Invisible Lives: Hunting for Slave Quarters at Montpelier

posted on: September 14, 2012

Part V: Hints from Ancient People

After the day digging, we’re taken on an archeologist tour of the plantation starting with the slave cemetery.  There are at least thirty-five people buried there, probably many more because of the ritual of filling in the depressions formed by the sinking soil so the earth is level.  Headstones are large rocks. Several hundred slaves died at Montpelier, but, at this point, their burial places are as invisible as they are. A tree fell over the cemetery, but has not been moved to prevent disturbing sacred resting places.  An active group of the descendants of Madison’s enslaved people has organized to advise the archeologists.  Do they want to learn the tales their ancestor’s bodies might tell?  DNA tests could reveal their origin; forensic work could enable a portrait, and speak of illnesses, beatings, and their nutrition.  The progeny will decide if they want to investigate. Then the archeological foundation will need the money.

We visit the original home of Ambrose Madison from 1730’s that burned to the ground. During the civil war, the grounds of the plantation were used as a Confederate war encampment after the army retreated from Gettysburg during the coldest winter on record.

Near it, is the Gilmore cabin. Gilmore had been one of Madison’s slaves. After emancipation, he bought land from Madison’s brother’s grandson and built a house using some the material the Confederate army abandoned. He became a farmer with an orchard and pigs; his wife was a seamstress, and they raised 8 children.  Their children occupied the cabin into the 1930’s and remain involved in its archeology and restoration.

Day three: This time I break through the sod. The grass is interspersed with thick clusters of wild onion.  My leg resounds with each strike of the spade.   Then it’s the usual dirt dirt dirt, but very clayey.  Very red.  Find a few rocks. Then I unearth a knife or saw blade, handle gone, tip gone.

While we dig and scrape, when we’re not talking about food,  Sam tells me about her Master’s thesis, which is, ironically, about food! She worked on Jefferson’s retirement plantation, Poplar Forest, that he inherited from his wife’s family and where the Hemings lived before Monticello.  He had over 100 slaves there and it, too, originally grew tobacco. He built a two-bedroom cottage and retreated from his many visitors.  Sam is studying pollen and plant materials to learn how the diet of the slaves changed. When the major crop was tobacco, there was a preponderance of wheat in their diets as part of their provisions. But when wheat became the cash crop, there was much less evidence of wheat.

“What was their main grain, then?” I ask.

“Corn had always been important.”

“Imagine what it would be like to be a slave working a field where wheat is all around you, and you can’t pick it and eat it.  How hard would that be, especially since you might be hungry.”

“The woods surrounding their homes gave them food and they grew some too— veggies, chickens. This was probably their most important food source, not the provisions their masters gave.”

“They ate wild plants and berries and animals from the forest?”

“Like dandelion greens, opossum, and berries.”

The slaves sometimes sold a chicken or vegetable back to the masters so they could have some cash. Slaves worked from dawn to dusk, six days a week. On Sunday, they tilled their own gardens, built their houses, hunted and gathered in the forest, and sewed their clothes. But we have few slave narratives, some of which are propaganda, of what that life was like for a field slave in the 1820’s. Archaeologists seek a more total understanding from the dirt.

In my daughter’s unit, which is next to ours, they find a quartz point that may be associated with a religious ritual since similar ones were found in hearths.  This one is very pretty, with an obvious crystal tip.  It’s put in a special bag to be immediately examined, along with a most interesting copper figure that looks like a bear to me, and a handle from an iron. Then she finds a bone that has been split and the marrow sucked out.  It is the most intimate sign of the people who lived here.

We work from 7:30 – 3. We have two 15-minute breaks, and one lunch break during which we always eat. We  look forward to our snacks breaks: apples and peaches, and crackers, and pistachios and chocolate and yogurt and power bars.   We talk about what we’re going to eat while we’re working, describing the sandwich or salad we brought.  When we’re screening, we describe cookies, jelly rolls, and brownies, and pies, and Ruben sandwiches and enchiladas. Various favorite beers. Great restaurants within short driving distance.  One would think we hadn’t eaten in days instead of a just a few hours ago. Even while we’re eating our highly anticipated lunches, we share what we’re going to make for dinner. I’ve never been with a group that spent so much time talking and fantasizing about food.

Day four is my day in the lab where I’ll see the next step of our artifacts. I need a day off from digging. My left hip and knee are in pain, the kneeling and the hitting the shovel to cut through the sod have taken their toll.

At the lab, we water screen the soil samples. The gallon of dirt is divided into three buckets; water and baking soda are added.  Then it is stirred and poured through a ¼ gauge window screen; the clay/dirt is washed away until the water is as pale as weak tea.

The resulting pebbles and charcoal and artifacts are wrapped in very fine mesh screen and left to drip dry. The contents of each bag are sifted through ½ ,1/4,1/8  inch gauge and put in the different bags. Of course, everything is labeled in triplicate. They know what dirt, what carbon, what pebbles came from which unit at which site, and which layer. It took an entire morning for my partner and me to screen 8 gallons of dirt. The seventh one is the sample that Sam and I had dug from our first unit. I find another small triangle of green glass like the one we found in the square.

In the afternoon, I pick through the various pebbles to find artifacts and then put them in artifact bags.  So what did I find?  Bones. A pig’s tooth. A piece of a shell, perhaps of tremendous value, perhaps of curiosity, perhaps proof of trade so far from the sea. Lots of nails. A small iron hook, charcoal.  It’s always fun finding things. The tooth was pretty exciting. And so was the iron hook.


Fifth Day: Sam and I return to our second unit, the knife blade waiting surrounded by the rocks. We clean up the unit, snap its photo, and conserved the knife blade by burying it in soil, wrapping it like a burrito in tin foil, and putting it in a plastic bag.  Back to digging. The day at the lab has decreased the soreness in my body. We’re ready for layer B, the second layer of earth.  Sam immediately finds some white ceramics, the glaze chipped off in irregular places revealing dark reddish brown clay. Then a shard of green glass appears in the red soil, glass like the bottles that Madison used for wine. More white ceramic. Some with dark blue and light blue rim.  Some with dark blue stripes.  I sift out a yellow piece with a jagged blue stripe.  Sam recognizes the pattern and tells me the blue is the branch of a tree. The colors of the stones and ceramics pulsate in contrast to the dark red earth.

We uncover a bone that has been split, and a pig’s tooth, and a shell. Fragments of quartz and stone flaked away by the Native Americans who lived here before the English and the Africans. Nails caked in the red clayish earth.

All artifacts point to the fact that Madison’s field slaves lived here around 1820 during his presidency and retirement at Montpelier. More than a hundred people worked here for a hundred years, then lived here for a hundred years, but I have not really felt anything from them. I imagined a scenario with the knife, the handle broke off and it was still used. And then the point. And someone-  a man? a woman?- threw it away shrugging angrily and thinking this damn thing’s no good for nothing.  But an iron knife must have been a prize possession, handled, and saved, and honored as an important utensil.

The bone was split, but it looks like fresh split done by the dirt or our digging rather than 200 years ago. But that’s all I feel. The people are long gone and hidden.

My body is still sore, so I wake up stiff.  I say something to my daughter and she says, hers is, too. For hours we are bent over scrapping, lugging buckets of soil.  I try to imagine an entire life working from dawn to dusk six days a week. Year after year. Decade after decade. Always sore. Always hungry. And I notice that we too obsess about food while we are on this field. Maybe that is the only way we feel the energy of the people who worked here. Our sore bodies and constant hunger and fascination with food.

The enslaved people who lived here were captives for a long time.  Maybe they don’t want to be captured in any way for anyone else’s designs.

My roommate drives me to the field on this last morning and she  wonders about the people who lived here, too.

“It seems so unknowable. There’re no buildings at all. When I was digging in the southwest I saw the ruin.  This is all invisible,” I say.

“Maybe it’s a metaphor.  Slavery is buried underground. And we struggle to find out the basics,” she replies.

Yet, in the 1800’s they were visible.  Madison and all his visitors saw his hundred slaves toiling in the wheat field. A few feet from his mansion were the small quarters for families of house slaves; they were a constant presence in his home.  It was very visible. A hundred and six black people worked for the wealth and comfort of two.

Both Jefferson and Madison were well aware of the hypocrisy in which they lived.  Madison called it the serpent in the Garden of Eden, and Jefferson, who was the progenitor of a biracial family, said in his Notes in the State of Virginia, “It will probably be asked, Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expence of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.”

But neither of them, in spite of their own beliefs, freed their slaves. Their need for money was primary and slaves provided liquidity. ButJefferson was wrong; black and white Americans are learning to live together, melding into one family.   So archaeologists will keep squaring off the field and digging and eventually they, we, will find where the houses were and how big they were and more about what the enslaved people ate, their religious rituals, their treasures. Perhaps we will learn the richness with which they endowed their own lives regardless of the fickle or cruel masters. One day, there will be structures revealing where the 100 + slaves that Madison owned, most of them field slaves, lived.  Maybe we’ll even learn from the bodies in the cemetery. American slavery with all its hidden tentacles branching through our country will not be hidden by earth and sod anymore. It is as much a story of our founding as the ‘founding fathers’ and made possible much of our wealth.  We will have given voices to the enslaved families, the ancestors of my children and so many of us.


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