Montpelier Archaeologists Discover James Madison’s Threshing Machine

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The rich red clay at Montpelier, the Virginia home of the Father of the Constitution has given up more secrets: the remnants of James Madison’s barn and threshing machine, and evidence that Dolley’s son destroyed both in an attempt to remove the machine from Montpelier before the new owner took possession.

As archaeologists excavated the field slave quarters this summer, they found perplexing evidence they had to research and decipher. First, they found bits of iron that appeared to be pieces of machinery, which indicated that the building was used to house farming equipment. Then, in the soil layers below the iron pieces, they found a trench, which proved to be the outline of a 16-foot x 16-foot building. The trench also contained a set of postholes that held more iron pieces. “The iron and postholes in the trench tell us that the building was modified to allow a piece of machinery to be mounted inside the building,” said Dr. Matthew Reeves, Montpelier director of archaeology and landscape restoration.

More digging revealed bits of bone and ceramics, which indicate that the building was used as housing for the slaves who worked Montpelier’s fields. Digging still further, archaeologists discovered a central fire pit within the building outline that suggested the building was originally used as a tobacco house to smoke-cure tobacco from the nearby fields.

These discoveries reveal that this one building was designed as a tobacco smokehouse, later used as field slave quarters, and finally modified for use as a threshing house for the Montpelier plantation. The changing purpose of this building mirrors some of the larger changes at Montpelier when Madison expanded from hand-cultivated tobacco crops to include a mix of plowed-based grain crops in the late 1790s.

The discovered iron proved even more as fascinating. The iron pieces turned out to be “teeth” from a threshing machine, a device used to separate harvested wheat from chaff. Initially, archaeologists believed the pieces came from the period after the widowed Dolley Madison sold Montpelier. However, closer examination revealed that the pieces were hand-made and date to the late 1700s, and not the post-Madison era. Extant letters reveal that James Madison owned a threshing machine as early as the late1790s. In one letter, Madison excitedly implored his friend Thomas Jefferson to visit Montpelier to see his new machine designed on plans devised by Thomas C. Martin. The number of broken teeth found at the site indicate the machine was well used for a long period of time.

As Montpelier’s archaeologists and researchers pondered the significance of these discoveries, they encountered an excerpt from a court document, which indicated that Henry Moncure, who bought Montpelier from Dolley Madison, had sued John Payne Todd (her son and James Madison’s step-son). The documents state that Payne Todd had tried to remove a threshing machine and barn from Montpelier after it had been sold to Moncure, and that he was only prevented from doing so by being caught in the act by Moncure himself. Todd was also accused of not vacating the property after the sale.

As against the defendant John P. Todd, this defendant has other just causes of complaint, not before [admitted] to in this answer. He [retained] possession of the land conveyed by the deed of the 1st of August 1844 long after it should have been surrendered; [removed] between the time of the sale and of giving up possession a [handsome enclosure], whereby not only the value thereof was lost but the property greatly injured by exposure; [removed] from the premises in the same interval a neat newly framed building; and [pulled] to [pieces], for the purpose of carrying the same away a wheat machine which was a [fixture] to the barn, and was only [prevented] from [removing] the same by the arrival of this defendant on the premisis [sic] just at the moment when the [removal] was about to be [effected]. It was then left but so injured as to have been of no use since.”

Had archaeologists discovered the very barn? Was this the same threshing machine Todd had tried to steal? The final demise of the structure noted in the 1844 court document closely matches the deposits found at the site, and archaeologists are inclined to think it is.

Archaeologists discovered the pieces of the machine during a multi-year effort to investigate the daily lives of the many enslaved individuals who, for generations, made their homes at Montpelier. In addition to the field slave quarters, archaeologists excavated the South Yard, where the domestic slaves lived and worked; and the Stable Quarter, where enslaved craftsmen lived and worked. Visitors can now see these discoveries in the Montpelier archaeology lab, which is open daily, 9:00 a.m.–4:00 p.m.

This project is supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities,  Perry Foundation, Inc., National Trust Historic Sites Fund, James Madison University, State University of New York at Plattsburgh and several generous individuals.

3 thoughts on “Montpelier Archaeologists Discover James Madison’s Threshing Machine

    1. Matt Reeves

      Hi Carter,
      if you have a reference for this info, that would be amazing. We are continuing to search for more information on both threshing machines for this period, and specifics on the site. We have identified parts of the fly wheel for the machine (for the belt drive), and recently conserved a piece of iron that has partial patent name!

      Max–thanks for posting this blog! For more info and photos see:
      https://www.dropbox.com/s/dhgjyn18pxira0x/threshing%20machine-revised.pdf

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      1. Carter

        Matt,
        I am not sure on my source for the comment about Major Hite’s machine. I left Belle Grove in 1992 but I remember clearly teaching docent classes and refering to the machine. It may be based on an estate inventory or perhaps a tax record. It might be good to contact the folks at Belle Grove for they have the research files. Good luck!

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