Early Archaeology at Morven Taps Into Little-Studied Veins of History

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Brevy Cannon:

April 1, 2010 — Recently completed archaeological work at the University of Virginia's Morven Farm, combined with some documentary detective work, found promising glimpses of several little-studied aspects of history, including local Indians both before and after contact with the first European settlers, and the life of "middling class" tenant farmers in the 18th and early-19th centuries.

The findings were presented Tuesday evening at a Morven Seminar Series event, "Digging Deeper at Morven: Initial Findings and What They Might Mean."

An archaeological survey of the property turned up seven distinct sites, including what looks to be the circa-1800 home site of tenant farmer George Haden, part of the middle class of the period, about which very little is known.

The survey also uncovered a promising – potentially outstanding – site of Indian settlement that has already produced one striking shard of pottery that likely dates from between A.D. 1000 and 1600.

Rivanna Archaeology Services, a local firm led by U.Va. archaeology Ph.D. graduates Ben Ford and Steve Thompson, recently finished a privately funded Phase I archaeological survey of approximately 288 acres of Morven encompassing the Indian Camp Creek valley.
Investigators dug a grid of more than 2,000 small test pits (including 200 or so by students in two classes last summer) at 80-foot intervals. The pits are about two feet square, extending down to the undisturbed clay subsoil.

Three prehistoric sites were found tucked along the Indian Camp Creek, thanks to a determined approach by research archaeologist Derek Wheeler of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, who helped oversee last summer's student fieldwork, Thompson said. Wheeler extended some of the test pits down more than three feet in order to punch through sediment deposited over the past two centuries, as the plowing of nearby hillsides caused significant erosion.

That layer capped and preserved the ground surface in the stream valleys at the time when colonial settlers arrived. That gives at least one of the sites (Site A on this map) strong research potential, "but it will take some effort to recover it, since it's so deep," Thompson said.

The potsherd, he added, "may be the beginning of discovering why the site was called Indian Camp" – the 18th-century name for a good chunk of today's Morven Farm. The name suggests Indians lived in the vicinity when settlers arrived.

In Central Virginia, any place name including "Indian" is "highly unusual," because "the first settlers never talked about Indians," said archaeology professor Jeffrey Hantman in an earlier interview. We now know from archaeological evidence that Monacan Indians lived in the area before and after the first settlements by English colonists.

Post-contact Indian history has never been told, Hantman said, because the usual settler narrative asserts that the Indians were simply gone when post-Jamestown settlers arrived. Many indeed had moved west, he said, but some remained. "That contact between Indians and colonists needs to be better understood. We have a chance to do that here."

More intensive excavation in one spot adjacent to a spring (Site D on this map) appears to have discovered the Haden home site, Thompson said. The site produced a sparse assortment of well-worn household items, including ceramic shards, hand-wrought iron nails, bits of window and container glass, and one copper alloy piece of furniture hardware – probably an escutcheon or drawer pull plate dating from the late 18th century.

Haden was one of at least seven tenants farmers who likely resided on the Indian Camp property between 1795 and 1813, when the property was owned by Colonel William Short, an "adoptive son" of Thomas Jefferson who had served as Jefferson's private secretary in France. Short went on to serve as U.S. Minister to Holland and to Spain in the 1790s, becoming America's first career diplomat.

Short never lived on the property. In his absence, Jefferson managed it for him.

The names of these tenant farmers, and the probable locations of their leased fields, were determined through documentary detective work by Thompson and architectural history graduate student Laura Voisin George.

At first, the only guide was a circa 1800 map of Indian Camp that Voisin George tracked down in spring 2009 at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif. The map included what looked to be outlines of various fields with initials on them, along with penciled notes – appearing to be in Jefferson's writing, according to Wheeler and others – of the crops growing in particular fields in 1799 and 1800, including corn, wheat and hemp.

Over the winter, while snows interrupted the survey fieldwork, Thompson and Voisin George set about studying a range of documentary sources, including deeds, letters, Albemarle County road orders and land plats.

The breakthrough came when Thompson discovered a similar second map  among a 16-page letter dated April 13,1800 from Jefferson to Short. The second map roughly outlined areas leased to five tenants, whose names corresponded with initials on the first map. The letter included a detailed balance sheet of the tenants' rent payments received over the preceding years and a five-year crop rotation scheme prescribed by Jefferson. 

The tenant farmers who occupied the property at least from 1791 through 1813 were part of the middle class. Much of what little is known about the middle class in Virginia has been fleshed out by Alison Bell, a professor of anthropology at Washington & Lee University who did her doctoral thesis at U.Va. on the "middling class" in Louisa County and continues to specialize in the study of Virginia's non-elites.

Bell is leading the analysis of the tenant farmer period at Morven.

Little is known about this class, Bell said, because they lived light on the land, often in modest wood-framed houses, and had relatively few material belongings, making for a scant archaeological record. Widespread illiteracy meant they produced few written records, and their dearth of valuable goods meant they barely appeared in tax records.

"What's most lacking in Virginia's social history is an understanding of these people who formed a very broad middle ground," Bell said. "It's extremely hard to locate the material remains of people whose houses are gone."

The scarcity of both documentary and archaeological records of the middle class means it's doubly exceptional to find an archaeological site that can be matched to written records. There are only two such sites in this region of Virginia, Bell said, one being the home site of Edmund Bacon, Jefferson's overseer at Monticello from 1806 to 1822. Morven may be the third such site.

Findings at Morven could fill in details about the diversity of the middle class, Bell said, building on the Bacon research at Monticello. For instance, Indian Camp tenant Joseph Price offers a good contrast to Bacon, she said. They both owned at least one slave, rented out for extra income. Bacon scrimped on his household furnishings while amassing savings in order to move west and eventually purchased a large farm in Kentucky. Price never moved west, as far as we know. His home site has not yet been found, but if it is, its contents could be contrasted to Bacon's belongings at Monticello, Bell noted. "The choices people made about what to buy tell us a lot about what they aspired to and what they cared about."

Whatever is learned about the middle class will provide a better perspective on the two ends of the social spectrum by comparison, Bell noted. For instance, how did the material lives and diet of tenant farmers differ from that of their enslaved contemporaries? Insights might come, for instance, by comparing ceramic assemblages found at Morven versus the slave quarters of Monticello, suggested Fraser Nieman, director of archaeology at Monticello.

"Some aspects of daily life such as housing, diet and clothing that we might think were unique to slavery may not have been so unique once we have larger context in which to view that information," Bell said.

"The initial findings from the archaeological survey give us as a brief glimpse of three cultures that inhabited this property," said Tim Rose, CEO of the U.Va. Foundation, which owns Morven Farm. "As with any project of this magnitude, we have literally just scratched the surface. I'm confident that Morven holds a vast number of secrets that we have only begun to uncover."

— By Brevy Cannon

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