Thomas Jefferson was heavily influenced by ideas of the European Enlightenment, a period during which European and Euro-American philosophers tended towards empirical data, scientific categorization, reason-based inquiry, and representative government. Many outcomes of the Enlightenment left lasting legacies still felt today, and the scientific revolution of the era is usually celebrated. But ideas about race and hierarchies of human beings based on region of origin, skin-color, and other physical and behavioral characteristics supposedly attributed to race were also born of the period.
These ideas influenced Jefferson and he wrote about Black and Indigenous people throughout his life. He noted supposedly observable differences from white people that could be categorized by race, and he attempted to use the scientific tools available to further understand human difference. Yet Jefferson, like many of his contemporaries, let personal and cultural bias influence his observations, resulting in false categorizations that we now know are anything but scientific. These attitudes about race and the behavior of Europeans and Euro-Americans towards Black and Indigenous peoples still impact people today. Jefferson’s motives and methods when unearthing an Indigenous Burial Mound in the 1780s demonstrate the complexity and the fraught nature of his views on race and different cultures.
In 1780, the secretary of the French legation in Philadelphia, François Marbois, submitted to various members of the Continental Congress a list of questions concerning the thirteen American states. Joseph Jones, a member of the Virginia delegation, believed Thomas Jefferson the most capable person to answer these queries for the state of Virginia and put Marbois's questionnaire in his hands. The answers composed by Jefferson to twenty-three queries make up his Notes on the State of Virginia. Among the queries submitted by Marbois was one asking for a description of the "Indians" in the state (Query XI). Jefferson long had an interest in the Native population of Virginia and his response to Query XI constitutes an impressive description of Indigenous tribes, their number, history, and geographical location, as well as their languages. As part of this response, Jefferson described in detail his exploration of an Indigenous burial mound in the "neighbourhood" of Monticello. He stated that it was "situated on the low grounds of the Rivanna, about two miles above its principal fork, and opposite to some hills, on which had been an Indian town."
Jefferson and others were aware of "many" barrows, as he called them, in the area. This particular mound or barrow was known locally as "the Indian Grave." Jefferson excavated the barrow in order to ascertain which of several views of the Native American burial customs was correct: "That they were repositories of the dead, has been obvious to all: but on what particular occasion constructed, was matter of doubt. Some have thought they covered the remains of those who have fallen in battles fought on the spot of interment. Some ascribed them to the custom, said to prevail among the Indians, of collecting, at certain periods, the remains of all their dead, wheresoever deposited at the time of death. Others again supposed them the general sepulchres for towns, conjectured to have been on or near the grounds; and this opinion was supported by the quality of the lands in which they are found, (those constructed of earth being generally in the softest and most fertile meadow-grounds on river sides) and by a tradition, said to be handed down from the Aboriginal Indians, that, when they settled in a town, the first person who died was placed erect, and earth put around him, so as to cover and support him; that, when another dies, a narrow passage was dug to the first, the second reclined against him, and the cover of earth replaced, and so on."
Jefferson wrote that the mound was "of spheroidical form, of about 40 feet diameter at the base, and had been of about twelve feet altitude .... I first dug superficially in several parts of it, and came to collections of human bones, at different depths, from six inches to three feet below the surface. These were lying in the utmost confusion, some vertical, some oblique, some horizontal, and directed to every point of the compass, entangled, and held together in clusters by the earth. ... to give the idea of bones emptied promiscuously from a bag or basket, and covered over with earth, without any attention to their order."
Jefferson proceeded to "make a perpendicular cut through the body of the barrow, that I might examine its internal structure. This passed about three feet from its center, was opened to the former surface of the earth, and was wide enough for a man to walk through and examine its sides." He observed several strata of human remains with those nearest the surface the least decayed and "conjectured that in this barrow might have been a thousand skeletons." There was no evidence of violence to the bones such as holes made from bullets or arrows. The latter finding argued against the view that the remains in the mounds were of warriors killed in battle; nor did Jefferson find that the bodies had been placed upright as others had speculated based on local lore.
Jefferson added that "about thirty years ago" he observed a party of Native American people visiting the barrow. They "went through the woods directly to it, without any instructions or enquiry, and having staid about it some time, with expressions which were construed to be those of sorrow, they returned to the high road, which they had left about a dozen miles to pay this visit, and pursued their journey."
In his seminal work on Monacan history and culture, Monacan Millenium, archaeologist Jeffrey L. Hantman identifies the people described by Jefferson as Monacan, a mound-building culture indigenous to central Virginia. He writes that the site of the excavated mound and the settlement described by Jefferson was likely Monasukapanough, a town described to John Smith by a Monacan man named Amoroleck. The site is recorded on Smith’s map of Virginia.Hantman further notes that Jefferson’s description of a relatively recent visit to the site by Monacan people demonstrates their presence in central Virginia at a time when many white settlers described them as absent. 
Research indicates that Jefferson did not remove human remains or other items from the Burial Mound after disturbing them. While Jefferson held a large collection of Native American artifacts in his home at Monticello, no artifacts found in current collections are identified as relating to the Monasukapanough excavation. Hantman writes “There is no record of, and it is highly unlikely that, Jefferson collected human bone for display or as objects of natural history for further study. This would become a practice in the mid-nineteenth century with the emergence of race studies as a part of biological anthropology, with skulls as a primary source of comparative data. Though Jefferson sought no permission to conduct the dig on the land of a friend, in eighteenth-century Virginia the disturbance of collective unmarked burials was not the shocking defacement it would be considered today… Jefferson severely disturbed this place he knew firsthand to be a burial mound of importance to descendants of the interred. The bones were, I am persuaded, most likely left in the mound. Jefferson’s sense of ownership and control of the mound and the people buried in it parallels his ownership and control of the enslaved workers who (never mentioned) must have been the labor source for this formidable dig. The hypothesis formulation, the empiricism, and the publication of results are exemplars of the American Enlightenment. Those methods and questions were asked by a leader of the American Enlightenment who saw both Indians and Africans as people he could control and own." 
Jefferson submitted a draft of the Notes to Marbois in 1781, and it has been suggested that Jefferson's sighting of the Native Americans at the barrow "about thirty years ago" would have been, therefore, when he was about eight years old. However, this estimate, given Jefferson was born in 1743, is valid only if the passage was included in the Marbois draft and not added to a later copy, and, of course, that Jefferson remembered accurately the number of years past. The original manuscript delivered to Marbois in 1781 has never been found and may no longer exist, and it is known that Jefferson continued work on the 1781 manuscript over the next few years.[fn]Douglas L. Wilson, "The Evolution of Jefferson's 'Notes on the State of Virginia,'" The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography vol. 112, no. 2 (2004): 98-133.
Jefferson did not record exactly when he made his excavation of the burial mound, and numerous dates have been suggested: C.G. Holland says "about 1780." Silvio Bedini suggests it was "around 1782," but may have been undertaken in the 1770s. Marie Kimball argues that Jefferson's "observations were, in all probability, made before 1773, the year Jefferson began to become so involved in the Revolutionary movement that he had little thought or time for anything else." The Monticello and Jamestown archaeologist, William Kelso, writes: "It is certain that Jefferson, at some time in his twenties, organized an archaeological expedition to that mound, directed archaeological fieldwork, analyzed what he found, and published his conclusions." Thus Kelso, too, believed the excavation likely to have taken place before 1773.
Evidence presented by Douglas Wilson, however, makes a strong case for an excavation date in the summer or early fall of 1783. As part of his investigation into the evolution of Jefferson's Notes, Wilson points out that Jefferson's account of the dig was a primary addition to the draft he completed in the summer or early fall of 1783. Since Jefferson left Virginia for Philadelphia on October 16 of that year, Wilson argues that the dig was made between the completion of the draft and his departure for Philadelphia. Moreover, based on an analysis of Charles Thomson's comments made in the spring of 1784, Wilson suggests that Thomson had not seen a first-hand account of the dig as it appears in the later draft and that "Jefferson was prompted to describe his dig, many months after the dig itself by Thomson's spring 1784 commentary."
Thomas Jefferson: Father of American Archaeology
Archaeological studies have identified thirteen mounds in the Piedmont, Ridge, and Valley regions of central Virginia, including that described by Jefferson. These burial mounds date to the late prehistoric and early contact era (ca. A.D. 900-1700), vary in size and composition (e.g., earth-stone and conical), and may contain the remains of more than a thousand individuals; also, interestingly, these collective burial mounds typically are bereft of artifacts. Hantman identifies all thirteen as Monacan.
The mound excavated by Jefferson is on the right (south) bank of the South Fork of the Rivanna River just north of Charlottesville and has been explored by archaeologists on several occasions, most recently by members of the Anthropology Department of the University of Virginia. However, as early as 1911, Bushnell explored the area and reported that the mound had "entirely disappeared," most likely washed away due to flooding in the lowland where Jefferson found it. The associated Monacan village of Monasukapanough probably occupied both banks of the South Fork at this point. Research at this site is ongoing.
The original territory of the Monacan Indian Nation and their allies once "comprised more than half the state of Virginia, including almost all of the Piedmont region and parts of the Blue Ridge Mountains." These Indigenous people were mound builders, placing the remains of their dead over time in sacred earthen graves. Charles Thomson gave an eyewitness account of these burial rituals as part of his extensive comments on a draft of Jefferson's Notes, which Jefferson included as an appendix to Notes.
Jefferson's excavation of the burial mound earned him the title of "Father of American Archaeology" and "first American archaeologist" by many scholars. His systematic trenching and use of stratigraphy (i.e., stratigraphic observation) as part of his exploration of the burial mound "anticipates the fundamental approach and the methods of modern archaeology by about a full century."
Today, best practices encourage archaeologists to approach these kinds of investigations in collaboration with the descendants of the site's original inhabitants.
After centuries of warfare, removal, disease, and the ongoing processes of colonization, there remain more than 570 federally recognized tribal nations in the United States today. Many burial sites were destroyed in the name of science or forgotten as Native peoples were pushed out of their homelands, but many of these sacred sites remain. Their protection is of paramount importance.
- Gene Zechmeister, 11/2010, revised by Brandon Dillard, 7/2023.
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