james madison’s dwelling units

At the turn of the 19th century, not-yet-president James Madison and his wife Dolley moved into their dream estate called Montpelier. They ran a tobacco plantation, worked by slaves living in tiny houses.

Welcome to Montpelier, the Virginian estate of our founding father and fourth President James Madison. Once there were many tiny houses on the property, to house slaves supporting the mansion, grounds and farming. (Montpelier.org)

Welcome to Montpelier, the Virginian estate of our founding father and fourth President James Madison. Once there were many tiny houses on the property, to house slaves supporting the mansion, grounds and farming. (Montpelier.org)

Supporting the mansion

Modern-day archeologists have identified four areas where slaves lived in Montpelier. Notably the South Yard village was built in full view of the mansion, enabling slaves to service the Madisons as needed.

Here's the 3D rendering of the South Yard buildings. Archeologists discovered stone and brick foundations of duplex homes, measuring 16x32 feet total. (Montpelier.org)

Here’s the 3D rendering of the South Yard buildings. Archeologists discovered stone and brick foundations of duplex homes, measuring 16’x32′ total. (Montpelier.org)

Montpelier preservationists decided to build a ghost or framed-only version of the South Yard village, to represent the Madisons’ time. These structures were considered nice enough to get insured back in the early 1800s.

The South Yard framed structures are shown above. They outline duplex homes, one small smokehouse and a large kitchen closest to the mansion itself. (Montpelier.org)

The South Yard framed structures are shown above. They outline duplex homes, one small smokehouse and a large kitchen closest to the mansion itself. (Montpelier.org)

Supporting the plantation

Living conditions were rougher for other Montpelier slaves. Most lived in small, crowded, unstable and ephemeral log cabins. Based on imprints and remains, archeologists have uncovered an example within the Stable Quarters yard.

Slave log cabins were typically built with clay floors, stick and mud chimneys, and pits to store root crops. In the Stable Quarters yard, one home measured 16'x20' total. (Montpelier.org)

Slave log cabins were built with clay floors, stick and mud chimneys, and pits to store root crops. In the Stable Quarters yard, one home measured 16’x20′ total. (Montpelier.org)

Through Montpelier volunteer efforts, a ghost structure was built in 2014 (see video) on the site of Granny Miller’s old cabin. A slave who lived into her 100’s, Granny had descendants who knew about this Stable Quarters yard home!

Here's a framed version of a slave cabin constructed in the Stable Quarters area. Don't be fooled, as this log structure was not built to last. (Montpelier.org)

Here’s a framed version of a slave cabin constructed in the Stable Quarters area. Don’t be fooled, as this log structure was not built to last. (Montpelier.org)

What are the takeaways?

We should eat some humble pie when reflecting on how slaves survived, in homes filled with health-hazards. They had neither options or choices in life. It’s easy to live in safe spaces and places we choose (most of the time).

The radical difference in freedom and house size is fascinating. Today we think about simplification and downsizing to smaller or tiny abodes as a way to gain freedom. How things change, no?