As many as ninety-four enslaved people lived at Poplar Forest during Jefferson’s time and at least ninety-five slaves were owned by the later Cobbs/Hutter families. Letters and other documents provide glimpses into the lives of the enslaved workers. However, their home sites went unrecorded and few details were written about their personal lives. Archaeologists play an invaluable role in uncovering materials related to the lives of these individuals that would otherwise remain hidden.
So far, archaeologists have located the remains of three slave quarters at Poplar Forest. The North Hill Site dates to the 1770s or 1780s; the Quarter Site from 1790-1812; and Site A existed from the 1830s to emancipation.
The North Hill site predates Jefferson’s octagonal retreat. Occupied during the 1770s or early 1780s, there were only a few enslaved families and an overseer on this part of the plantation at that time.
Archaeologists discovered evidence of a single house at the North Hill site, an erosion gully filled with trash from the house, and a portion of a ditch believed to have been dug to support posts for a fence made of thin, upright saplings. The house, like those found at the newer Quarter Site, was built of logs and probably had a wooden chimney. Wooden chimneys were commonly lined with clay for fireproofing, and pieces of this clay lining were found at both sites.
Enslaved people had to supplement their food rations themselves, as well as provide the simple furnishings of their homes. Artifacts found in the gully and in the storage cellar at the North Hill include: burned seeds and animal bones, woodworking and farming tools, several silver Spanish coins, and personal items such as buttons, shoe buckles, and beads.
Archaeologists found the remains of three cabins at the c. 1790-1812 Quarter Site. The first building they discovered was the largest, measuring 15′ x 25′, and was divided into two equal-sized rooms. It may have housed members of an extended family, or had separate enslaved families living in each room. Each room contained at least one “root cellar,” or storage pit.
The two additional structures were smaller in size. One measured 13 feet square, the other was poorly preserved, but appears to have been about 18 1/2 feet square. Artifacts show that a variety of tasks occurred at this quarter, including sewing, cooking, handicrafts, gardening and the raising of chickens and ducks for meat and eggs. The remains of a garden were found behind one of the cabins, and several fences, marking enclosed work yards, ran along the front of the buildings.
A “ghost” building replicating the location and size of the largest slave cabin helps visitors visualize what archaeologists have discovered. Signs at the structure describe the documentary history of the enslaved community at Poplar Forest and the aspects of private life revealed by archaeologists working at this site. In addition, former Director of Archaeology and Landscapes, Dr. Barbara Heath, published a book, Hidden Lives, which details the private lives of the members of this enslaved community. The Interpretation and Archaeology Departments recently undertook a new interpretive sign project that better represents the lives of the individuals who lived at this Quarter Site. The new exhibits were installed in October 2022.
In 2003 archaeologists uncovered evidence of an antebellum slave cabin located 100 yards southeast of the main house, which was occupied from around 1833 until the eve of emancipation. Excavations revealed that this cabin was most likely a log structure with a stone and brick chimney and a small interior storage pit. Artifacts recovered from the cabin include a nearly intact egg, animal bones, coins, marbles, tools, plant remains, ceramics, and parts from a pair of scissors. These artifacts are being analyzed, reported, and displayed with funding provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).
Prior to the Civil War, the Site A cabin adjoined two brick buildings known today as the North Tenant House and the 1857 Slave Dwelling. These structures were built in 1857 as part of the larger slave quarters that existed at Poplar Forest while the Cobbs/Hutter family owned the property. According to oral history, the southern structure housed enslaved people, while the northern one was used to shelter the overseer and his family. Following emancipation, these structures were converted into tenant housing for both black and white farm laborers and their families who lived on the property well into the mid 20th-century.