Archaeologists dig up James Madison’s threshing machine, find human story

A team of archaeologists spent three years digging up the mysteries of James Madison and his slaves at Montpelier. Photo: Montpelier A team of archaeologists spent three years digging up the mysteries of James Madison and his slaves at Montpelier. Photo: Montpelier

Archaeologists at James Madison’s Montpelier have spent the last three years excavating bits and pieces of the president’s world, searching for clues about his life on the plantation.

A team led by archaeologist Dr. Matt Reeves—working with a grant from the National Endowment for Humanities for a study of slave communities—spent years digging up layers of red dirt where a building used to stand on the property, and were surprised by what they found the deeper they went. Now, parts of Madison’s threshing machine from the 1790s are on display in the Montpelier lab.

“We’re interested in learning about slave life and how it changed through time,” Reeves said. “And it turned out to be more complex than we initially thought from earlier surveys.”

While excavating the top layer of soil, they came across iron machinery parts, which they initially assumed were from early 20th century tractors.

“You don’t imagine there will be things that look like tractor parts in the 19th century,” Reeves said. So they assumed the pieces were from later years.

As they approached the layers from Madison’s era, they came across ceramic bits, a trench, several postholes, and more iron pieces.

“We finally figured out that what we’re looking at is a building with three occupational phases,” he said. “The site was used over a 40-year period in three different ways, which presents a really wonderful storyline for the changes happening at Montpelier.”

The discoveries reveal that the building was originally used as a tobacco smokehouse, then as living quarters for slaves, and ultimately housed Madison’s threshing machine, a device used to separate harvested wheat from chaff.

The most intriguing part of the discovery, Reeves said, is the legal story behind the threshing machine. After the property was sold to Henry Moncure in 1844, Dolley Madison’s son, John Payne Todd, allegedly attempted to steal the machine by yanking it through the door and tearing the building down. Moncure sued Todd for the attempted theft; Reeves said archaeologists have the legal documents, but the new discovery humanizes a lawsuit that, up until now, was just words on paper.

He said it’s hard to know for sure if this discovered barn was in fact home to the machine Todd tried to steal, but there’s compelling evidence that it was.

“The fact that we’ve got postholes where posts have been pulled out suggests it was not a structure that was simply abandoned, nor neatly taken apart,” Reeves said.

Farming machinery was the iPhone 5 of Madison’s day, Reeves said. The technology was likely not available on the market in the late 1700s, which means Madison had his specially made.

“He wanted to mechanize agricultural production,” he said. “Which is something Jefferson was also doing at Monticello.”

Madison was well-known as a close friend of Thomas Jefferson, and the two kept up with one another politically and personally until Jefferson’s death in 1826. Reeves said they kept tabs on one another, and archaeologists found a letter from Madison requesting that Jefferson come check out his new toy.

Nearly 200 years later, visitors can stop by the plantation to see the machinery pieces in the lab, and even participate in archaeological digs through October.