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Montpelier - Slave Cemetery | by Itinerant Wanderer
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Montpelier - Slave Cemetery

For more than 100 years African and African-American slaves lived, labored, and died at Montpelier. Beyond the simple knowledge of their existence, as slaves who were owned by three generations of the Madison family, the history of the enslaved community at Montpelier is poorly represented in the historical record. Most of the Madison family papers, including business ledgers, farm journals, and other documents pertaining to the plantation activities at Montpelier, have not survived. This makes a daunting task of research into the family and also the slaves who were the force behind the Madisons' wealth and prestige. In addition, the forced silence of illiteracy and the second class status of slaves hinder research even more since most could not write about, and most owners failed to document, the lives of their slaves.


Located on the grounds of Montpelier, just beyond the front lawn of the mansion and within view of the Mount Pleasant archaeological site, is a burial ground that contains roughly 40 unmarked grave shaft depressions. The exact history of this cemetery is unknown. It was first brought to the attention of archaeologists in the 1980s during the initial archaeological survey of the property. Due to the large numbers of burials within the cemetery, it was assumed that it could only be a slave cemetery. Rough estimates based on known populations of slaves at Montpelier indicate that between 1732 and 1865 over 200 slaves died and were possibly buried on the property. During the Madison family's tenure at Montpelier (1723-1844) one can only look at the total number of slaves owned by the family and not where they were located. Numerous quarters were spread throughout the county, and within these may have been burial grounds that have since disappeared. The cemetery at Montpelier is most likely the main burial ground for the Madisons' enslaved community, but it would not contain all of the over 200 slave burials.


None of the burials are marked with inscribed stones, though a few simple fieldstone head and foot markers are associated with some of the grave shaft depressions. Besides knowing the location of this cemetery almost nothing else is known. Very little is known about the slave community at Montpelier due to the destruction of most of the Madison family papers in the mid-19th century, including the documentation that may have allowed us to piece together the history of the cemetery. The time frame when the cemetery was in use, the reason for its location, the names of the slaves and total number of slave burials, and how the cemetery may reflect the relationship between the Madison family and those they enslaved — these are all unknown aspects of the Slave Cemetery's history.

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Taken on May 11, 2012