Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Boyhood Home Volume 54 Number 6, November/December 2001
by Brett Freese

[image] Seals of James Madison, Sr., recovered from Mount Pleasant. (Courtesy of Montpelier Foundation) [LARGER IMAGE]

Archaeologists using remote-sensing equipment have located the charred remains of the childhood home of James Madison, Jr., fourth U.S. President and "Father of the Constitution." The discovery was made during a survey of the eighteenth-century plantation site of Mount Pleasant in central Virginia, home of the Madison family from 1732 until 1760, when nine-year-old James Madison, Jr.'s father moved the family one-third of a mile to their newly constructed brick house of Montpelier, the future president's historic estate.

Previous excavations at the Mount Pleasant complex had uncovered a yard, kitchen, outbuildings, and fence, but the location of the main house was unknown until a remote-sensing team led by Montpelier's director of archaeology Matthew Reeves found the house's stone cellar foundation, measuring 20 feet long and 12 feet wide. Excavation of the overlying deposits revealed dense concentrations of wall plaster, burnt wood, and wrought nails, indicating the structure was a timber-framed house that probably burned down and collapsed about ten years after it was abandoned by the Madisons: the most recent ceramics from these deposits, creamware, date to the early 1770s.

Mid-eighteenth century artifacts retrieved from the cellar area, including fragments of decorated ceramics and a partial wine bottle seal bearing the initials of James Madison, Sr., attest the family's wealth. Other items found were a scissors-shaped candle snuffer used to trim wick, parts of a flintlock pistol, flatware, a coat button, an ornamental andiron, and a drawknife that may be part of a set of cooper's tools listed in a 1732 inventory of the Madisons' property.

Earthenware bowls and tobacco pipes also recovered from the cellar and similar to those made and used by African slaves at many other plantation sites in the American South suggest that the basement may have been the residence of Madison family domestic slaves. "House slaves served as cooks, chambermaids, washerwomen, and personal servants," says Reeves, who believes that further excavations into the cellar will help shed light on "this little-known group of the plantation community."

* For more information about archaeological research at Mount Pleasant, log onto

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America