Chess pawns used by Madison, Jefferson uncovered at Montpelier

History lies hidden beneath the lush turf of Montpelier, James Madison’s lifelong home. Montpelier archaeologists recently discovered one long-kept secret that had not seen the light of day in nearly two centuries: portions of two pawns from James Madison’s chess set, most likely the same set Madison and Thomas Jefferson used in their many chess matches at Montpelier.

The discovery provided enough detail for researchers to determine exactly what Madison’s chess set looked like, and led curators to purchase an identical, authentic 18th-century ivory chess set. Visitors can now see the “new” chess set on display in the Drawing Room of Madison’s home in Orange.

“The discovery of the pawns is a wonderful example of how Montpelier’s archaeologists and curators are together rediscovering James and Dolley Madison and their plantation,” said Montpelier President Michael C. Quinn. “Each new discovery and acquisition brings us closer to knowing the Father of the Constitution and the woman who inspired the term ‘First Lady.'”

Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughter Ellen Wayles Coolidge once remarked that the third and fourth presidents often engaged in epic chess matches. According to Coolidge, “…[Jefferson] was, in his youth, a very good chess-player. There were not … many who could get the better of him. I have heard him speak of ‘four hour games’ with Mr. Madison.”

Archaeologists discovered the pawns, nestled in the rich Orange County clay, in an ongoing excavation. “The moment we uncovered the pawns, we knew we had found something very special,” said Dr. Matthew Reeves, Montpelier director of archaeology. “When we pulled them from the ground, we were so excited. At first we thought these might be parts of a sewing bobbin made from bone, but upon closer examination, it was clear these pieces were a treasure from the past reflecting James Madison’s intellectual pursuits and social life. Countless visitor accounts told us of James Madison’s love for a good chess match, but we didn’t know what his set looked like.”

James and Dolley Madison enjoyed card and board games of the time. James Madison preferred intellectual games, such as chess. Dolley, in keeping with her outgoing personality, preferred social card games, such as loo, which is similar to the modern day game of hearts. There are even records that show that Mrs. Madison placed a bet or two! In an 1803 letter from Samuel Harrison Smith to Margaret Bayard Smith, he mentions “mortification at putting the money of Mrs. Madison…into my pocket” following his winning a game of loo.

“This is a wonderful find in ‘The Presidential Detective Story,’ the world-wide search for the furnishings and décor that once graced Montpelier,” said Lynne Dakin Hastings, Montpelier vice president for museum programs. “James Madison was a profound intellectual and thinker who relished the opportunity to test his strategic skills in the competitive, but gentlemanly, game of chess. Authentic finds like this help us learn more about James and Dolley Madison, and help us connect not with historic icons, but with the real people they were.”

Curators unveiled the “new” Madison chess set and an “in progress” game of loo in the Montpelier Drawing Room this week. The two games are displayed on the Madisons’ original gaming tables, discovered in 2009. The Madisons’ original furnishings were dispersed more than 150 years ago when Dolley Madison sold Montpelier after her husband’s death.

Each Montpelier tour offers an insider’s look at how curators are following the complex trail of evidence to recover the lost Montpelier furnishings and décor. Most recently, Montpelier’s curators have installed Dining Room and Drawing Room wallpaper similar to the wallpaper the Madisons would have used. The curators also opened the “new library” where James Madison worked in the years after his presidency to compile a comprehensive record of the Constitutional Convention for future generations. The “Presidential Detective Story” search also uncovered French-made side chairs, pieces of the Madisons’ original French Nast porcelain, and a Madison family silver cake basket.

More information on Montpelier is available at Montpelier.org.


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