet. This precluded the posts from being associated with the later-dating gate.  The other posts located during the excavations, however, fit the dimensions for the late 19th century gate perfectly. We will reinstall posts in their Madison-era location in the very near future.  These new posts will mark the entrance to the mansion’s formal grounds.

The following report details the discoveries that we made at Willow Gate.  To view this report as a pdf file, please click here.  This report contains many additional photos from our investigations.  Part of the information we have not received yet is the species analysis of the wood we recovered from the Madison-era posts. We will update the report when that information comes in.

Location of excavations that revealed Madison-era postholes for entry gate

Location of excavations that revealed Madison-era post holes for entry gate.

Combined overhead photograph of gate posts at Willow Gate with profile below.  Please click on image to enlarge.

Combined overhead photograph of gate posts at Willow Gate with profile below.

mid to late 19th century gate originally at Willow Gate

Mid to late 19th century gate originally at Willow Gate located in a barn at Montpelier.


Matthew Reeves