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November 27, 2019

Unearthing History at James Monroe’s Highland

Unearthing History

Homeowners insurance policies help guide archaeological discoveries at James Monroe’s Highland estate in Virginia.

When Sara Bon-Harper took over as executive director of James Monroe’s Highland estate in 2012, she knew something was missing—part of the Founding Father’s house.

That knowledge came from Monroe’s homeowners insurance policies.

“One set of information that researchers in the fields of archaeology and archaeological history often use is historic insurance documents,” Bon-Harper said. “There was an awareness that a portion of a building, if not an entire building, was missing. And we know that, in part, because of the three Mutual Assurance sketches from 1800, 1809 and 1816.”

How Mutual Assurance Contributed to New Discoveries

James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States, moved to Highland in 1799 and took out a homeowners policy with the Mutual Assurance Society (today the Mutual Assurance Society of Virginia). The company also insured Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, just two miles down the road from Highland, as well as the home of Harry Lee, Revolutionary War leader and father of Civil War General Robert E. Lee.

Monroe’s homeowners policies included hand-drawn sketches of his dwelling, which detailed two wings constructed of wood and brick.

The larger wing is believed to have been destroyed by fire after Monroe’s death. It was long believed that the modest white dwelling that still stands at Highland was the smaller wing of the original 1799 home. The small white building is attached to the rear of a Victorian-era home.

Questions have surrounded this theory due to conflicting newspaper accounts of the time. One newspaper claimed Monroe’s former home was partially burned while another said it was entirely burned.

“The two stories coexisted and there was a somewhat confusing history that has been inconsistent for the last 180 years or so,” Bon-Harper said. “So the questions remained, and the insurance documents were a key point in saying, ‘Absolutely, Monroe’s original house from 1799 had two main rectangular pieces.’”

Additional research, which included tree-ring dating of the wood used in construction, revealed that the little white house was neither of the wings referenced in Monroe’s homeowners policies. Instead, it was a separate guest house built in 1818.

Archeologists Begin New Excavation

William &Mary University, which owns Highland, excavated the property in hopes of finding Monroe’s original 1799 home. Three years ago, it uncovered foundation walls, pottery and other remains of the original house, located in front of the Victorian house that stands today.

While the excavation wasn’t meant to confirm what was listed on the insurance documents, Bon-Harper said the documents did provide a guide for researchers.

“We were informed by the documents as to how big the building should be,” she said. “We were able to confirm in some senses that the building did conform to what we had on paper, more or less. There was enough similarity that directed us toward the conclusion that absolutely that was the 1799 main house.

“The real linchpin for that, though, was the tree-ring dating of the standing house, which told us that it was from 1818 rather than 1799.”

Moving Forward

While Highland has no plans to build a replica of Monroe’s 1799 house, Bon-Harper said there are plans to continue archaeological research on the site. The Victorian house was built over part of the original structure, and Bon-Harper is eager to find out more about the portion of Monroe’s home that lies beneath. If the 1809 policy is accurate, they could uncover a kitchen cellar.

“The 1809 document says there’s a stone kitchen cellar, 34 feet by 16 feet. That’s one wing,” Bon-Harper said. 

Bon-Harper said Monroe’s insurance policies have been very useful in Highland’s research, but they are also a clear example of why additional verification is needed.

“The interesting thing about the series of three insurance documents that Monroe had here is that the sketches on those documents are not entirely consistent,” Bon-Harper said. “The sketches themselves, therefore, can’t all be accurate.”

While all three policies show two wings of a home, the 1800 and 1809 policies show the smaller wing located on opposite sides of the larger wing. The 1816 policy, meanwhile, shows two wings of equal size.

“It’s a really good lesson of how we use these documents,” Bon-Harper said. “We have to take them as one source of information, but there has to be an independent source of information as well. We can’t just accept them, but they are often a really important part of our research strategy.”

Taken From AM Best’s Monthly Insurance Magazine 11/27/19
Written by Kate Smith, managing editor of Best’s Review.