The majority of enslaved individuals at Montpelier labored as field hands. The Madisons relied on tobacco as their main cash crop and eventually transitioned to grain production, primarily wheat. They relied on field slaves to plant and harvest the tobacco and to oversee the livestock during grain harvesting. Overall, little is known about the Madisons’ field laborers. Compared to domestic servants who worked as needed in the mansion, field laborers worked from dawn to dusk, six days a week. Without occasion to run errands or interact with the Madisons regularly, field slaves likely had a limited knowledge of the greater world beyond Montpelier. Their understanding was limited to what they heard from fellow slaves and overseers. The Madisons provided field laborers with coarser linen clothing. Surviving receipts suggest the Madisons’ periodic purchases of osnaburg, coarse linen imported from Germany and Scotland, were intended slave clothing. However, by the 1820s, Madison was increasingly interested in plantation-produced textiles “manufactured in the household way; from my own materials.” This suggests Montpelier slaves were also growing hemp and/or flax.
Archaeological investigations uncovered the remains of the Madison plantation farm complex, which served as the epicenter of the working plantation as well as the home for several generations of field slaves. This site comprised of slave quarters, tobacco barns, an overseer’s house, and work yards. Slave quarters for field slaves would have been made of logs, with dirt floors, simple plank shutters, and stick and mud chimneys – considerably more primitive than the domestic servants’ quarters which included glazed windows, wooden floors, and brick chimneys.
Artist sketch of quarters for field slaves at Montpelier. Courtesy of Devin Floyd, 2006
Field Slaves Living Quarters
The plantation farm complex at Montpelier comprised of slave quarters, tobacco barns, an overseer's house, and work yards. The living quarters were considerably more primitive than those of the domestic servants in the South Yard, and were made logs, with dirt floors, plank shutters, and stick and mud chimneys.