University of Virginia Vice President for Research
Sustainability Research Initiatives


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.

Morven’s tenant farmers and the social structure of Jefferson’s neighborhood

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?

Research about the enslaved community at Monticello

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. Since the early 1980s, archaeology on the site of Mulberry Row, where workers’ housing was located near the main house, has uncovered physical evidence of not only the buildings but also some of the everyday items used by these families, providing valuable indicators about social practices and expressions of status both within their culture and in relationship to Jefferson’s family. Over the past twenty years, the research of Monticello’s senior historian Lucia Stanton has been published in numerous essays, and in 1993 – in connection with the commemoration of 250 years since Jefferson’s birth – a plantation community tour was created to give visitors a glimpse of the experience of slavery at Monticello. In addition, a new study of the community of Monticello’s slave families, the “Getting Word” oral history project, is drawing from the unconnected sources of genealogy, family correspondence and photographs, newspapers and contemporary histories, and interviews with descendants of former slaves, to create an image of the day to day lives, circumstances, and strategies of this enslaved community. Research and interpretation at Monticello continues to explore the dynamic relationship between the Jefferson family, the enslaved families, and the mountaintop home they shared.

This research is enhanced by the work of the Central Virginia History Researchers, a unique partnership between local historians, anthropologists, database designers, and community residents which meets monthly at the Jefferson Library to discuss the African-American experience in Albemarle County, connect local African-American families to their antebellum roots and community formation in the post-bellum period, and to share the progress of their individual research projects. In 2010 the CVHR was awarded an NEH Digital Start-Up grant to develop a research methodology for entering information from standard archival records – such as wills, censuses, personal property taxes, and birth, marriage, and death records – into a relational African-American Families Database.

As 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.

Research at Morven

Research by Rivanna Archaeological Services indicates that prior to Jefferson’s purchase of the property for Short, it may have been used as a quarter farm operated by enslaved workers for the Carter family. The exact agricultural use and location of any structures has not yet been documented, but adds another layer within the landscape: were the cleared areas that were thought to be Indian “old fields” cultivated in the mid-18th century? And if evidence of structures is identified, for whom were they built and were they occupied serially?

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movie Site D W&L Monaghan 1a
Dr. Alison Bell, Washington and Lee University
at Morven Site D

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.