The Employees of Lindenwald: Archeology of the Martin Van Buren Household

Lindenwald
Lindenwald today

National Park Service

Lindenwald in Kinderhook, New York is famous for being the home of Martin Van Buren, the eighth President of the United States. Van Buren bought the property in 1839 and retired there two years later after his unsuccessful second presidential campaign. He remained there with his four sons, their wives, and children until his death in 1862. During that period, Lindenwald was a “gentleman’s farm” with the Main House, outbuildings (including stables, two gatehouses, and a barn), orchards, and agricultural fields of corn, oats, hay, and other crops.

While the Van Burens were Lindenwald’s most well-known occupants, multiple other individuals lived on the property as well. Historical documents such as census records and Van Buren’s own letters document a household staff composed of four positions (cook, waitress, chambermaid, and possibly a laundress or a parlor-maid) filled by recently-immigrated Irish women fleeing the 1840’s Potato Famine (West, 11). In addition, the Van Burens employed a coachman, a gardener, a foreman, and both white and African-American farm laborers (Banister, 42). Some of these individuals lived at the farm as tenants. While history has recorded the names of these individuals (Bridget Clary, Catherine Jordan, James and Mary Stephenson and their children Jane and Thomas, Peter Huyck, and others), their day-to-day experiences at Lindenwald are mentioned either briefly or not at all (Banister, 45; West, Note 16). Archeology is one way that scholars can uncover what daily life was like for those many people who made up the President’s household.
Lindenwald excavations
Open excavation unit at the North Gatehouse with artifacts in situ (“in place”).

Banister, Photograph 5-6

Multiple archeological excavations have been performed at Lindenwald. Many focused on the Main House (built around 1797) where the Van Burens and a number of their staff lived. Findings included architectural changes to the house that Van Buren himself initiated, and domestic refuse such as broken plates and bottles, buttons, and pieces of farm tools.

Archeologists have also investigated the outbuildings surrounding the Main House. In 2002, National Park Service and Public Archaeology Laboratory (PAL) staff excavated the North Gatehouse. This structure and its twin the South Gatehouse were located at the end of the now-buried gravel drive and helped compose the formal front entrance to the Van Buren home. Both gatehouses were likely built between 1840 and 1856 when they first appear on maps of the estate (Banister, 43). During Van Buren’s time, the North Gatehouse housed his coachman, gardener, and their families. After Van Buren’s son John sold Lindenwald in 1864, laborers for the following owners continued to live in both gatehouses.
Lindenwald artifacts
Artifacts excavated at the North Gatehouse.

Banister, Photographs 5-11 and 5-12

Archeologists uncovered many types of artifacts during the North Gatehouse excavations. Again, broken ceramics, utensils, and food items including pig and fish bones were remnants of daily meals. Doll parts and marbles were signs of the youngest North Gatehouse occupants. Thimbles and a large number of buttons indicated the “piecework” women living in the Gatehouse performed to supplement family income. Scottish, German, and English pipes illustrated complex trade networks and perhaps even individual immigrants’ origins.

It cannot be certain whether these artifacts were used by Van Buren employees or later tenants. However, together with the Main House findings, they provide insight on daily life as a member of the Lindenwald household. The tasks these individuals did each day (cooking meals, doing laundry, planting and harvesting crops, tending farm animals, even driving the Van Burens in their carriage) were what kept Lindenwald operating smoothly both during the President’s time there and afterwards.

Resources


Take a Virtual Tour of Lindenwald.

Banister, Jennifer and Kristen Heitert. Archeological Investigation in Support of the Reconstruct North Gatehouse Project. Martin Van Buren National Historic Site. Public Archaeology (PAL) Report No. 2131, 2008.

Martin Van Buren National Historic Site. National Park Service.

Simon, Brona G. Historic Grounds Report, Lindenwald, Martin Van Buren National Historic Site, Kinderhook, New York Volume II. Archeological Data Section. Public Archaeology Laboratory, Brown University, 1982.

West, Patricia. Irish Immigrant Workers in Antebellum New York: The Experience of Domestic Servants at Van Buren’s Lindenwald. The Hudson Valley Regional Review: A Journal of Regional Studies Vol. 9, No. 2, September 1992.

Last updated: November 14, 2018