Research & Collections

Research & Collections

Come See the Latest Discoveries in the Presidential Detective Story

In 1852, according to a contemporary account published in the Fredericksburg News, the Madison plantation records and private documents were burned.  

During the years following the sale of Montpelier in 1844, John Payne Todd—only son of Dolley Madison from her first marriage—collected the vast majority of the Madison documents, squirreling them away in his perpetually half-finished home of Toddsberth. Upon his passing in 1852, the surviving nephews and nieces, concerned about the lifestyle that John Payne Todd had led and the impact that might have on the memory and legacy of James and Dolley Madison, destroyed most of these records. Thus, while the political career of James Madison and Dolley's role as first First Lady are frequently commented on, we know very little about their day-to-day lives.
Research at Montpelier focuses on interpreting James and Dolley Madison's life, and the lives of the enslaved community, in the context of their time through two primary avenues:

Documentary and Object Research

The Curatorial Department includes professional research staff seeking to reveal the forgotten history of Montpelier. Their documentary research has revealed much about the community of individuals at Montpelier and how it changed over time--from the original home of Mount Pleasant to the retirement home of Montpelier, and beyond to the duPonts. They are also responsible for tracing the Madison objects that were dispersed with the sale of the property and returning them to Montpelier—a laborious process that will ultimately allow visitors to visualize the daily life of the Madisons.

Archaeological Investigation

Archaeology serves to interpret the Madisons and the extended communities of enslaved individuals by studying the materials that they discarded and by searching for the structures that have long-since vanished from sight. Analyzing these materials can provide unparalleled insight into the daily lives of people that lived on the plantation-farm, be they the Madisons and their guests in the "big house," or the enslaved laborers without whom the Madisons' lifestyle would not have been possible.

These investigations come together to form the Presidential Detective Story, a program of research focused on rediscovering the Madisons by restoring the Montpelier home—both house and landscape—to a form that they would have recognized in their retirement years.

Archaeology: Like Pieces of a Puzzle
Archaeologists at Montpelier have found
sherds of the Madisons' Nast and
Sèvres porcelain services.