Montpelier Redefined with Slave Cabin Reconstructions
Historians at James Madison’s Montpelier in Orange, Virginia, are working to tell a more complete story of life at the 18th-century plantation.
With help from the public, input from descendants of workers enslaved at Montpelier, and donations that include a $10 million gift from philanthropist David M. Rubenstein, the site has been constructing replicas of slave dwellings since 2014, using historical building techniques. Frame buildings in the South Yard show what quarters would have been like for those who worked in the house, and ghost structures farther from the mansion represent log living quarters for enslaved field workers. (Montpelier plans to complete the ghost structures when it has raised enough funds.)
Staff archaeologists used an insurance document from 1837 to pinpoint the locations of the outbuildings, and then dug, turning up foundations, architectural hardware, and other artifacts that ultimately formed the basis for the reconstructions.
The ongoing project is part of an effort to better illuminate the role of slavery at Montpelier, a National Trust Historic Site. In June, the property opened an exhibit called The Mere Distinction of Colour that connects the personal experiences of the enslaved community to current discussions on human and civil rights.
“In the past we’ve focused very heavily on Madison and his family and his contributions to the Constitution and the founding of America,” says Jennifer Glass, Montpelier’s director of architecture and historic preservation. “But from 1730 to when Dolley Madison sells the plantation in 1844, there were over 300 enslaved individuals living here. That’s a lot of people that make his life possible.”