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James Madison, our fourth president, is largely credited as the architect of the U.S. Constitution. But his legacy doesn’t always get the same exposure as those of the other founding fathers. Now, archaeologists are learning more both about his life and that of the slaves who worked at his estate in Orange County, Virginia . We’ll learn more about that dig and what it reveals about early American history.
- Dr. Matthew Reeves Director of Archaeology, Montpelier
- Rebecca Gilmore Coleman Descendant of former slave George Gilmore; Founding Member of the Orange County African-American Historical Society
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJames Madison, by any measure, was an important figure in the creation of the United States. He drafted the Bill of Rights, served as the nation's fourth president and was referred to, in his lifetime, as the father of the Constitution. But James Madison, the man, is still something of a mystery. Many of his personal papers were lost in a fire, and he doesn't hold quite the same place in the American imagination as, say, George Washington or Benjamin Franklin.
MR. KOJO NNAMDINow, archaeologists are uncovering new details about Madison, his family and the slaves who lived at Montpelier, his estate two hours south of Washington. Experts say the dig is critical to understanding both Madison and the lives of slaves in early America. Joining us to talk about that in the first of a two-week series on local archaeology is Matthew Reeves, director of archeology at Montpelier. Matt Reeves, thank you for joining us.
DR. MATTHEW REEVESOh, thank you, Kojo. It's wonderful to be here.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Rebecca Gilmore Coleman, descendant of former slave George Gilmore and a founding member of the Orange County African-American Historical Society. Rebecca Gilmore Coleman, thank you for joining us.
MS. REBECCA GILMORE COLEMANThank you. My pleasure.
NNAMDIMatt, I was not born in the United States, so I didn't get the same introduction to the Founding Fathers that many Americans do as young students or young children. Give us the CliffsNotes version of James Madison, if you would.
REEVESWell, as you mentioned at the beginning, James Madison, he was the fourth president of the United States. He's known as the Father of the Constitution. And Montpelier is the family home of James and Dolley Madison. And Dolley Madison, of course, is known as the -- inspiring the title First Lady of the White House. And for -- what -- at Montpelier, we're trying to recreate the Madisons' home. And we've just recently gone through a $25 million restoration of the house. And we're in the midst of what we call the Presidential Detective Story, which is a project to, not only bring back the furnishings to the mansion, but then also bring back the overall -- an understanding of the plantation community.
REEVESAnd that's where, you know, the archaeology that we're doing right now comes in. Because, you know, James Madison, he's -- the public knows him as -- through his political life as fourth president, but he was also, in his personal life, he was a slave owner and, you know, as being the Father of the Constitution, developing what Americans recognized as citizenship. It seems ironic in some ways to have, you know, this iconic figure also be a slave owner. And that's what we're investigating with looking at the slave community.
NNAMDIWe mentioned that some of James Madison's papers have been lost to history. How big a loss are we talking about here?
REEVESIt was, for us, it was a very big loss. The -- James and Dolley Madison returned to Montpelier in 1818 for their retirement. And they were there up until 1837 when he passes away. And all the papers associated with those retirement years went into the hands of Dolley Madison's son through her first marriage, John Payne Todd. And when she passed away, he acquired all these papers. I mean, he passed away, the -- all of James' nieces and nephews found these papers at James' -- at John Payne Todd's house, decided there's too much scandal in them, hauled them into the backyard and burned them all.
REEVESAnd so with that, you know, when, you know, receipts from the plantation maps, anything describing what was going on at the plantation at that time period. So we're using, you know, visitors' accounts from the early 19th century to recreate Montpelier, but then also archaeology.
NNAMDIBefore we talk about archaeology, tell us a bit about Montpelier. It was actually in private hands, it's my understanding, until it was turned over to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the 1980s?
REEVESYeah. It was -- it went through at least six owners from 1844 when Dolley Madison sold it, up until 1901 when the duPont family purchased it. And when the duPont family purchased it in 1901, they made significant additions onto the mansion. But what was important for the property is, over the next 20 years, the duPonts -- William duPont added to the Montpelier property until it -- it contained about three-quarters of the original Madison lands. And during the 20th century, what happened to the duPonts is they don't need, you know, to make money off the fields. They don't, you know, go into commercial agriculture, plowing that occurs in the 20th century at so many other sites. They don't timber the forest.
REEVESSo throughout the 20th century, it remained pretty much preserved. And that's why so many of the sites at Montpelier are unplowed. And that's what excites us, archaeologists. Because if you have an unplowed site, you're gonna have architectural features, yard features that are perfectly preserved. And basically, you know, topsoil are growing on it for the past 160 years, many of these sites that we're -- we've been looking at.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, this is the first in a two-week series that we're doing on local archaeology, starting with Montpelier. We're talking with Matthew Reeves, director of archaeology at Montpelier, and Rebecca Gilmore Coleman, who is a descendant of former slave George Gilmore and a founding member of the Orange County African-American Historical Society. If you have questions, have you visit Montpelier, do you have questions about our nation's fourth president or about archaeology? Call us at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDILet's get to slavery, Matt. It was a big part of life at Montpelier. And you've been involved in an extensive dig of the different slave quarters to learn more about their lives and the hierarchy in the slave community. Tell us about that.
REEVESWell, with the project we're doing right now, what we're looking at is three different sets of quarters at Montpelier. And just like you said, Kojo, what we're interested in is looking at the diversity within the enslaved community, because you had house slaves, you also had enslaved individuals who were working in the fields, and then there's also another slaves at -- set of slaves at Montpelier who were skilled artisans, who were carpenters, worked in the stables. And each of these groups of slaves lived in a different area that we've isolated on the property.
REEVESAnd we're doing our archeology at each of these to try to understand how the housing was different, how they had different household items and to look at the overall individual lives of slaves, not from the standpoint of them just being, you know, property of the Madisons, but being households, being part of a larger community and trying to understand that from the perspective of, you know, what -- how they survived plantation slavery.
NNAMDIRebecca Gilmore Coleman, your great grandfather was one of the Montpelier slaves who was freed after the Civil War. His name was George Gilmore. And he built a cabin on the Madisons' estate. Tell us about what you know about your great grandfather.
COLEMANWell, my father told me about my great grandfather George and my great grandmother Polly back in early 1970s. After seeing and hearing about roots, we decided to find out and then investigate our family history. So he told me and he also showed me the cabin in which George and Polly owned and where he, himself, was born.
NNAMDIBut you didn't know, even though your father was born there, about that cabin's significance for a while. But now, tell us about the cabin and what it looks like.
COLEMANWell, today, it's completely restored. Thanks to Montpelier and the cabin being at James Madison Montpelier. It has evolved from destroyed, practically destroyed house, say, to a now fully restored cabin. And if you go there, you can see that they have the kitchen setup as the kitchen that the Gilmores perhaps used. And they have the bed. And even upstairs, you can go up and see where the family slept. We have the gardens, vegetable gardens and have the flowers. And we even have some pigs running around there.
NNAMDIBut this was a cabin that you used to walk past up and down and not realize the significance in your own family's history.
COLEMANCorrect. That's so true.
NNAMDISo tell us what happened when you did realize the significance. What kind of feeling did you have when you first stepped into that cabin?
COLEMANWell, it was practically indescribable. It's a feeling of spiritual awakening, a sense that my grandparents were there and...
NNAMDIDid you feel their presence there?
COLEMANI felt their presence, yes. I actually felt their presence. And looking around and walking around, I felt that they, too, were living this experience over again through me. And it was quite, quite a miraculous thing to have experienced.
NNAMDIMust have been quite an experience. Matt, the Gilmore cabin is one of five major sites that have been excavated at Montpelier. As an archaeologist, what interests you about this particular site?
REEVESThe Gilmore cabin?
REEVESIt was -- one was the connection with Ms. Rebecca Gilmore Coleman's family is -- to be able to, you know, the significance of the Gilmore farm was brought to us by Rebecca coming and, you know, telling us about the family history. And also what became important with that is that this was the site of -- that a former slave of James Madison had built after he was emancipated with the emancipation in 1865. So it really told the story, not of, you know, of just the Gilmore family, which is very important, but also, it was an example of what other slaves of President Madison had done after emancipation. And that's a question that, you know, visitors often ask, is what happened to the former slaves.
REEVESAnd what it also -- what it shows -- showed for us and, you know, other historians is that -- when -- under slavery, there is a community that had been built despite the obstacles that were put in the way, such as families being divided. And that that same community allowed former slaves -- at emancipation to not start all over, but to continue to build on that community and do it in such a way so, you know, they would have a permanent home that they could pass onto their children. So it's really, you know, in terms of being able to have a standing structure that was built by a former slave of James Madison. That is just -- it's so powerful.
NNAMDIRebecca Gilmore Coleman, is it safe to assume either that George Gilmore had a close relationship with the Madisons or that he had a close relationship with the location, given that he chose to live so close to them after he was freed?
COLEMANI would think both of those statements are true. He -- the property that he bought, which was 16 acres, from Dr. James Ambrose Madison, was next door to Dr. Madison. And, of course, with him being a slave there at Montpelier, I'm sure he felt some closeness to want to stay and live there if at all possible. And by purchasing this property, that came to fruition.
NNAMDIAnd back to you, Matt, because you were making this point earlier. What does that cabin tell us about the lives of free men and women after the Civil War compared to the lives they lived as slaves? Does it depend on exactly who owned them, what property they were on?
REEVESThe most striking thing about the cabin is the -- in one aspect, is the size. The quarters we're seeing now in our excavations generally are in the area of 15 by 20, some are 12 by 18. There are smaller structures. Gilmore Farm is 24 by 26 and also has a raised wooden floor. A lot of the other quarters, your typical Virginia slave quarter would be a log structure with a clay floor, likely it wouldn't have glass windows. And what it shows is after emancipation for what slaves were aspiring for is, you know, of course, was to be able to have more say in what happen to their families, to no longer be owned, to have the, you know, their work belong to them and have more control over their lives, but also materially, to build a level of life that, you know, it shows you what they are trying to strive for.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have already called, stay on the line. We will get to your call, but we still have a few lines open. The number is 800-433-8850. Have you visit Montpelier? Do you have questions about James Madison, our nation's fourth president, or about archeology, the dig that's currently taking place there? Call us at 800-433-8850 or go to our website kojoshow.org. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to the first of our two-week series on local archeology. We're talking about Montpelier with Matthew Reeves, director of archaeology at Montpelier, and Rebecca Gilmore Coleman, descendant of former slave George Gilmore and the founding member of the Orange County African-American Historical Society. Montpelier, of course, being the estate of our fourth President James Madison. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Matt, you found things like ceramics and a portion of a pawn from a chess set. How do you take these seemingly everyday items and use them to reconstruct the quality of a person or a community's life?
REEVESIt's taking on their own. They don't have much information aside from, you know, what kind of objects they are. But putting them together and looking at the rest of the items that are coming from that site, which is, you know, a house site and comparing them to other house sites. So, for example, when we look at the kind of items we're finding at the quarters for field slaves, there is not as many decorated ceramics, much fewer personal items such as brass buttons, jewelry items, items even such as parasol parts. But when you look at the quarters for the slaves that are working, associated with the stable or the craft area, there are much higher amounts of those types of items.
REEVESAnd then looking that in conjunction with, you know, what their labor role might be, it gives us an idea of what sort of, you know, ability they would have for trading at local markets, you know, from selling their own vegetables and whatnot. So it's comparing and contrasting different sites together that gives us that information.
NNAMDIRebecca Gilmore Coleman, based on the research you've been doing, what do we know about James and Dolley Madison and how they felt about slavery and about how they actually treated the slaves on their estate?
COLEMANWell, I've been told that most of the slaves there at James Madison Montpelier was treated rather well. Of course, being owned by another human being, I can't say that that's a great thing to talk about. But from what I understand, James Madison and Dolley were rather human, I guess I might say, towards their slaves.
NNAMDIWe know that the cabins of the house slaves were fairly standard for their time, but it's not as if the Madisons were being unusually kind to their slaves, was it not?
REEVESNo. The cabins for the house slaves, what we've got, information from the archeology is they were better built than the cabins for the field slaves. But one thing we're looking at with that is those cabins for the house slaves are in the formal grounds for the mansion. So they would have been seen by the Madisons and their guests. And so whether or not those houses were built for the convenience of the Madisons as opposed to the enslaved individuals who live there is what we're looking at with this project. So if you're a house slave living so close to the owner's house, there is gonna be probably more scrutiny and, you know, be under more surveillance than slaves who are living, you know, further out where the slaves for the -- the quarters for the field slaves would be.
NNAMDIWe got this email from Jennifer in D.C., "Not to focus too much on scandal, but I seem to recall that Madison had an affair with one of the slaves on his estate or am I confusing him with Jefferson? Can you clarify?" Well, we do know that about Jefferson, but do you know anything about that in terms of James Madison?
REEVESThere is oral history from descendants of Montpelier slaves that that did occur. We don't have the same sets of documentary records that trace it back as well as in the case of Monticello and Thomas Jefferson. And that's something we wanna do more research on and do more oral history on. It's, you know, the more we investigate James and Dolley Madison and the plantation, I mean, those are all things we're gonna be looking at.
NNAMDIToo bad those papers got burned in that fire.
NNAMDIRebecca, what has it been like for you, in an emotional sense, to learn more about your family and about slavery in the region in which you grew up?
COLEMANWell, it made me feel that, finally, I know who I am. It's a good feeling to -- gosh, I came from. And that has really inspired my children. Not only me, but my children now talk more about the ancestors and their great, great grandparents. So it has been an awakening. It gives us a feeling of being very inclusive in Orange County. We go back now about six generations or more. And so it has been -- has given us a lot of stability and wanting us to do even more research to find out really what did our ancestors do here in Orange County.
NNAMDIYou know, it's one thing to have a sense of place because you live someplace. It's another thing to have a sense of place because you know that your family has been living there for generations. And in your case, you can actually point to a structure that a member of your family built. Here is Nancy in St. Mary's County, Md. Nancy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MS. NANCY EASTERLINGGood afternoon. This is Nancy Easterling. I'm the executive director of Historic Sotterley Plantation. And it's fascinating being able to listen to what you guys are going through. I come from a site that dates back to 1703, and we're fortunate enough to have a slave cabin dating from the 1830s. But without somebody like Madison to have paper -- a lot of paperwork, a lot of what we've been able to learn about our slave cabin has been through limited archaeology, when -- that occurred when we did restoration efforts. And then also oral history. And I must say when I went to Montpelier last year and visited, I was so impressed with the way that you guys are handling the tours now and the information you're bringing in. It was wonderful. But we go through some of the same things here at Sotterley and are continually trying to find out more information, and certainly weave the enslaved story here into our story, because it was this site's reality for the first 150 years of its existence as well.
NNAMDIThank you so much for sharing that with us. Care to comment, either Matt or Rebecca?
REEVESYeah, one thing that's missing at Montpelier is our -- you're fortunate at Sotterley to have an existing slave quarter, you know, home of some of the enslaved individuals. None of those are left at Montpelier. And what we're doing with the archaeology at Montpelier is rediscovering the location, the appearance of these quarters, so we can begin to put them back in the landscape. And in fact, this summer, what visitors will be able to see when they come to Montpelier is, in April, we're gonna have the first of a set of six structures we're gonna have outlined with timber framing, three-dimensional timber framing on the landscape to show you the location of these buildings.
REEVESAnd the -- three of those are homes of the individuals who are enslaved and working in the house. And so with that being a presence, actually, there in the mansion yard, we're hoping it'll be a lot easier for people to visualize, not just that Madison had slaves, because people understand that, but these slaves had homes, that they were part of households, and understand more of, you know, what was important to -- you know, for slaves themselves, which would have been, you know, their home life, their families.
NNAMDIAnd, Nancy, thank you for your call. We got an email from Tom in Bethesda, who asks, "Is there a way for the public to be involved at archaeology at Montpelier? Can I show up in my work clothes and help with the dig?"
REEVESOh, absolutely. That's a wonderful question. We have -- during the -- seven days a week, the archaeology lab is open to the public to come down and look at artifacts and see what we're finding. The site is open during the -- the archaeological site is open during the weekdays. And during the spring, summer and fall months, we have what we call one-week archaeology expeditions, where the public can come out for a week, live on the property, in one of the historic houses at Montpelier, and work side by side with the archaeology staff in exploring the slave quarters we're looking at there for the next couple of years.
NNAMDIOkay. On to Lisa in Burke, Va. Lisa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LISAYes. Good afternoon, Kojo. My question is for Matthew, and it's whether -- we visited Montpelier a couple of years back. And one of the most interesting aspects of the tour was the story about Dolley Madison's son and how he really ran the property into the ground. And I wondered if any more information -- you know, financially speaking, he was, I guess, the real gambler. And I wondered if any more information has come out during the research that you've been doing about that story and if you have any more information about what's the latest on that.
REEVESWell, the latest on that, unfortunately, like Kojo mentioned at the beginning of the show, there are -- all the retirement era papers for the Madisons that were at Montpelier were burned. And it's probably because, just like what you stated, the gambling debts and the problems that John Payne Todd, the stepson of James Madison, what he ran into, is President Madison was constantly paying off John Payne Todd's debts. And so whether or not that's part of the reason why all those family papers are burned.
REEVESAnother aspect of the debts of the Madisons is similar to what happened to Jefferson. When they retire from the White House and go back to Montpelier, they know that they're gonna be constantly inundated with visitors who wanna come out and see the sage of Montpelier. So, for about 20 years, you know, the Madisons would be entertaining 20, 30, 40 people at a time. And it wasn't -- you know, there is the hospitality of Dolley that would make these visits so memorable.
REEVESBut it's also -- you know, they would -- folks today, to go from Washington, D.C., say, to Montpelier, takes about two hours. We drove to the studio here at WAMU in about 2 1/2 hours' time. Traffic was moving nicely. But back in Madison's day, it would take a visitor at least two days to get out to Montpelier. So they'd be arriving with horses that would need to be reshod, have new hooves put on, carriages perhaps with a broken axle. All this would need to be taken care of at the estate.
REEVESSo there's -- you know, that, undoubtedly, also contributed to the Madisons' debts because, at that time, the plantation economy in Virginia was on the downward swing. And so they were -- I think it's -- it was recounted by Mr. Madison that he only got in one good crop during the retirement years. So that surely -- he must have had a line of creditors waiting with all the, you know, the expenses he incurred with the entertaining they were doing.
NNAMDIWe move on now to Jared in Arlington, Va. Jared, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JAREDHi. Hi, Kojo. I'm glad to be able to talk to you guys. I have a question and a statement at the same time. Can you hear me...
NNAMDIYes, we can.
NNAMDIWe can hear you very well.
JAREDOkay. Okay. So my first thing I wanted to show you was I understand that James Madison is the big role in American history and also the fourth president of the United States. But I also wanted to touch light on -- I notice a lot of Americans, we idolize these people. We put them up on a pedestal, and we make them seem like they're so great. But yet these -- when you think about these certain people, they actually owned other people. And there's like...
NNAMDIAnd I'm glad you made that point, Jared, because we're running out of time. And so I'm gonna ask Rebecca Gilmore Coleman to reiterate the point that she made earlier, that it's one thing to find out about the lives of your ancestors, another to realize that they were property, that they were actually owned by somebody else.
COLEMANAnd you're correct because when you're owned by someone else, you have no control over what happens to you. And these people were treated terrible. And to be under that kind of a situation for your entire life, generation after generation, must have been a horrific ordeal.
NNAMDIBut the thing that these archaeological digs can also do, Jared, is to bring people to life in terms of how they lived their lives then so they won't simply be seen as people who are property, but as individuals and families, who, in very difficult circumstances, tried to make a life for themselves that was worth living. And having made my own speech, we are about out of time. I'm sorry. So...
REEVESKojo, that was a beautiful speech. I couldn't have said it better myself.
NNAMDIThank you. Matthew Reeves is director of archaeology at Montpelier. Matt, thank you so much for joining us.
REEVESThank you for having us.
NNAMDIAnd Rebecca Gilmore Coleman is a descendant of former slave George Gilmore, and a founding member of the Orange County African-American Historical Society. Rebecca, thank you for joining us.
COLEMANThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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