Though he was the fifth President of the United States, James Monroe is not as well-known as his four predecessors, three of whom were fellow Virginians. While he was just as much a Founding Father as his friends and colleagues, parts of his life have been a mystery, including his home at Highland, adjacent to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello near Charlottesville, Va. Highland was the Monroe family’s home from 1799-1823.
Recent routine archaeological test digs totally changed long-accepted beliefs about the home you see at Highland today, correcting a belief that it was the original Monroe home. Now, technology offers an augmented reality look at the plantation circa 1819. Visitors can take a guided or self-guided tour and then don augmented reality headsets to check out specific places on the property.
Our tour guide, Sharon Heard, took us first to an area adjacent to the existing structure, pointing to an outline of flagstones that archaeologists now realize mark the location of the 30-by-40 foot “cabin castle” occupied by Monroe’s family and which burned after he sold the property. The existing structure, long assumed to be the Monroe’s home, was built as a guest house but now showcases objects owned by the Monroes or period pieces similar to those owned by them.
Monroe’s wife Elizabeth was not well and his daughter Eliza served as White House hostess. In the dining room, set for a 19th century meal, we are reminded that Monroe started the tradition of Presidential china. In the study, our guide reminds us that Monroe was an accomplished lawyer who finalized the Louisiana Purchase in 18 days. While his mission was to purchase the Port of New Orleans for $9 million, he secured investors committing another $6 million and bought the whole Louisiana Territory. As president, he established the Monroe Doctrine, protecting the western hemisphere from European interference. Several of the rooms reflect Monroe’s fondness for the styles of Napoleonic France based on his postings to France and European travels. James Monroe is the third president to die on July 4, five years after Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died within hours of each other.
Put on the augmented reality headsets
After our guided tour, we put on the augmented reality headsets and began an unusual tour of the grounds. Along the way we saw individuals who lived on the plantation in 1819, and listened to the conversations of family, visitors and enslaved servants. Look into the kitchen to see and hear a discussion among servants; gaze across the fields to learn about the plantation; and even see a digital rendering of the original home as you stand at its location.
On April 28, you can see the annual sheep shearing as well as wool carding and spinning.
See James Monroe in Fredericksburg
After his service in the Revolutionary War (he crossed the Delaware River with Washington’s troops, was wounded at Trenton, and endured the winter at Valley Forge) and before he moved to Highland, James Monroe lived and worked as a lawyer in Fredericksburg, Va. The James Monroe Museum is on the site of his law office and includes fascinating exhibits and artifacts, including the desk on which he wrote the Monroe Doctrine. Two April events at the museum shed light on the fifth president and even provide a photo op with the man himself. On April 11, Heidi Stello will discuss her research into financial documents of the Monroe-era White House, providing a fascinating look at life in the Executive Mansion and the administrative role of the president.
You can help celebrate James Monroe’s birthday on April 27 with music, cake, and photo opportunities with “President Monroe” himself.
America’s largest stone fortification, named for President Monroe and located in Hampton, Va., sits on the site of Old Point Comfort. It was there that the first Africans arrived in the English colonies of North America in 1619. At least 20 enslaved Africans were captured from a Spanish ship and brought to the area aboard the privateer White Lion and traded for supplies. This event, along with the first representative assembly, the first official English Thanksgiving in North America, and the recruitment of significant numbers of English women for the colony all took place in 1619 and are being commemorated during the 400th anniversary year in 2019.