Archaeologists Uncover Structure Believed to be Home of President James Monroe

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An archaeological excavation shows evidence of burning in front of the Massey house. (Photo coutresy of James Monroe's Highland)
An archaeological excavation shows evidence of burning in front of the Massey house. (Photo courtesy of James Monroe’s Highland)

The structure once believed to be the home of President James Monroe has a new identity.

Archaeologists now believe that the two-bedroom house located at Highland, a Charlottesville property owned by the College of William & Mary, was more likely used as a guest house and not as Monroe’s primary residence.

The discovery of the foundation of a much larger house adjacent to the current standing structure forced archaeologists to think of the property’s layout in a new way.

The two-bedroom house at Highland, the only U.S. president’s home currently operated by a university, had long perplexed some historians who were surprised a multiple-term senator, delegate to the Congress of the Confederation and governor of Virginia would have such a modest residence, said Sara Bon-Harper, executive director of James Monroe’s Highland.

Because of the structure’s small size, the perception of Monroe has been one of a man wielding significant influence while living well below his means, Bon-Harper said.

However, after scientists conducted dendrochronology, a process of dating of historic wood through tree rings, on the two-bedroom house, it was determined the wood used to build the house was cut between the spring of 1815 and the spring of 1818 — far too late to have housed Monroe, who lived on the property starting in 1799.

When cross-referenced with a letter written by Monroe to his son-in-law in September 1818, in which Monroe referenced a new guest house that had recently been built, the mystery around the identity of Monroe’s actual home grew exponentially.

“It was taking those pieces of information, we knew there had to be another house somewhere,” Bon-Harper said.

Scientists used cores drawn from beams of the two-story house (shown above) to determine the age of the house. (Photo courtesy of James Monroe's Highland)
Scientists used cores drawn from beams of the two-story house (shown above) to determine the age of the house. (Photo courtesy of James Monroe’s Highland)

Last year, archaeologists discovered the foundation of a new, much larger home adjacent to the current two-bedroom home. The well-preserved remains were located just beneath the ground surface in the front yard of a wing of the property built in the 1870s known as the Massey house.

It is this free-standing and sizable house that is now believed to be where Monroe and his family lived.

Archaeologists excavating the site have discovered part of the base of a large chimney and segments of thicker walls belonging to a stone cellar.

Also discovered in the cellar were brick rubble and charred planks, which archaeologists believe points to the destruction of the building by fire. And while no contemporary accounts of a fire at Highland have been uncovered, later newspaper articles refer to the destruction of the former Monroe residence and the subsequent construction of the Massey house.

For Bon-Harper, the discovery of Monroe’s original home is critically important to understanding how Monroe lived.

“He didn’t just crawl out of the back woods,” Bon-Harper joked. “He went to one of the finest schools in the area and then went to William & Mary before leaving to fight in the [American] Revolution. He was interacting with the real movers and shakers of the period. He was an ambitious, intelligent and well-educated person who made a difference in U.S. history.”

Starting Wednesday, guests visiting James Monroe’s Highland will receive updated information, including how the recent discoveries factor into the legacies of Monroe and the property.