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Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate

Site no.:
Historic (ca.1804 -1950s)
Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate Home
tours, educational programsinterpretive signs
120 Sycamore Road, Lexington, KY 40502
(859) 266-8581

Ashland grounds


Ashland preserves the main house, gardens and core grounds of the estate of Henry Clay, one of the nation’s most influential statesmen during the Antebellum period. Opened to the public in 1950, Ashland has been designated as a National Historic Landmark. Home tours, special events and educational programs are offered throughout the year. Visit Ashland’s website for information about popular educational programs focused on archaeology. 


Henry Clay is best known as “The Great Compromiser, for his role as a statesman and as working to hold the United States together during the first half of the 19th century.  He served as a Representative, a Senator, Secretary of State, and (failed) presidential candidate.  He is known for many political accomplishments, including his role in encouraging the United States; participation in the War of 1812, his role in negotiating the Treaty of Ghent.  He helped make the Speaker of the House the powerful position it is today.  Henry Clay was a very successful lawyer, winning many cases and introducing legal precedents that are still cited today.  As a farmer, Henry Clay became one of the most respected breeders and scientific farmers in the country, introducing Hereford Cattle to the United States.   Henry Clay was also a horseman and lover of racing.  His success as a breeder drew the attention and admiration of the best horsemen in the country, and the blood of his horses still runs in the best Thoroughbreds today.  Find more detail on Henry Clay at

Henry Clay began purchasing the land, which he would develop into the Ashland plantation in 1804, and the main house was finished by 1809, and expanded in 1811-1812.  Following Henry Clay’s death in 1852 the house passed to his son James Clay.  Deteriorations in the house and foundation lead to demolition and rebuilding by 1857.  The new house was rebuilt on the original foundation and largely following the original form, though with some updates.   From 1866 to 1882 the house was owned by the new Kentucky University, used as lodging and museum space.  It came back into the Clay family in 1882 under the ownership of Henry Clay’s granddaughter Anna Clay McDowell and her husband Henry Clay McDowell.  Much of the plantation became residential developments in the 1920s and 1930s.  In 1950 their daughter Nanette McDowell Bullock helped create the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation to preserve the house and grounds.

Henry Clay Lithograph
“Henry Clay of Kentucky,”
lithograph by N. Currier,
ca 1848, Library of Congress.


Ashland the Henry Clay Estate
"Ashland, The Home of Henry Clay,” the original Clay home (front view) as depicted in an engraving by T. Sinclair, ca. 1852; Courtesy,  Library of Congress.


 Archaeologists have been conducting investigations at Ashland since 1990. This archaeology began with survey work around the main house and close up work around the foundation of the main house and standing privy in preparation for renovations in 1992. Additional archaeology from 2000 to 2008 was geared toward a better understanding of Ashland as a plantation site, and so the entire 17-acre grounds were surveyed, and select outbuildings excavated.   

Archaeology at Ashland has provided information needed to assist in restorations and maintenance. Examples include work around foundations about to be restored, or in areas where water lines needed to be installed.  Additional archaeology has been conducted to provide information about the overall layout of the grounds, and the location of outbuildings and work areas, and to provide a sample of material culture that can provide insights into 19th century domestic life at Ashland.

Ashland privy
Ashland’s original privy vault was discovered west of the house and existing privy (background) during archaeological surveys in 2000.


Ashland's Old Privy Vault

In 2000, archaeologist Kim McBride discovered an old privy vault while conducting a comprehensive survey of the grounds. The vault was filled with ceramic pottery, dinnerware and cookware associated with the original home of Henry Clay, which was demolished shortly after his death in 1852. Over a period of three years, archaeologists recovered over 900 ceramic vessels; one of the largest ceramic collections in Kentucky from the Antebellum period. The collection is has been cataloged, identified and refit during analysis at the Anthropology Laboratory of The University of Kentucky.

The dishes recovered from the antebellum privy are exceptional for an archaeological collection since so many could be put back together.  They include a diverse range of forms, such as many serving platters, compote dishes, and a wide range of stoneware and redware crocks for storage and food preparation.  The collection contains many Chinese and European porcelain vessels, and is suggestive of many formal dinners held at Ashland.  But locally made vessels are also represented, such as in the crockery, or a small redware salt dish.   Many of these ceramics are on display today at Ashland.

Kim McBride and Carrel Rush analyze data
Archaeologists Kim McBride and Carrel Rush
analyze data from the Ashland privy collection;
KAS 2008.

Excavation of Ashland's old privy vault
Excavations of Ashland’s old
privy vault led to the recovery of
over 900 ceramic vessels; KAS 2003.

Refit porcelian dining set
Refit formal porcelain dining set from the early to mid 19th century, with gold leaf and Clay monogram, Ashland privy collection, KAS, 2009.

Ashland’s Slave Quarters

Excavations at the slave quarters have revealed that the structures were made of brick, and that at least some were whitewashed on the outside.  They had windows with glass panes, and inside the walls were plastered, and floors were of wood.  Since only rubble and not intact architectural remains were found, the exact dimensions remain a mystery. The artifacts found along with the building debris include a variety of typical domestic items such as: container glass and ceramics, buttons and other fasteners; and personal items such as children’s toys – marbles, doll parts, harmonica fragments are examples. Unusual items such as an ivory gaming piece, and dishes from sets that were probably also used in the main house were also found.  Overall, the dishes from the slave quarters included much more redware and utilitarian vessels compared to the dishes from the main house, and suggest less complex table settings and menus.

Red ware bowl sherd with a Sgraffito design, likely from the early 19th century, Ashland privy collection, KAS, 2009.

Ashland Slave Quarters Interpretive Sign
Archaeologist excavate the former site of slave quarters on the grounds of Ashland; KAS 2008.

Redware bowl with Sgraffito design


The archaeology at Ashland has greatly added to our knowledge of the site.  The remains of a circular, brick, plastered lined feature discovered behind the main house may relate to efforts to irrigate the gardens.  A large cistern found just off the back veranda showed innovative use of limestone filtering, probably to enhance water quality.
The archaeology suggests that many outbuildings were needed to run the Ashland plantation.  Kitchen related outbuildings found during archaeological investigations include a small square foundation near the kitchen that may have been a cheese and butter house, and a large circular foundation found just east of the two standing ice houses that may represent a third ice house or some other sort of cold storage building.  Livestock was always an important part of the Ashland plantation, and remains of two barns and a smaller support outbuilding were found southwest of the house. Slaves provided much of the essential labor at Ashland, and archaeology has resulted in the location of remnants from slave quarters that were located just north of the present formal garden.  Other below ground features found at Ashland many small features like post molds or small trash pits, or larger cisterns and privies.

What was not found during the survey was also important – no outbuildings or work areas were found in the area immediately behind the main house, in what Henry Clay called his pleasure grounds and where a circular walking path was located.  On many plantations this area behind the main house was a heavy use area, but Ashland followed a more European example of having an area set aside for contemplation and leisure.

Excavation of Ashland Privy
Old privy excavation with artifacts “in-situ” or in place, Ashland; KAS, 2003.

Map showing survey of core grounds
An archaeological survey map of the core grounds of Ashland; KAS, 2006.


Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate is open to the general public for home tours, special events and educational programs related to Kentucky history and archaeology. Ashland’s website has information and on-line resources, including educational programs focused on artifacts. 

Students who visit Ashland can participate in a “hands on” experience with nineteenth century artifacts. Working in teams, they will make hypotheses about their artifact’s purpose. They will defend their hypotheses in front of the group and take questions before being presented with the artifact’s actual purpose. Follow up can be done that tie in many of Kentucky’s Curriculum on Historical Perspective. In addition to using historical perspective content, students will be engaging in many of the SLO (Speaking, Listening, Observing) objectives in KDE’s curriculum guide as well as using scientific processes to observe and draw conclusions.

Students conduct excavations at Ashland Students conduct excavations at Ashland; KAS, 2006.



Ashland website


Educational Resources

Ashland website
Field trips:
"Artifact   Adventures" 
"Historic Detective"


- KA Volume III

Curriculum materials

- KA Vol III Cirriculum

Exploring History in Your Own Backyard: The Ashland Estate,” Historical Archaeology Resource Guide for grades 4-8, KAS 2002 (pdf - 1376 KB)

Trowel and Pen Article

Professional Resources

Preliminary Archaeological Investigations at Ashland, 15FA206, Lexington, Kentucky, by W. Stephen McBride and Kim A. McBride, Report 245, Program for Cultural Resource Management, University of Kentucky, Lexington.

Archaeology at Henry Clay’s Ashland Estate: Investigations of the Mansion, Yard and Privy, by W. Stephen McBride, Report 281, Program for Cultural Resource Management, University of Kentucky, Lexington.



Last Updated 2/15/2010