For decades, tourists have visited the historic home of James Monroe outside of Charlottesville, Va., and have encountered the quaint — if not underwhelming — residence of the nation’s fifth president.
Situated in the Blue Ridge, the plantation known as Highland, where Monroe lived from 1799 to 1823, has stood in contrast to another presidential estate on the outskirts of Charlottesville — Monticello, the palatial manse of President Thomas Jefferson.
A 1985 Washington Post article aptly opined that Monroe’s home “bears about the relation to Jefferson’s mansion as does a cottage to a country club.” Monroe himself even described his humble abode as a “cabin castle,” and historians interpreted his modesty as a latent expression of his roots as the son of a wood craftsman.
But an archaeological discovery on the property is rewriting the legacy of Monroe and the place he called home.
It turns out that the home preserved on the estate — and marketed for years as the residence where the president laid his head — is in fact a guest quarters. Instead, an archaeological dig on the grounds has revealed a sizable home more than twice the size of the small cottage.
In other words, the home of Monroe was more castle than cabin and likely “in the same order of magnitude” of Jefferson’s Monticello, said Sara Bon-Harper, executive director of Highland, the 535-acre property owned by the College of William and Mary.
The revelation stunned the historians and archaeologists who operate the home.
“What else haven’t we realized?” Bon-Harper said. “We really need to rethink it now.”
Scientists who examined the property during the past two years found the well-preserved foundation of a much larger house that dated to the time Monroe resided at the estate. It was the first hint, Bon-Harper said, that the historians had been wrong all along about which house Monroe really lived in.
Some portions of the unearthed foundation were found mere inches below the surface. Other architectural debris dug up during the excavation shows that the home probably burned down after Monroe sold the estate.
Bon-Harper said that, for years, Monroe historians assumed that another home was buried somewhere on the property, perhaps even underneath another house erected in the late 1800s. The small cottage that was thought to be Monroe’s historic home was believed to be one-half of a larger structure, she said. But the discovery of the foundation, which stretches about 70 feet, proves that Monroe’s true home was much grander than the smaller building, which Bon-Harper said has been identified as a lodger’s quarters constructed in 1818 for Monroe’s guests.
“It’s a much different story than we have been able to see before,” Bon-Harper said.
The discovery also comes as the historic estate on Thursday celebrates the 258th birthday of the man who, for 50 years of his life, engaged in public service, including spending time as a soldier in the Revolutionary War; as a representative in the Virginia General Assembly; serving in the U.S. Senate; as a diplomat who helped negotiate the Louisiana Purchase; a four-term governor of Virginia; the U.S. secretary of state; the secretary of war during the War of 1812; and a two-term President from 1817-1825.
Bon-Harper, a trained archaeologist, said that the legacy-revising discovery on the property proves that, for historians, the pursuit of the facts is a continuous quest for the truth.
Even buried just a couple inches beneath your feet, Bon-Harper said, “there’s always something you didn’t quite see before.”