For the first time, Poplar Forest’s schools for archaeology and architectural restoration are studying the property’s South Tenant House, the only extant slave quarter on the plantation grounds.
Constructed circa 1857, the South Tenant House stands just 235 feet east off the east wall of Jefferson’s villa, which is listed as a National Historic Landmark. The brick structure built by Edward Hutter, then the owner of Poplar Forest, for his enslaved laborers is intact with some minor alterations and large structural thrust beams bracing the exterior walls. Students in the Poplar Forest Architectural History and Restoration Summer Field School are studying the tenant house structure to determine the original plan and details of the building.
Hutter plantation records indicate that there were 48 enslaved people living at Poplar Forest at the time of emancipation, some of whom likely lived in the building, as well as in nearby log cabins. The records are unclear as to who lived in the South Tenant House.
It is known that many of the enslaved individuals working on the plantation at the time were descendants of a woman named Mary, who came to Poplar Forest with her mistress Marian Scott Cobbs in 1828, when the Cobbs family purchased the property. Mary died in 1843; however, several of her children and grandchildren lived at Poplar Forest and were among those emancipated when Union troops entered the property on June 7, 1864.
Oral histories, indirect documentary evidence and previous archaeological excavations have confirmed that the South Tenant House was built in the mid-19th-century and that it was a slave dwelling. For the next few weeks students in the Poplar Forest Summer Field School for Historical Archaeology will excavate several test units along the external foundation walls of the house in an effort to locate the original builder’s trenches in which the foundation of the structure was laid.
The excavation will also recover artifacts associated with the daily lives of the African American inhabitants, during the time of enslavement at Poplar Forest through the early 20th century.