An Account of James Monroe's Land Holdings
© Copyright and All Rights Reserved
By Christopher Fennell
This report conveys the results of research conducted for the Ash Lawn-Highland Museum and the Institute for Public History of the University of Virginia in 1998. The author is an anthropologist and lawyer (MA, U. Penn., 1986; JD, Georgetown, 1989; PhD, U. Va., 2003), with research interests in historical archaeology, American history, and African diaspora studies.
© 1998 Ash Lawn-Highland Museum
James Monroe acquired and later sold extensive land holdings in Virginia, Kentucky and elsewhere in the course of his life. Those properties included the Ash Lawn-Highland plantation to the south of Jefferson's Monticello, and Monroe Hill, a property on which much of the University of Virginia campus is now located. The following discussion analyzes the history of Monroe's land holdings over time.
Monroe's land acquisitions reflect both his efforts to select an attractive place of residence in Virginia and also speculative land purchases in the hopes of generating income. He endeavored for a number of years to acquire a working farm and residence close by his friend and mentor, Thomas Jefferson, succeeding when he obtained the Highland site. As a result of those efforts, and in the course of purchasing properties as investments, he acquired and maintained a large number of parcels over the years, so that management of those holdings became a true challenge.
Many of the acquisitions and sales discussed here occurred in the 1780's and later. Monroe began service in government offices in 1782, culminating in two active and successful terms as President of the United States, from 1817 through 1825. In his successive positions in the Virginia and Federal governments over five decades, Monroe and his family often resided in Richmond, Washington, D.C., or overseas. At the same time, they tried to stay at his chosen country residence in Virginia whenever they could manage to do so. In examining Monroe's residences and land holdings over time, it is therefore useful to consider his decisions to purchase or sell particular properties by placing those decisions in the context of a chronology of the duties and burdens that accompanied the different public offices he held.
Monroe's years of government service were expensive, and he incurred accummulating debts in the course of his work in each government office. This was particularly true of his positions as Minister or Envoy for the United States government, which required him to travel and live overseas and to entertain foreign dignitaries. During those times, the U.S. government did not yet provide funds to pay for the travel and overseas living expenses incurred by its diplomatic officers. Monroe's land acquisitions provided a potential long-term source of income for his family, which would help to allay the burden of those expenses. However, those acquisitions also created the expense of maintenance and management of the properties in the short run.
Eventually, Monroe succeeded in using the sale of his land holdings to pay off his debts and leave a positive legacy to his heirs. That remaining legacy of assets included the Oak Hill plantation in Loudoun County, with accompanying ownership rights in the resident slaves, furnishings, and equipment, and land holdings in Kentucky and elsewhere (Gawalt 1993: 254, 260).
To learn more about the history of Monroe's land holdings over time, choose one of the subjects below. Each of the following sections discusses a separate category of his properties. For most of these subjects, map images and a more detailed discussion of the relevant deeds, surveys, wills and correspondence is also provided. Sources utilized in this research include documents and records created at the time of these land holdings, such as original deeds, letters, survey records, wills, road work orders, and insurance records. Studies compiled by historians are also utilized when their observations are supported by such original records.
This account of the history of James Monroe's land holdings was prepared in 1998 by Christopher Fennell, an historical archaeologist with the Department of Anthropology at the University of Virginia. This research was conducted under an internship managed and funded by the Ash Lawn-Highland Museum, in coordination with the Institute for Public History at the University of Virginia. James Wootton, Curator of Ash Lawn-Highland, and Phyllis K. Leffler, Director of the Institute for Public History, created and guided this research project. Margaret O'Bryant of the Albemarle County Historical Society provided highly valuable research suggestions and resources.
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Last Modified: September 2, 2012