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July 8, 2006 Digging for Buried History


The Free Lance-Star

A RE-CREATION of James Monroe's birthplace in Westmoreland County will begin with shovel holes in the ground next month.

That's when archaeologists from the College of William & Mary say they will begin digging test holes in search of artifacts at the 70-acre site near Colonial Beach.

The test holes may help locate structures that were on the property when President James Monroe was born there in 1758, said G. William Thomas Jr., president of the James Monroe Memorial Foundation.

Archaeologists Joseph B. Jones and David W. Lewes met Thursday with Thomas and other foundation officials at the wooded tract south of Colonial Beach on State Route 205.

"It's a fantastic site," said Jones, director of William & Mary's Center for Archeological Research. "It's not as densely vegetated as we expected."

Jones was a member of the W&M archaeological team that explored the 550 acres of the George Washington Birthplace National Monument in 1997 and 1998. That work, he said, "will give us expectations of what we might find at the Monroe site just a few miles away."

Last year, the Monroe foundation signed a 99-year lease with Westmoreland County for 10 acres of the site where the foundation hopes to build a replica of the Monroe farm.

The county plans to develop a park on the rest of the property, complete with a small visitors center that will look like a brick tobacco barn.

Archaeologists in 1976 discovered the foundations of the modest house where the fifth president was born. A 19th-century etching of the house also exists.

Monroe lived there until he was 16. The school he attended was nine miles away. Future Chief Justice John Marshall was a classmate.

It was also in the Westmoreland woods where Monroe honed his skills as an outdoorsman that served him well as a soldier in the Revolution and later.

At 16, Monroe left his Westmoreland home to attend the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg. He never again lived in the county of his birth.

Thomas said that, in addition to re-creating the house, the foundation wants to build the "kitchen, barn, stables and other necessary buildings" mentioned in a newspaper ad in 1780 when Monroe put the property up for sale.

The upcoming archaeology, he said, will be a "more extensive, in-depth analysis" than the 1976 dig, Thomas said.

The new work may help "identify the location of other buildings from the mid-18th century we now know existed on the Monroe Farm. This will help us develop our master plan for the development of this state and national historic site," Thomas said.

The foundation's goal is to "re-create an authentic mid-18th-century farm at its original location," Thomas said. "That does not exist anywhere in Virginia."

A $43,651 grant from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund is paying for the upcoming archaeology, he said.

A Northern Neck native, duPont (1885-1970) was a benefactress of many historical, educational and religious institutions. She was once a director of the Monroe foundation, Thomas said.

On Thursday, the archaeologists and foundation officials also paid homage to the late Virginia Sherman, another woman instrumental in preserving Monroe's memory in Westmoreland County.

Sherman was a one-woman historical society who documented many nearly forgotten aspects of Westmoreland history and repeatedly reminded the county's Board of Supervisors of the importance of the county's history. She was 85 when she died in 1994. Her extensive files on Monroe's Birthplace are now kept at a library in the Westmoreland County Museum.

After traipsing the woods of the birthplace Thursday, the latest generation of Monroe devotees climbed the stairs of the museum in Montross to glimpse Sherman's papers

"Wow, there's a treasure trove in here," archaeologist Jones said when he saw the reams of papers in Sherman's files on the Monroe site.

Jones said the archaeologists will use information from the Sherman papers as well as the artifacts they find in the ground to describe the Monroe site from prehistoric to modern times.