Reconstructing Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest Landscape will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, October 21, in the Sydnor Performance Hall, Elliot & Rosel Schewel Hall, by Jack Gary, director of Archaeology and Landscapes at Poplar Forest. A reception will follow the lecture.
Nearly 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson wrote his son-in-law J.W. Eppes, “I have engaged a workman to build offices, have laid off a handsome curtilage connecting the house to the Tomahawk, have inclosed it and divided it into suitable appendages to a Dwelling house, and have begun its improvement by planting trees of use and ornament.”
Gary will discuss the natural, plantation, and ornamental landscapes of Jefferson’s Bedford County retreat. The lecture is presented as part of Virginia Archaeology Month, organized each October by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. This year’s theme is “Seeds of a Nation.”
“The landscapes of Poplar Forest, and really all of Central Virginia, have changed significantly in the last 200 years,” Gary said. “Through our archaeological research at Poplar Forest we are able to understand, envision, and recreate these landscapes. From examining pollen grains and chemicals trapped in the soil, to studying historic plantation maps and documents, to excavating the remains of shrubs Jefferson planted, our interdisciplinary approach can tell us what the plantation, forests, and gardens actually looked like 200 years ago.”
The lecture is co-sponsored by Poplar Forest and the John M. Turner Endowment in the Humanities at Lynchburg College.
Jefferson designed the octagonal house and portions of the ornamental landscape at Poplar Forest during his second term as president of the United States. He sojourned here in his retirement to find rest and leisure, spend time with his grandchildren, and rekindle his creativity. Archaeology is ongoing at Poplar Forest with a full-time staff of professional archaeologists. Excavations and research provide insight into the lives of the slaves that once lived on the plantation, new information about how the plantation actually operated, and important details about Jefferson’s design for the landscape of his personal retreat.
The space Jefferson organized at the heart of his plantation consisted of 61 acres and held the house and ornamental grounds, as well as orchards, gardens and support buildings. In this space, called the “curtilage,” he blended ornamental and functional elements in the tradition of Roman villas.
Most of Jefferson’s retreat landscape and farm landscape has vanished visually. A few maps survive of part of the farm, but no Jefferson-era drawings of the designed retreat grounds are known to exist. While Jefferson’s records, planting memoranda and letters provide many clues, it is through extensive excavating and lab analysis that archaeologists are developing a more complete picture of the gardens, grounds, and farm. As these features come into sharper focus, they can begin to be restored.
This summer, the split-rail fence that separated the private retreat from the plantation was replicated on the parts of the curtilage land acquired so far by the nonprofit Corporation for Jefferson’s Poplar Forest. GPS guided handheld tours were also introduced to more fully interpret the landscape for visitors.