University of Virginia Vice President for Research
Sustainability Research Initiatives

Director's Blog

June 11, 2012

Morven is ready for its close-up

Morven's gardens have been a highlight of Historic Garden Week in Virginia since the 1930s. As part of the annual celebration of Virginia's finest gardens, houses and landmarks, Morven contributes to the Garden Club of Virginia's mission of inspiring a love of gardening, educating both members and the public, and restoring historic gardens and landscapes.

Morven's formal garden was redesigned in 1930 by prominent landscape architect Annette Hoyt Flanders. Using parallels in music and art composition, Flanders not only reorganized the geometric beds seen in a 1923 plan and added landscape features to incorporate the sweeping vistas of the surrounding landscape, but also orchestrated what colors would bloom in what sequence in the garden as the season progressed. Thanks to numerous photographs of Morven's gardens over the years (including those in issues of National Geographic and in the Smithsonian's Archive of American Gardens), the garden's cycles of growth, maturity, and renewal can be seen - as well as the remarkable fidelity to Flanders' early Modern design.

Its participation in Historic Garden Week is the only day that Morven is open to the public, but the public got another look when Morven was featured on the PBS program "Virginia Home Grown" on April 24, 2012. This episode (archived at describes Morven's partnership with the Horticulture program at Piedmont Virginia Community College, whose students do their lab work not only among the botanical specimens in the formal gardens, but also in Morven's range of microenvironments including fields of native species, outstanding trees in both old growth and re-planted forested areas, and wetlands. During the 2012 summer semester, PVCC students will take part in a hands-on plant propagation class, and contribute some of their work to the Morven kitchen garden project.

The PVCC Horticulture students will also work with the secret to Morven's gardens: the landscape staff. Among its members are employees who have worked at Morven for generations, and their long experience with these gardens and environments, of learning what will work here and what won't, and drawing from that collective wisdom and working as a team - these are invaluable elements for a student starting their career in the "green industry".

Morven is blessed with a beautiful site, thriving gardens described as "the epitome of a Piedmont, Virginia country estate", and a knowledgeable and caring team that preserves its historic landscape. And it is happy to share its moment in the spotlight with students who can transplant its benefits into their futures.

February 17, 2012

© Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, ,
Gift of Mary Churchill Short, Fanny Short Butler and William Short

Family Resemblance

Scholars and editors who have worked with the William Short Papers sometimes get the impression that Short was a whiner. Indeed, his letters do expound on inadequate diplomatic decisions, seemingly nepotistic relationships, and negative circumstances and how they might be addressed. Entering the discourse midstream, one could get the impression of a capital complainer.

Short himself recognized his propensity to whinge - even closing a 1793 letter to Thomas Jefferson, "I shall ever remain my dear Sir your friend as sincere as I am troublesome and tedious." But this trait which might cause Short to be pigeonholed as chronically dyspeptic comes into a new light when considering his cousin Fulwar.

In this semester's "Worlds of William Short" UVA history seminar, one of the themes that the class is examining is family, kin and social networks, and how these relationships provide not only context but can also suggest motives and meanings behind the choices made by Short and those around him.

Fulwar Skipwith, Jr. (1765-1830), Short's first cousin once removed and the son of Sir Peyton Skipwith, also attended the College of William and Mary but left for service at the Revolutionary War battle at Yorktown. Going into business as a tobacco consigner in Richmond by 1784, he was working in London by 1785 handling the accounts of Virginia planters - and his biographer Henry Bartholomew Cox suggests he accompanied Jefferson through London bookstores during Jefferson's visit in 1786. After returning to Richmond in 1787 to address a business misfortune, he escorted Jefferson's daughter Maria and Sally Hemings to Paris. Fulwar visited his and Short's mutual cousin Grey Skipwith (1771-1852), who was being prepared at Eton to take his place in the British peerage, before sailing back to Richmond in 1789, where he wrote to the newly-named Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson to ask for a consulship and was granted the post at Martinique in the French West Indies. Due to the turbulence in the region under the spirit of the French Revolution and culminating in the slave revolt in Santo Domingo the following year, Fulwar returned to the U.S. in 1792. In 1794 he accompanied James Monroe to Paris as the Secretary of the American Legation and was appointed Consul-General there, administering for ship's owners and captains the settlement of spoliation claims for vessels and cargoes seized by privateers and warships at the time of the XYZ Affair and the onset of the Quasi War between the U.S. and France. After resigning at the end of 1798, Fulwar remained in France and resumed his service as Commercial Agent in Paris from 1801-1808. As one of the few Americans representatives well-regarded by government officials in France, Fulwar was a valuable conduit for information about the 1800 retrocession from Spain to France of the Louisiana territory, and the negotiations for its sale to the U.S. in 1803. Later he served briefly as the governor of the Republic of West Florida, and in the Louisiana state Senate.

Beyond these accomplishments, much of Fulwar's career in these years was unhappy, due to a difference of opinion between himself and others in the diplomatic service. Cox summarized that "Fulwar Skipwith of Virginia was a capable administrator in an age of capable statesmen. His rise to prominence and even eminence would have been as meteoric as that of James Monroe had he been less brilliant or more willing to obey tactfully his instructions from the State Department. But Skipwith was totally unable by nature to accept incompetence or corruption in office. He immediately expressed resentment of superior authority when he knew that power was being misused.. His adamant exhortations favoring impeccable honor as a general rule of conduct in office were more than the usual sentiments of Republican virtue so rife in the correspondence of statesmen and businessmen at the turn of the nineteenth century. For Skipwith, honor was part of a long tradition, symbolized in his family history by service to government before the Norman Conquest, and not simply a garment of the hour to be worn on occasion.."

Described as Fulwar's childhood companion and lifelong friend, did his cousin William Short share these family attributes? And if so, how does that shared quality transform the impression of Short's complaining? What does their family code of honor that motivated such complaints reveal about changing values in the U.S. and France at the time, and how do they contrast with what some of the "primary figures" of that era considered politically expedient?

Further study of the William Short Papers in the collection of the Library of Congress may provide further clues for a family resemblance - especially as it was a collection of letters between William Short and Fulwar Skipwith, written between 1793 and 1808, that was the first acquisition for the LOC's William Short Papers in 1898.

November 10, 2011

© The Huntington Library, Art Collections,
and Botanical Gardens

History - and where we find it

Part of our work at Morven is to better understand the history of this property and how it has been used, and to use that research process as a resource for the faculty and students of the University of Virginia.

But beyond this self-interest, we seek the connections between this particular site and its greater environment – including the interwoven social, economic, political, and environmental dimensions. In this work, we draw upon not only published and archival sources and physical evidence, but also the excellent core knowledge and methodology established by a wide variety of scholars and scientists on topics similar and divergent, bringing light from a number of directions to illuminate new aspects of Morven’s history.

An ongoing research initiative at Morven is the study of a number of persons who rented agricultural fields at Morven during the period of William Short’s ownership of the property (1795-1813) and Jefferson’s oversight of its operation on Short’s behalf while he was residing in Europe until 1802. Information about these tenants has been identified in Jefferson’s correspondence with Short, in local property deeds, in family genealogies and traditions, and through archaeological surveys and excavation.

Another challenge is to describe the setting in which these individuals lived: where did they stand in the social hierarchy of their day, and what does that suggest about their strategies for personal success (Mr. Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness”) and about their incentive to rent these fields in Albemarle County? From the assembled evidence, can they be described as “middling folk,” occupying a little-understood stratum between the well-known narratives about the lives of the planters and gentry, and the separate everyday landscape of the enslaved?

An invaluable resource for this research is the work done at Monticello. In addition to research and scholarship about Thomas Jefferson, for the past three decades Monticello has also explored the world of the plantation’s enslaved workers. Recent research has shown, there were many gradations of social and economic strata and relationships in the plantation-based community of Jefferson’s lifetime – including white persons (some formerly indentured servants) with little wealth who rented land, freed slaves (some with specialized artisanal skills or experienced craftsman) living outside the defined regime of the plantation, and enslaved persons in “abroad marriages” beyond their home plantations as well as those who were allowed to raise and sell their own crops or rent out some of their own labor, in addition to their duties to their own plantation.

By bringing together archaeological fieldwork and the specialized study of material culture with the investigation of existing landmarks and traditions about missing ones, following the faint traces of such “middling folk” in local histories, genealogies, and court records, the collaborative group of researchers at Morven is using the specific circumstances of this property to develop an image of the life of its range of inhabitants that can then serve as a model and comparison for other locations, and as an important contribution to a richer understanding of Jefferson’s neighborhood.

July 15, 2011

William Short on C-SPAN

The presentation of recent research about William Short, co-presented by Morven and the International Center for Jefferson Studies at the Jefferson Library in May, and featuring a panel of UVA faculty and graduate students with Peter Onuf as the moderator and Annette Gordon-Reed as respondent, discussing Short's emancipation proposals to Thomas Jefferson,

will be broadcast on C-SPAN 3's "American History TV" programming on Sunday July 17, 2011 at 8:30 AM, 7:30 PM, and 10:30 PM as "Jefferson and Alternatives to Slavery".

July 5, 2011

Presidents and Precedents

Our study of William Short addresses the challenge of his stature: Short is not a "primary figure" like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. While his name is not attached to any battles, treaties, or landmark legislation, Short's correspondence (much of it in the collection of the Library of Congress) provides unique evidence not only of his significant contributions in the diplomatic relations, foreign affairs, and international business transactions of his day, but also creates a richer context for the presidents and other primary figures of the American Founding Era.

Born in Surry County in 1759 to a slave-holding Virginia gentry family, William Short was related to Thomas Jefferson's wife. Short graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1779 and studied law with George Wythe, with Jefferson serving as one of the examiners when he passed the bar in 1781. Jefferson referred to Short as his "adoptive son", guided him in his fledgling legal career and urged him to seek election to the Virginia Executive Council in 1783. When Jefferson was appointed as Minister to France the following year, he offered Short the position of his private secretary. Joining Jefferson in Paris, Short then remained in Europe after Jefferson's return to the U.S. in 1789, serving in a number of diplomatic appointments through 1802. Jefferson had purchased the "Indian Camp" property (now known as Morven) on Short's behalf in 1795, but on his return Short decided to settle in Philadelphia, where he remained in contact with a circle of influential international figures. Short never married, but as a result of his successful business ventures, Short was able to use his considerable wealth for civic and cultural philanthropy until his death in 1849.

During the past year, the Morven research related to William Short has proceeded along three different avenues: the tangible evidence from archaeology and above-ground archaeology that is revealing a range of choices and strategies about the "Indian Camp" and their effect on the landscape; the initiation of a pilot project for a digital edition of the vast and uncatalogued William Short Papers in the collection of the Library of Congress; and interdisciplinary approaches for delving into and bringing context to Short's 1790s proposal to Thomas Jefferson for an agricultural "thought experiment" that could provide a stepping stone to competent lives in the community for freed slaves, using a property like the "Indian Camp".

In a presentation in May with the International Center for Jefferson Studies at the Jefferson Library in Charlotteseville, a panel of UVA researchers discussed "William Short's Emancipation Proposal to Thomas Jefferson." Bringing together their individual expertise in contemporary issues of slavery and anti-slavery, the international perceptions of liberty and labor that Jefferson and Short had both encountered in Paris on the eve of the French Revolution, and their separate roles as businessmen, the panel's collaborative research yielded insights into the two men's ideals and priorities beyond the scope of a conventional research focus, and incorporated digital visualizations of these multiple connections and relationships. Moderated by Thomas Jefferson Foundation professor of history Peter Onuf, and including a response by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annette Gordon-Reed, this presentation will be broadcast on C-SPAN's American History TV program in July 2011.

This research is setting a new precedent - in its methodology as well as in its approach to William Short. Complex issues such as the range of responses to slavery and abolition cannot be adequately described by a single source or through the eyes of a single participant. Yet the study of the motivations and experiences of a deeply involved yet non-primary figure such as William Short shines a sidelight that fills in our perception of national figures and the fabric of their lives and decisions. Research at Morven enables this focused yet connected understanding of the historical subject, and of our evolving processes today for sharing and expanding the conventional wisdom.

March 3, 2011

Of Loyalty and Loam

Passing Thomas Jefferson's "little mountain" on the way to Morven, one wonders if the slopes and woods there today resemble those that Mr. Jefferson saw and loved so deeply. In contrast to the conventional idea of planters using up large expanses of land and then moving on in search of new soil, Jefferson was firmly rooted to this place and the home he created here. Rather than move to a city with the social and cultural amenities suited to his talents and inclinations, he sought instead to build up the neighborhood around Monticello, and encouraged friends to purchase land nearby to form "a society to our taste."

One of these friends was William Short, who is sometimes called Jefferson's "adoptive son." Serving as his personal secretary, Short accompanied Jefferson during his appointment as a minister to France. When Jefferson returned, Short remained in Europe on diplomatic business, and Jefferson oversaw some of his investments in the U.S. One of these was the 1795 purchase of 1,300 acres near Monticello, which was then called "the Indian camp" and today is part of Morven.

In addition to increased value of the real estate itself in the speculation of the 1790s, Short was also seeking an income from the property through its rental to agricultural tenants. From Jefferson's first letter about the Indian Camp estate, he emphasizes its good soil in the fields and foothills, and the "grey" areas of timber. Jefferson's assessment of the rich soil corresponds the 1940 Soil Survey of Albemarle County which identified an area of Davidson clay loam along Carter's Mountain - considered one of the most productive soils in the Piedmont Plateau, and consistent as well with the mid-19th century boast of the Southwest Mountains having been fertile to their summit (Governor James Barbour quoted in Edward C. Mead's 1898 "Historic Homes of the South-West Mountains"). Overall, at least a dozen different soil types have been identified within Morven's bounds.

In recent months, a project has been initiated to study the interconnected human and environmental history of Morven through analyzing the sedimentary structure of this soil - providing a snapshot of the soil's evolution from prehistoric eras and the effect of cultural practices which began here in the late 18th century. In his approach to the environmental history of the Southwest Mountains area surrounding Monticello, research archaeologist Don Gaylord will use geoarchaeological and archaeobotanical data from a series of colluvial deposits that display the tremendous increase in erosion that occurred with the transition from swidden-based tobacco farming to plowing for wheat production. These data will contribute to the evaluation of the broader economic and ideological trends that guided individual farmers' decisions.

Jefferson and his contemporaries proposed various systems of field definition and crop rotation to maintain and improve the land's fertility from the depleting effects of tobacco production. In this agricultural transition, Jefferson had hopes of both reinvigorating the area's economy and providing continued prosperity for his beloved homeplace, and also to discover a model for farm-based settlement in the opening of western lands. Yet these methods also proved unsustainable, as they caused the premium soil to wash away from the mountain ridges.

This research provides a link between archival sources (such as Jefferson's letters and maps held in various archives) and the tools and methodology of archaeology and environmental science. In addition, Gaylord's study of Mr. Jefferson's "little mountain" and the surrounding Carter's Mountain area can also serve as a case study in Chesapeake Bay watershed, in which washed-away loam is an environmental factor even today, as well as evidence of sustainable (and unsustainable) agricultural methodologies.

As varied as is this range of research interests, they find their common footing at Morven. Its largely undisturbed location and traditional Albemarle agricultural practices have preserved a physical record of its history (which is noted as being of statewide importance). The exceptional opportunities it presents for faculty and student research, and the inter-institutional collaboration brought together to engage in them, can carry forward Jefferson's goals of useful, scientific advances, and methodologies and practices to enable rooted, sustainable communities to thrive.

September 1, 2010

Studying Morven presents a quandary: what are we studying and why? As a place, its physical boundaries, types of tenure, ownership and land use, and even its name have changed in the two centuries since it was partitioned from a large colonial land grant. Yet apart from Thomas Jefferson’s role in its1796 purchase and subsequent agricultural oversight, its evolution is not dissimilar from other agricultural estates in Albemarle and surrounding areas in Virginia. The question is often posed for a historic site: what is its significance?

Our research at the University of Virginia instead transforms the question. The opportunity that Morven presents is a new perception of its history – of the multiple scales of reference, time frames, and layers of social conventions and constraints – dynamically portrayed in the complex and responsive relationship of elements that previous methodologies have tethered to separate categories and disciplines. The evidence of its past – visible in old maps and photographs, agricultural censuses and property deeds, personal letters and living memories, and the function of its soils, forest cover, and critical watersheds – has been preserved in the generous gift presented to the University by John Kluge in 2001.

This web site serves as a connection to research about Morven's past and its contributions to the future, demonstrating the collaboration of faculty and student researchers who are discovering how its specific past broadens our understanding of related systems and comparable sites, and for applying innovative methodologies and technologies to advance the research process itself.