Monday, October 1, 2012

Triangulating Jefferson


[US Coast Survey 1851; this map shows the baseline used in the first US Coast Survey, the line was established on Fire Island; image courtesy of Stony Brook University]

Triangulation refers to a technique used in surveying and political action as well as research within the social sciences.  In surveying, the term means the dividing of an area into triangles using known points and distances; angles are then measured from the known baselines to a new point, and its distance is calculated given existing information.  This technique was used especially in circumstances that were difficult to survey by traditional means, allowing for the staking out of new territory along coastlines, in the atmosphere (pilot navigational charts), or in outer space (GPS satellite surveys).  Within the social sciences, triangulation refers to using more than two methods in a study in order to test results.  In political action, like in chess, the term signifies a specific maneuver in which an opponent is left with the move and at a disadvantage. 

What I’m interested in today is what this method for the staking out new terrain might reveal when considering the social and material implications of Thomas Jefferson’s landscape designs.  While little discussed, many of Jefferson’s original interests and design projects were concerned with landscape practices and concepts.  In 1763 he made a study of navigation on the Rivanna River and subsequently lead a project to make it navigable as far as Milton, VA. In 1773 he was appointed surveyor of Albemarle County and even though he quickly resigned the post, he would use surveying to organize his experimental and productive agricultural landscapes.  Around this time he also undertook the first systematic proto-archeological project in the United States, leading the stratigraphic excavation of an Indian mound near the Rivanna River.

Working toward this reorientation, it is useful to focus on the second of Jefferson’s three major building projects in western Virginia- Poplar Forest.  As the red headed stepchild of the Jeffersonian canon, Poplar Forest has rarely received attention alongside the well-known constructions at Monticello and the University of Virginia.  It is something of a transitional project chronologically, aesthetically, and technologically.  For that reason it promises insights into both projects.  An examination of Poplar Forest with a focus on landscape and indigenous built forms promises insights into the design of Jeffersonian social and educational institutions that have remained inaccessible to Eurocentric epistemology.
[Poplar Forest near Lynchburg, VA, from the eastern mound; the summer kitchen is in the foreground and the main house is in the background]

Poplar Forest is a main central house with a large geometric mound on either side, and impressive lawns to the back and front.  Current theories about the existing mounds asymmetrically located on either side of the house draw directly from European architectural theory:  the mounds are supposed it to be a direct adaptation of Palladian concepts, intended to imitate a symmetrical fa├žade with wings that terminate in a pavilion.  Jefferson used earthen mounds at Poplar Forest- a radically different technology than a Palladian pavilion- but even the technology is attributed to European precedents he had seen; in the ornamental gardens of European aristocrats mounds were sometimes constructed throughout to create vantage points for surveying ornamental surroundings.  It is supposed that Jefferson took these known forms and concepts and created his arrangement, bringing in mounds close to the house to serve as cheap stand-ins for Palladian pavilions.

This explanation is decidedly Eurocentric and simplistic.  While this is not necessarily bad, it is highly problematic with respect to issues of aesthetics, technology, and context.  For instance, why did he plant the mounds with trees, obscuring views, if they were traditionally used to provide vistas over immediate ornamental grounds?  What about the fact that Poplar Forest was never intended as a public house for entertaining, but rather as a working farm where Jefferson could make some money to pay off his debts and get away from the never-ending string of guests making up his public life centered at Monticello?  Why were the mounds constructed asymmetrically and off-axis if they were intended to imitate Palladian forms?  Were these truly only a cheap stand-in for more stately Palladian pavilions?  And as to the idea that they provided a convenient disposal site for excavation from the South Lawn, couldn’t this material have be disposed in almost any location without the hassle of compaction techniques and geometrical construction needed to create the mounds?
[Artists’ rendering imagining the archeological dig of an Indian mound undertaken near Monticello by a young Thomas Jefferson; the vertical elevation is exaggerated and indicates the various stratigraphic layers that Jefferson made note of in the mound’s construction]


Jefferson’s views of the Indians in Virginia were complicated.  In addition to implementing policies that stripped certain nations of their land claims he had communicated his desire that “your blood will mix with ours; and will spread, with ours, over this great island [all of North America].”  Writing to Benjamin Hawkins during the period in which he was constructing Poplar Forest, Jefferson said on February 18, 1803:
The ultimate point of rest and happiness for [the Indians] is to let our settlements and theirs meet and blend together, to intermix, and become one people.  Incorporating themselves with us as citizens of the United States, this is what the natural progress of things will of course, bring, on, and it will be better to promote it than retard it.

This vision of Jefferson provides impetus for a new thesis- American settlements as an exceptional blend of imported European traditions and indigenous practices and concepts, set within a landscape that was larger and more violent than anything that Europeans had experienced.  It is known that Jefferson had great interest in the mound structures of the native peoples that were located throughout Virginia and had even undertaken an excavation of one in the 1770’s.  Writing later he noted that:
“many [mounds] are to be found all over this country.  These are of different sizes, some of them constructed of earth, and some of loose stones… There being one of these in my neighborhood, I wished to satisfy myself whether any, and which of these opinions was just.  For the purpose I determined to open and examine it thoroughly… It was a spheroidical form, of about 40 feet diameter at the base, and had been of about twelve feet altitude…”

Certain facts arise from his early archeological work that might bring new concepts in to view when considering the landscape and architecture of Poplar Forest.  That the sizes, proportions, material construction, and regional context were all similar in both the Indian mounds of the area and the mounds at Poplar Forest suggest that there is much to be learned from a more in depth consideration of the influence of Indian burial mounds, and indigenous architectural practices in general, on the architecture, landscape design, and ultimately public policy of Thomas Jefferson.

Despite being one of the most digested public figures in the history of the United States, and entire history is waiting to be written which considers Jefferson’s work from a landscape perspective with a particular focus on the influence of indigenous forms and practices.  In doing that work we might gain some insight in to Jefferson’s understanding of and interest in indigenous settlements, and how he saw them “blending together” with those of the European settlers and African slaves?  While the above questions have been traditionally considered from a general sociological perspective, a study that focuses on the landscape design of Poplar Forest might provide new insight not only into the design and construction of the Lawn and the grounds of Monticello, but also help us to understand the Public Lands Survey System, and other ambitious landscape projects in the Americas.
[west mound with view toward the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond; some trees remain on the mounds, although historical documents suggest that the mounds were much more heavily planted according to Jefferson's original design]

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