Ash Lawn - Highland, Charlottesville, Virginia

Foodways Impressions at James and Elizabeth Monroe's Home

By Patricia B. Mitchell

Original portion

James and Elizabeth Monroe's “Highland,” ca. 1799, is seen in the foreground, with the late Victorian “Ash Lawn” addition by the Massey family in the background.

Ash Lawn - Highland, near Charlottesville, Virginia, was home to the fifth U. S. President, James Monroe, and his wife Elizabeth. The Monroes lived in the house from 1799 to 1823. It is said that Monroe's friend Thomas Jefferson, who lived only two and a half miles away at Monticello, selected the house's location and helped design it. In fact, an early letter written by Jefferson while in Europe to Monroe exists, in which Jefferson asks Monroe, “What measures have you taken for establishing yourself near Monticello?”

Monroe's “cabin castle” (as Monroe called it) was part of a 1,000-acre plantation. When the Monroes lived at Highland (the early name of the home), 30 to 40 slaves and freed servants worked to serve the Monroe family and their guests. The field slaves had quarters at some distance from the main house, but the house servants lived close to the big house in a three-bay / three-family slave quarter. The slave dwellings had fireplaces for cooking and warmth. The present slave quarter building has been reconstructed, based on archaeology and a 1908 photograph (see below).


In the foreground are seen the well house, “posies,” and herbs. In the background is the galleried porch above the kitchen entrance.

Cooking for the Monroes was done in the “part stone kitchen cellar,” as Monroe described it in his 1809 insurance policy. The cellar kitchen still exists, and a wine cellar adjoins the kitchen. A very short distance outside, the well remains, from which servants once drew water. The kitchen yard also contains the original smokehouse, and the overseer's cottage. An herb garden, icehouse, and nearby vegetable garden met many of the plantation's nutritional, medicinal, and aesthetic needs.

Around 1840, part of the original Federal-style house was destroyed, probably by fire. A handsome Victorian addition was built in 1884 for the Rev. John Massey.

Ash Lawn - Highland is now famous for the magnificent boxwood. The peacocks in residence there also receive recognition. Mainly, however, the site is remembered as a home of James Monroe: Governor of Virginia, U. S. Senator, Secretary of State, Secretary of War, negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase, Minister to England, France and Spain, President of the United States, and author of the Monroe Doctrine. His presidential term is known as the “Era of Good Feeling.”

Victorian-era entrance

Tall boxwood line the entrance walkway to the Ash Lawn - Highland's Victorian-era addition.

Kitchen entrance

The entrance to the kitchen of the main house is seen under the galleried porch at the rear of the Monroe (Highland) portion of Ash Lawn - Highland.

Cookbook in kitchen

Upon a kitchen work table rest a bowl of fruit and nuts, and Nelly Custis Lewis' Housekeeping Book, a fascimile publication of a handwritten collection of recipes and remedies kept by Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis, George Washington's adopted daughter.

Kitchen fireplace

The fireplace in the Ash Lawn - Highland kitchen.

Kitchen with utensils

Various early 19th-century utensils are seen in the kitchen.

Looking out the kitchen door

Looking out the kitchen door, one sees the herb garden in the foreground and the well house behind.

Ripening fig

A fig ripens near Ash Lawn - Highland's kitchen door.

Rooster and hen

A rooster and hen are in their enclosure not far from the kitchen.


The smokehouse sits just a few steps uphill from the slave quarter.

Overseer's house

The overseer's house sits just a few steps downhill from the slave quarter.

Slave quarter, 1908

The building which formerly served as Highland's slave quarter, as seen in 1908 (photograph provided by Ash Lawn - Highland). The smokehouse is seen in the background.

Slave quarter fireplace

A fireplace in the slave quarter is still utilized for cooking demonstrations.

Dependency row

From foreground to distance are seen the dependency row of smokehouse, slave quarter, and overseer's house.

Entrance to vegetable garden

Entrance to the vegetable garden.

Corn tassel

Corn is in full tassel in the Ash Lawn - Highland garden.

Green peppers

Green peppers are found in the garden. Vegetables for the table were available just yards away from the kitchen. Grains were a primary cash crop at Highland, although tobacco and other crops were also grown there. Two grist mills on the property produced flour and meal for the home and for profit.

Piccirilli scultpure of Monroe

The front walkway leads out to the sculpture of James Monroe by Attilio Piccirilli.

Virginia Historical Marker

A Virginia historical marker stands at the entrance to Ash Lawn - Highland.

This estate was the home of James Monroe, fifth President of the United States. In 1793, James and Elizabeth Kortright Monroe purchased 1,000 acres adjoining Jefferson's Monticello. Called Highland, the plantation, eventually totalling 3,500 acres, was their principal residence from 1799 to 1823. Known in foreign affairs for the Monroe Doctrine, James Monroe also served as governor of Virginia for four one-year terms, U. S. minister to England, France, and Spain, U. S. senator, and secretary of state and war. Enlarged and renamed by subsequent owners, Ash Lawn - Highland is now owned by Monroe's alma mater, the College of William and Mary.


Books on Related Topics

By Patricia B. Mitchell

Available at Ash Lawn - Highland and other museums throughout the United States, or directly from the publisher.

That Palace in Washington

That Palace in Washington

Cooking in the Young Republic 1780-1850

Cooking in the Young Republic 1780-1850

Plantation Row Slave Cabin Cooking

Plantation Row Slave Cabin Cooking

Four Centuries of American Herbs

Four Centuries of American Herbs