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Exploring Madison’s Home Farm: New Excavations at the Overseer’s House

This August, the Montpelier Archaeology Department will begin a new project, moving away from the Madison home for the first time in six years, to the Home Farm just south of the Visitor Center. We are planning a multi-year project that will build on previous excavations at the Tobacco Barn Quarter and Field Quarter and extensive metal detector survey, to develop a complete understanding of what the agricultural and domestic landscape of the Home Farm looked like during the early 19th century. Our investigations will begin with excavations at overseer’s house site.

The outline of the home farm, is located to the south of the main house.

What is the Home Farm?

The home farm is the main agricultural complex at the Montpelier Plantation. It is located in a 70 acre area around 400 yards to the south of the Madison’s home, anchored around the Madison family cemetery. The Archaeology Department has conducted extensive metal detector survey across this entire area, identifying a number of sites that include a row of slave quarters, a complex of agricultural barns, horse and livestock paddocks, a blacksmith shop, and a mill. Only the overseer’s house and a mill appear on a map from 1844, and NEH supported excavations identified the locations of two dwellings of enslaved laborers, and a tobacco barn. While Madison owned a number of outlying farms, the home farm’s variety of buildings and functions, plus its proximity to the main house, suggest that this was the centralized agricultural operation for the entire plantation. It was also the location of the main overseer house, which will be our first site in the home farm to excavate.

Why the Overseer’s House?

The overseer was a critical part of the agricultural operation on 19th century plantations (Morgan, 1998; Rosenthal 2018). Tasked with overseeing the day-to-day operations of the plantation, particularly managing the labor of the enslaved community, the overseer is a relatively under-studied part of plantation society. The overseer held a contentious and complicated position of authority at plantations. Often held by middle class white men (although enslaved African Americans sometimes had these roles), historians have argued that overseer’s held a man in the middle role on plantations: stuck between the needs of their employer, and the resistance of the enslaved community they were tasked with managing (Morgan, 1975; Scarborough 1968; Wiethoff, 2006; Wilkins 2017). Overseers were an integral and regular part of plantation landscapes, although they are often invisible at interpreted plantation museums.

A from 1844 showing the location of the overseer’s house.

At any one time, James Madison had multiple overseers and drivers on his plantation, some free white men, others enslaved African Americans, who oversaw operations on the outlying plantations. Historical documents indicate that two individuals, Gideon Gooch from 1803 to 1815 and Abram Eddins from 1815 to the late 1820s, however, managed the plantation’s overall operations. This likely happened from the home farm location, which is identified on an 1844 survey map. This location was an ideal spot for such a management role. When compared to the location of the rest of the home farm, it is clear that the house was intentionally placed to perform the role of overseeing the entire complex. Leaving this site uninterpreted will leave a central part of the agricultural story out of our understanding of Madison’s plantation, and the lives of everyone who lived here.


We are interested in a number of research questions about the Home Farm, and the Overseer’s house will helpus address these questions.

First, want to examine the full landscape of the home farm as designed by Madison, and look at how the overseer was a pivotal component of establishing control over Madison’s enslaved laborers. Excavating the overseer house will provide an understanding of how Madison positioned that structure, its architectural design, and its relationship to the other buildings on the landscape that were the homes and workplaces of enslaved African Americans.

Ground Penetrating Radar survey being conducted at the Overseer’s site – note the location of slave dwellings in the background, indicating the location of the house to the rest of the home farm.

Second, we are interested in how the overseer and his family navigated their position in the middle on the plantation. What kind of consumer choices did they make to negotiate this position, or to reflect their social and racial identities? How did they navigate the economy as a middling free white family on a plantation landscape? What kind of work were other members of the household involved in? How did they position their yards to create areas of work or leisure as it relates to the surrounding landscape? All of these questions, and more, can be addressed through the archaeological record, and may provide a glimpse into the impact of working on a plantation on the choices a family might be making, and how they navigate their social position.

Third, we are really interested in what excavating the overseer’s house will tell us about the lives of the enslaved African American community. The overseer was an integral part of their lives: these individuals would have dictated the conditions of their work days, and been a constant presence on the hill overlooking their homes. Enslaved laborers and overseers were in constant power negotiations, which would have impacted the decisions enslaved laborers made each day. Additionally, having a comparative dataset of a middling, free white household to compare to the households of African Americans enslaved at Montpelier will provide more depth and understanding to the consumer choices being made by enslaved households, and how one’s status as free or enslaved, which was dictated by race, may change those decisions.

This map shows the number of site components identified through metal detecting survey at the home farm that need to be investigated further. SC_1 is the location of the overseer house.

Home Farm Moving Forward

In addition to excavations at the Overseer’s house, we are also interested in examining other spaces at the home farm to give a full picture of the landscape. There are 13 different site components identified through metal detector survey, which could represent upwards of 20 different dwellings, barns, and work related buildings. More refined 10′ gridded metal detector survey will help us narrow down these sites, so that we can focus excavations in the coming years on better understanding the entire home farm complex.

We hope that, from an interpretive standpoint, the home farm will provide an even fuller story of the world at Montpelier. Excavating and interpreting the Overseer’s house will provide new ways for visitors to understand the role of middle class white families in plantation society, and how complex the plantation landscape was for everyone who lived on it. We will learn more about the African Americans who lived at Montpelier through the creation of new comparative data sets that will lead to new questions and interpretations. And, we will be able to discuss the dimensions of race and class that were written into the plantation landscape with a more nuanced look at the ways elite slave owners pitted these groups against each other, and how this opposition shaped their identities.

Our excavations will begin on August 5th – starting with an expedition program! If you are interested in learning more about how you can be a part of these exciting excavations, please visit our website at to sign up for a program!