Image Credit: Morven Office 1939, UVA Special Collections Library

The Rural Virginia Landscape as Multi-Layered Research Site

The rural landscape known today as “Morven” has a complex, multi-layered history spanning thousands of years of human occupation. Located in southwestern Albemarle County, not far from Jefferson’s Monticello, the site has attracted new interest from researchers since its acquisition by the University of Virginia in 2001.

Today, Morven is home to an ongoing research initiative featuring team-taught classes, field schools, and a Summer Institute. Rather than focus on one period of site history to the exclusion of others, scholars from a range of disciplines – History, Architecture, Archaeology, Landscape Architecture, Environmental Sciences, and Politics – are attempting to understand the site as a whole through cross-disciplinary exchange informed by discipline-specific research agendas.

Several distinct periods of occupancy and ownership contribute to the site’s cultural significance:

1000-1700s: First Peoples/Native Presence. Archaeological research at Morven is contributing to our understanding of the native presence in this part of North America prior to European exploration and settlement. To date, three sites revealing prehistoric and historic-era land uses and occupation have been located on the Indian Camp Creek valley portion of the site.

1730s-1790s: Carter Family Estate/Colonial & Revolutionary Virginia. Research on this period of site history illuminates the westward migration of English planters, the distribution of former Indian lands through royal land grants, and the engrossment of large estates through English laws of primogeniture and entail. The subdivision of the Carter family estate in the 1790s corresponded to the passage of state laws, championed by Thomas Jefferson, designed to discourage the concentration of wealth and encourage the development of a middling class of yeoman farmers on the classical republican model.

1795-1813: William Short’s “Indian Camp”/Early Republic. Two radical visions -- Thomas Jefferson’s scheme for sustainable agriculture through long-term leases and crop rotation and Short’s abolitionist dream of transforming slaves into free laborers -- found expression in dozens of letters between the two men, discussing Short’s absentee ownership and Jefferson’s management of the property. Researchers are also working to document the lives and labors of white tenant farmers during this period.

1813-1853: David Higginbotham’s “Morven” Plantation/Antebellum Era. In this period the site was renamed Morven and transformed from small-scale tenant farming to large-scale plantation slavery. Key documents include letters written by white family members, an inventory of household goods and slaves, and maps showing site features and boundaries.

1853-1906: D.G. Smith & Descendants/Civil War, Reconstruction, and New South Eras. The demise of slavery and the transition of masters and slaves to employers and employees distinguish this period of site history. Researchers have begun to map the reconfigured racial geography and social relations at Morven in the post-emancipation era.

1926-1987: Stone Family/Early-to-Mid-20th Century. Under two generations of Stone family ownership, Morven became a nationally recognized stud farm and garden estate. Student-generated visualizations of the Flanders Garden and seasonal tasks associated with the stud farm can be found here.

1988-2001: John W. Kluge’s “Morven Collection.” Kluge’s acquisition of Morven and surrounding farms represented a major real estate investment that greatly expanded the site’s boundaries and, through Kluge’s shrewd estate management, preserved the historic core of the property from development.

2001-Present: UVA Foundation/Morven Research. In 2001, Kluge gifted 7,379-acres, valued at more than $45 million, to the University of Virginia. Today, Morven is a 2,913-acre real estate holding, with 43 buildings and a 749-acre historic core to be held in perpetuity by the UVA Foundation and used to support University of Virginia educational programs. Plans for the adaptive reuse of the site include hostel-style student housing and studio space for research and design.

Scot French is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Central Florida. He has been involved with the Morven research project since Spring 2010, when he taught HIUS 4993: Morven Farm: The Rural Virginia Landscape in History and Memory” as part of a multi-faculty teaching and research initiative at U.Va. In 2010-11, he served as a faculty member in the Architecture School’s Sara Shallenberger Brown Cultural Landscapes and Sites Initiative. His digital project, “Notes on the Future of Virginia: The Correspondence of Thomas Jefferson and William Short, 1785-1826,” places the Indian Camp era of Morven’s history in local-global context.