Newly discovered manor rewrites history at Highland

CHARLOTTESVILLE- A recent discovery at Highland, the Charlottesville-area home of America's fifth president, James Monroe, is changing what historians thought they knew about the man and his property.

It turns out the modest home where historians thought Monroe lived may just be a guest house. Archaeologists discovered the foundation of a large mansion on the property, buried just a few feet under ground. 

“We have made a stunning discovery. These exceptionally well-preserved remains are just beneath the ground surface in the front yard of the 1870s wing attached to the standing Monroe-era house,” said Sara Bon-Harper, executive director of James Monroe’s Highland. “This finding represents a breakthrough in how the nation understands Monroe and how he lived.”

The property is owned by the College of William and Mary and is the only president's home owned by a university. 

Under what was assumed to be the lawn of the small home, archaeologists found the large foundation, the base of a chimney, thick walls and a stone cellar. Investigators also found bottle glass, ceramics and the remains of furniture. 

Archaeologists discovered charred wood during excavation, leading them to believe the home was destroyed by fire some time after Monroe sold the property in 1826, according to a press release from the university.

Historians have not been able to find press clippings mentioning a fire, but later newspaper articles refer to the destruction of Monroe's estate. 

A new time line is emerging for the property. Historians believe the standing structure was built in 1818, based on a letter Monroe wrote to his son-in-law. 

The newly-discovered manor is likely where Monroe and his family lived beginning in 1799, according to Bon-Harper. The discovery also corroborates tree-ring dating done on the existing house that dated the wood to sometime between 1815 and 1818. 

Mike Barber, a state archaeologist with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, said the discovery proves the value of protecting and preserving historic sites. 

“People always ask me about the importance of archeology and how it makes a difference in today’s world," Barber said. "Highland provides a prime example of the power of the archaeological record to rewrite history." 

Archaeologists plan major excavations at the site in order to better understand the property, and eventually plan to create a virtual-reality experience for visitors. 

“We believe our research efforts will reveal a greater understanding of the historic resources related to Monroe’s home, and also Monroe’s legacy,” said Bon-Harper. “A long-term research project will be visible to visitors who will witness the unearthing of a new knowledge as part of the historic site visit."

The announcement of the discovery comes just in time for Monroe's 258th birthday. The two-term president served from 1817 to 1825 and was the last founding-father president. 

McKinnon can be reached at 757-345-2341.

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