Skip to content

Gardens unlock clues about early American life


Archaeologists believe Thomas Jefferson abandoned his tobacco plants for wheat fields in the late 18th century after studying the soil on the president's estate. (Courtesy of the Thomas Jefferson)

After digging around James Madison’s sprawling Virginia estate, Matthew Reeves, an archaeologist, has determined that the former president spent a lot of time and money preparing for guests to arrive.

Anticipating visits from hundreds of academics and dignitaries once he returned home from the White House, Madison undertook massive efforts to revamp his estate. He directed his slaves to build an artificial lawn, almost unheard of at the time, by moving thousands of tons of earth. He also built several structures on his 5,000 acres, including a terraced garden and a neoclassical temple that sat over an ice house.

“They’re going to be receiving guests and having parties,” Reeves said. “They’re essentially making the family home not just into a functioning plantation, but something that would be a destination for visitors.”

As the head of archaeology at Madison’s Montpelier estate, Reeves has started to research the gardens and lawns as part of a reconstruction project. And like a lot of archeologists trying to reconstruct early American estates, he is finding that these landscapes reveal a lot about life in the 18th and 19th century.

On Thomas Jefferson’s estate in central Virginia, for example, archaeologists have determined that the former president used his plantation to grow crops for income and even shifted crop production in response to turmoil in Europe.

By studying layers of soil at Jefferson's Monticello estate, Fraser Neiman, the director of archaeology, has concluded that Jefferson, like many Chesapeake Bay farmers at the time, abandoned tobacco plants for wheat fields just as the French Revolution crippled food production in Europe and created strong demand for wheat.

Neiman reached his conclusion after finding a spike in grass and weed pollens dating back to the 1790s. He determined that Jefferson’s new focus on wheat production took a toll on his land and forced him to rotate his crops between various fields. This new farming technique allowed weeds and grasses to spring up on unused portions of his land and left a trail of pollen.

This summer, Neiman will begin research on Montalto Mountain, which is a smooth hill that faces the west side of Jefferson’s mansion. Montalto Mountain is now covered in grass, but Neiman wonders whether it always looked that way. He suspects it was too steep for wheat or tobacco plants, but he says trees may once have blanketed its surface.

“There are big swaths of grass now,” Neiman said. “But is that what Jefferson looked at, or did he look at trees?”

Back on Madison’s estate, Reeves has started to find evidence that Madison constructed paths and walkways that zigzagged across his lawns. By mapping them out, Reeves has concluded that Madison forced his slaves to use one set of trails while he, his family and guests used another.

One such stone-lined path leads from the slaves' quarters to the south perimeter of Madison's mansion where there was an entrance to a kitchen in the cellar. The layout of the trails implies that Madison went to great lengths to ensure he would not have to interact with the people working on his plantation.

Reeves has also found a gate and fence that appear to have once lined the road that led from the worker’s quarters to the front of the plantation. The gates were covered with dirt as a result of an early 19th-century reconstruction project after Madison died.

This summer, Reeves, who began his excavations last year, plans to map out that road and eventually rebuild it so visitors can travel the same path Madison and his slaves took to the workers’ quarters, now the site of a visitor’s center.

Since gardens were expensive and difficult to maintain, only the richest people could afford to have them. As a result, gardens became a symbol of wealth and power. The families who had them devoted a lot of time and thought to their appearance.

“This stuff is really tough to grow, so it’s an unmistakable symbol of wealth,” Neiman said.

Elite landowners placed such high value on their gardens that they paid close attention to changing trends in landscape design. Madison, for example, spent years trying to update the appearance of his plantation after inheriting it from his parents in 1808.

While Madison’s parents had designed their gardens in the Georgian manner, typified by straight lines and structured boundaries, Madison sought to create the more free-flowing picturesque look. First appearing in Europe in the early 18th century, and then gaining popularity in the America, the picturesque design featured serpentine lines and naturally occurring wilderness areas.

Landowners who imported exotic trees and plants found they had so many friends among high society that they could even afford to snub a few of them. There is evidence that Jefferson once wrote to William Hamilton, a purveyor of rare Chinese plants and the owner of the Woodlands estate in Philadelphia, and asked him for seeds that Jefferson could plant. Despite Jefferson’s stature and achievements, all evidence suggests Hamilton never responded to the president’s request.

But while some wealthy Americans designed their gardens as showpieces, others used them strictly for commercial purposes.

At the 250-year-old home of Quaker naturalist John Bartram near Philadelphia, researchers have found that early Americans cultivated native plants to sell and ship to English gardeners, who were eager to get their hands on strange plants from the new world. Bartram, who bought his 102-acre estate in 1728, was one of the more prolific of such sellers, said John Fry, the curator at Bartram’s Garden.

“The Bartrams are introducing a lot of things into European gardens,” he said.

Fry has studied pollen samples as well as phytoliths-–microscopic plant parts that do not decompose--in the soil. By comparing those samples with old plant catalogs, which provide comprehensive lists of Bartram’s plant inventory, Fry has determined that Bartram cultivated and sold Carolina allspice, Virginia sweetspire and witherod viburnum.

Fry has also determined that demand for American flora was so strong that Bartram traveled as far as Lake Ontario to the north, Florida to the south and the Ohio River to the west just to collect new flowers and trees. And Bartram's efforts did not go unrewarded. In 1765, King George III appointed him a royal botanist.

“There’s a lot of information that can be gleaned" from gardens, Fry said. “In many ways, it’s just another curiosity about the past.”