For generations, the modest two-room structure standing on James Monroe’s 535-acre property on the outskirts of Charlottesville, Virginia, was thought to be the main residence of the fifth U.S. president from 1799 to 1823. But according to Sara Bon-Harper, an archaeologist and Highland’s executive director, there had always been questions about the house, both because of its size and its architectural features, some of which appeared to be too advanced for a supposed construction date of 1799.
“It’s much smaller than you’d imagine for an ambitious man who was eventually a two-term president,” Bon-Harper says. The house’s surprising modesty was particularly evident when contrasted with neighboring Monticello, the palatial estate of Thomas Jefferson. Intrigued by this “cold-case mystery,” as Bon-Harper calls it, the team at Highland undertook an architectural analysis of the structures still standing on the property, which is now owned by the College of William & Mary, Monroe’s alma mater. At the same time, they began exploring the area around the house to find remains of an earlier house they suspected might exist.
In the spring of 2015, after stumbling on a significant deposit of architectural debris (including wall plaster, mortar, brick, nails and window glass), Bon-Harper and her colleagues opened excavations of the property. Underneath the yard of a later addition to the current structure, built in the 1870s, archaeologists uncovered the well-preserved foundations of a much larger freestanding house, including part of the base of a large chimney, several lengths of stone wall and segments of thicker wall that would have housed a cellar. The excavations of the site also unearthed artifacts ranging from bottle glass and ceramics to fragments of home furnishings.
The Highland team also used dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating, to determine the age of the wood used to build the house previously believed to be Monroe’s main residence. Their findings showed the wood from the rafters of the house was cut between the spring of 1815 and the spring of 1818, which strongly suggested the structure was in fact the two-room dwelling Monroe referred to in a letter to his son-in-law dated September 6, 1818, which he was having built as a house for lodgers.
With the 200th anniversary of Monroe’s presidency approaching, the discovery at Highland offers refreshing insight into the last, and undoubtedly the least-well-known, founding father to become president. “He’s a little more in the shadows,” Bon-Harper says of Monroe. “For me that’s why he’s interesting.”
Monroe served valiantly in the Revolutionary War, sustaining a near-fatal wound at the Battle of Trenton (a musket ball remained lodged in his shoulder for the rest of his life) before recovering to winter at Valley Forge and scout for George Washington in the Battle of Monmouth. After the war he began a long career of public service, serving in Congress and as minister to France and Britain, among other posts. As secretary of state in James Madison’s cabinet during the War of 1812, Monroe ended up taking on the duties of secretary of war as well; he remains the only individual to serve in both offices simultaneously.
In 1816, Monroe became the third in a string of Democratic-Republican presidents from Virginia, after Jefferson and Madison. His two terms in office (1817-23) coincided with a notable absence of bi-partisan conflict, and has been dubbed the Era of Good Feelings. In 1820, after the dissolution of the Federalist Party, Monroe ran virtually unopposed for reelection, winning all but a single electoral vote. Perhaps Monroe’s most enduring legacy was his statement in 1823 that the United States would resist European intervention in the Americas–a tremendously influential foreign policy decision that would, in later years, come to be known as the Monroe Doctrine.
After being known for over a century as Ash Lawn-Highland, or simply Ash Lawn (a name added by a later owner), Monroe’s estate recently changed its name back to Highland, the name Monroe himself used. Beginning today, on Monroe’s birthday, tours of Highland will reflect the new understanding of where he and his family lived while they were on the estate.
Future plans include a planned virtual reality experience of the house now being uncovered, as well as more excavations of the entire Highland site. In addition to Monroe’s family, Bon-Harper points out, “There were also enslaved African Americans who lived and worked on the property.” On a field called the South Pasture, the archaeologists have found scattered artifacts that indicate it might have been the site of a residence for slaves, specifically field hands. They hope to find the footprint of the house in future excavations.
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, alumnus and current chancellor of William & Mary, takes a sweeping view of what the recent discoveries at Highland mean for Americans today. “This new find at Highland will help us to better interpret James Monroe’s historic legacy of duty and non-partisan leadership,” he said in a statement. “James Monroe is relevant today because of his particular example of leadership, especially in his later years, of holding national interest above party interest. His story can teach us history, improve our politics and inspire debate about democracy.”