Skip to:Main Content

Washington and Lee University

Washington and Lee University
News @ Washington and Lee University

W&L Dig at Monticello Offers Clearer Picture of Jefferson Overseer's Life

Katja Jacobs '12, left, and Caroline Huber '12 mapping a soil stain in their quadrat of Site 17 at Monticello.
Katja Jacobs '12, left, and Caroline Huber '12 mapping a soil stain in their quadrat of Site 17 at Monticello.
News Contact:

After spending the last two spring terms excavating the house site of Thomas Jefferson's overseer at Monticello, a team of Washington and Lee University students and faculty have begun to formulate a clearer picture of the distinctive nature of Edmund Bacon's life.

According to Alison Bell, associate professor of anthropology and archaeology at W&L, who is leading the project, the artifacts they have uncovered provide important insights into Bacon's life and, quite possibly, into the lives of the middle spectrum of the Virginia population in the 18th and 19th century.

"This part of the population - the non-elite, free-European-American segment - has been much less examined than either the elite Virginians or the enslaved population," said Bell, whose team, comprising W&L undergraduates and staff archaeologist Sean Devlin, has collaborated with the Archaeology Department at Monticello. Bell is a member of the University's Class of 1991; Devlin graduated from W&L in 2004.

Fraser Nieman, director of archaeology at Monticello, has found the collaboration rewarding. "Archaeology is fundamentally a collaborative discipline, so a key ingredient in great research is great collaborators, like Alison, Sean and their students," said Neiman. "Their research is helping us fill a gaping hole in our knowledge of how overseers fit into the larger plantation social world. It's still early in the research process, but it looks to me like the W&L collaboration is going to significantly advance our understanding of the social dynamics of Chesapeake slave societies, in which overseers played a pivotal and poorly researched role."

Bell said that the team had several hypotheses going into the project, but not much actual information. "What we've found at this site gives us more to go on," she said. "Now we can test what we've found at the Bacon site against some other free European-Americans, such as tenant farmers who were living at Morven, a farm located about four miles from Monticello."

In the spring of 2011, the W&L team will begin a new dig at Morven Site D, which is associated with tenant farmer George Haden, who was renting land at Morven in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The W&L field school will be part of a larger collaborative project that will focus on the history and prehistory of Morven and will include archaeologists and graduate students from the University of Virginia, Monticello and Rivanna Archaeological Services.

By comparing the artifacts found at Bacon's site with materials from Haden's site, Bell said, a clearer understanding of this portion of the population may continue to emerge.

Starting with the Bacon excavation was important, she added, because considerable documentation about Jefferson's overseer already exists. "A historian has described Bacon as the best-documented overseer in American history because of his correspondence with Jefferson," Bell said. "Since we do know an unusual amount about him, we are better able to create a hypothesis and test it with people who did not leave the documentary trail that Bacon did."

Although they did not pinpoint the cellar hole of Bacon's house at Monticello, Bell said the crew uncovered hundreds of pieces of phylite, a metamorphosed slate that was transported to the site, presumably for architectural use, possibly in a foundation, chimney or roof tiles. In addition, they discovered personal effects-an iron button, wine-bottle glass, English creamware, pearlware ceramics, a small amount of Chinese export porcelain and hand-wrought nails.

The documentary and material evidence is providing a detailed picture of Bacon. "Before we even began to examine the artifacts, we knew from the documents that Bacon was frugal and was very good at using money to make money," said Bell. "For instance, in 1815, Virginia taxed a significant number of individuals' personal effects - mahogany furniture, mirrors, musical instruments, horses, paintings, furniture. The only item that Bacon had that was taxable was one chest of drawers. He also had two enslaved laborers that he paid taxes on.

"In comparison with his contemporaries, Bacon was investing very little in domestic consumables and focusing all his assets on production. He had also loaned money to both Jefferson and James Monroe and several others who were his social superiors."

The artifacts support the documentary evidence. "The ceramics used by Bacon was much more worn and much less expensive than the ceramics from some enslaved people's sites on Mulberry Row," said Bell.

In addition, Bell said that it likely that Bacon's primary interest was in using the land productively. "The site on which the house stood is extremely steep," she said. "We're investigating the hypothesis that it is because Bacon wanted to use the best part of the land available to him for agricultural production and for his livestock.

"In certain ways, what we found with Bacon matches what the Monticello archaeologists discovered at the site of two free European Americans who lived at Monticello," Bell said. "Artifacts from the Stewart-Watkins House were similarly more humble and worn than those of the slaves."

In Bacon's case, Bell said, once he left Monticello, he bought more than 800 acres of land in Kentucky, where he became a well-known horse breeder. All of this indicates that, during his 16 years at Monticello, Bacon and his family employed a long-term investment strategy, living very simply and spending very little, in order to buy the land in Kentucky.

"Of course, his ability to accomplish this is an opportunity that did not exist for the enslaved people," said Bell. "So I think we are beginning to see, through archaeology, how individuals living in the same times and places, but holding different socio-economic status, made diverse decisions about their housing and acquisition of domestic material."

Bell, who begins a four-year term as associate dean for student academic affairs of W&L's College on July 1, said that the Bacon project is at a good stopping point for the moment. While next year's W&L spring term dig will shift from Monticello to Morven, it is likely that they will return to the Bacon site in 2012, because there is still more to be learned there.