Landscaping the Rear Lawn (1801-1817)

Research & Collections

The 18th-century back lawn was far different from the one seen today as you stand on the colonnade.  Rather than the flat grass lawn that provided such a congenial social space, the original surface was far more uneven.  To create this level area, the enslaved laborers excavated a hill behind the garden and filled in the rear lawn.  Coupled with the landscaping of the Front Yard, the sheer quantity of earth moved in this period would have represented a significant investment of time and labor to create the manicured, Picturesque landscape.

Archaeological investigations around the colonnade and in the South Yard have yet to reveal the presence of any pathways dating to the Madison period.  Unlike Monticello with its formal, rectangular lawn bounded by a gravel path, the Madisons seemed to want a more open social space that encouraged the visitors to walk around and enjoy all that Montpelier had to offer.

The proximity of the South Yard and the homes and workspaces of the enslaved domestic servants was key to many successful gatherings.  The roasting pit identified in the excavations of 2011 would likely have been used during one of Dolley’s famous barbeques.

Photograph of utility bunker excavations in rear lawn following the removal of the 1810s clay fill.  Archaeologists are kneeling on the buried 18th-century surface.  Notice red clay fill within the profile wall in the background.

Profile showing the sequential relationship between various fill layers in the mansion back yard.  It appears that, prior to depositing the clay fill to level the rear lawn, enslaved workers removed areas of topsoil.  The topsoil was first set aside and then placed on top of the red clay fill to allow for a lush green lawn.  One result is that the artifacts (prehistoric ceramics, 18th-century porcelains, etc.) recovered from the first six inches of topsoil (shown in the profile as the “redeposited topsoil”) were originally from the 18th-century topsoil.  The presence of the prehistoric artifacts shows that the hill the Madisons selected for their home was a well-used living spot occupied centuries before their arrival.