Discovering the Home of President James Monroe

James Monroe's Highland

Recent excavations at Highland—the historic Charlottesville home of the nation’s fifth president—are upending history. The archaeology, combined with tree-ring dating, shows that the newly discovered foundation, not the modest home still standing on the property, was the Monroe (1799) house.

In April of 2016 Highland announced significant archeological findings that reshaped how President Monroe's Albemarle County, Virginia property was interpreted.

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Excavations at Highland uncovered the foundation of the 1799 Monroe home (marked here with flagstone) underneath a boxwood garden adjacent to the 1870s home of the Massey family.

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For over a century this humble structure was interpreted as the surviving wing of the Monroe home.

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Wood samples were taken from structural components of the building, such as the ceiling and floor joists.

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Samples of wood were taken from all phases of the building's construction.

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Researchers used dendrochronolgy (tree ring dating) to determine the age of the building. These samples proved that the wood used to build this structure was harvested in 1818.

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Few records exist of how and when the Monroe home was lost to history. One clue came from the obituary of John E. Massey, who built his Victorian style home on the property.

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Archaeological investigations since 2015 have uncovered foundation walls of the original Monroe home.

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The foundation revealed by excavations conformed to the depiction of the Monroe house in a series of insurance documents, the first of which was from 1800.

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This policy is from 1809 and shows a different depiction of the home compared with the 1800 policy; however, the measurements remain similar.

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This 1816 insurance policy reflects the home in its final Monroe-era form.

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Excavations at Highland have revealed evidence of the fire that destroyed the home after Monroe sold the property.

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One key architectural feature that was uncovered was the base of a chimney.

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Excavations have explored sections of the interior of the Monroe home foundation.

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Here an archaeologist records stratigraphic observations.

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Individual stones from the foundation are missing, likely used in later building projects on the site.

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This illustration shows the relationship between the Monroe Presidential Guest House, the Victorian style Massey house, and the foundation of the original Monroe home.

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In addition to the remains of the Monroe home foundation, many artifacts have been found, including ceramics, glass, and nails. Many of these artifacts display evidence of exposure to fire.

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Multiple types of nails have been discovered during the excavation of the Monroe home foundation.

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This cut nail was found during the foundation excavation. A cut nail is formed in a nail cutting machine, like the one Thomas Jefferson owned at neighboring Monticello.

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A carved bone handle from a knife or other implement was unearthed in the excavation.

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Melted glass, broken ceramics, and nails were common finds in the excavations within the foundation walls.

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Excavations revealed a tree that pre-dated the house construction, giving some evidence to the prior landscape.

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Our research has the potential to revise our understanding of the fifth President of the United States. Here an archaeologist explains the recent discoveries.

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Research at the home of President James Monroe will continue to offer discoveries about the property and Monroe's legacy.

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Credits: Story

Thank you to photographers Gene Runion, Larry Bouterie, and Rick Stillings for their submissions.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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