North Fork History Project

North Fork History Project: Slavery on Shelter Island, a story not hidden away

As the hot August night wore on in the attic of the old house, she decided she couldn’t take it anymore. It was growing more stifling by the minute and in the claustrophobic space made of rough boards, the squeaking sound of scurrying mice came from somewhere in the dark corners and moved across the floor.

She said her goodbyes to her companions and walked down the steep, narrow stairs to the main floor of the old house. Outside, finally, there was a breath of air as she stood on a hill looking out on a sliver of moon hanging in a mist over the still water of Gardiners Creek.

“I was aware I had a choice,” Katrina Browne said recently about her experience at the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm in August 2015. An accomplished filmmaker, activist and teacher, Ms. Browne was participating in an event sponsored by the Manor and The Slave Dwelling Project, which has people stay overnight in slaves’ dwelling places with the goal of identifying the places enslaved people lived and then assists property owners, governments and agencies in preserving them.

Ms. Browne, whose brother Whitney serves on the Manor’s board of directors, made the award-winning documentary “Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North,” chronicling her Rhode Island family’s involvement in the slave trade. She said the night she spent under the Manor’s roof provided insight into what the enslaved and indentured — slavery that legally had an end date — people of Sylvester Manor suffered.

The Slave Dwelling Project had made its point in real terms. “The heat, airlessness, sleeplessness and the anxiety of mice crawling over me could be relieved because I had a choice, the power and privilege to retreat from those conditions,” Ms. Browne said. “They couldn’t.”

White oak, white gold

In 1652, an Englishman named Nathaniel Sylvester sailed with his wife, Grizzell, from his family’s sugar plantation in Barbados and landed on Shelter Island. He, along with his brother and two other investors, had purchased the island from an English aristocrat to create an 8,000-acre estate as a “provisioning plantation,” servicing the sugar plantations of the West Indies. Since sugar, or “white gold” as it was known, was a cash crop of immense proportions in the 17th century, every available inch of land in the Caribbean was sown with sugar cane. Everything else, including wheat, meat and other foodstuffs — and the wood to make barrels to transport the sugar — had to be imported.

Sylvester Manor house. (Credit: Rachel Siford photo)

After their arrival, the Manor remained in private hands until it was recently incorporated as a nonprofit organic farm and educational facility.

Sylvester and his partners had been attracted to the island’s forests of white oak to harvest and manufacture for the sugar barrels, plus the Island’s easy access to the Atlantic. Along with their household provisions, other property arrived with the Sylvesters: an enslaved family owned by Grizzell that included Jaquero, his wife, Hannah, and their daughter, Hope — the first Africans to set foot on the island. By 1680, there would be close to 30 enslaved people living at the Manor, which, according to historian Ira Berlin, was the largest population of slaves in New England.

How seemingly “civilized” people could participate in the ownership of others is explained by legal documents, where a horrific crime is spelled out in supposedly rational legal terms. Nathaniel Sylvester’s will, archived in the East Hampton Library, notes that although Jaquero, Hannah and Hope were the property of his wife, the couple’s second daughter, Isabel, belonged to him, because she was termed “increase,” having been born on his property.

It’s unknown precisely what cruelties the enslaved and indentured suffered at the Manor, but most experts agree it wasn’t the same as the barbaric conditions people endured in the South, the Caribbean and South America.

“There may have been degrees of hardship and horror, but we don’t know the degree of cruelty or mistreatment,” said Donnamarie Barnes, curator/ archivist of the Manor. “But they were enslaved and isolated on an island. That’s the baseline.”

Ms. Barnes said she gets a hint of the suffering through her research and her own perceptions of the people and the place. “Sometimes, when I walk the grounds and the woods, I get a sense of desolation in the face of so much beauty,” she said. “You can’t escape the feeling of being enclosed and trapped.”

As Mac Griswold, author of “The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island,” wrote: “Everything is simultaneously ghostly and absolutely present.”

This sign commemorates those enslaved at Slyvester Manor since 1651. Nearly 200 Native Americans and Africans were believed to be buried on the property. (Credit: Rachel Siford)

Final rest 

Above a dirt road near the Manor gates is a cemetery under white pine trees surrounded by a slatted wood fence that looks like an old comb missing some teeth. It’s an unusual cemetery in many ways, not least because it has few headstones marking graves, just stones. Anecdotal and scientific evidence says that as many as 200 people could be buried here. At the foot of the hill is a massive stone engraved with words, eroded by time, that read: “Burial Ground of the Colored People of Sylvester Manor.”

Stephen Mrozowski, an anthropologist/archaeologist at the University of Massachusetts, has visited Shelter Island with teams of students and scientists for more than 20 years to uncover the 300-year life of the Manor, and has done extensive research on the burial ground.

He’s excavated all parts of the grounds, unearthing a cultural mix of Native American, African, Dutch and English lives, and was among those who spent the night in the attic in August 2015 as part of The Save Dwelling Project. In scholarly journals, he’s noted that the Manor is a living, archaeological laboratory to study the interactions of the various cultures, enslaved and free, that were here in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Mr. Mrozowski’s research is one testament to the Manor’s commitment to shedding light on the history of slavery on the island. “I’m very proud of the way we’ve approached the subject of slavery and incorporated it into our narrative and the honesty that we deal with it,” Ms. Barnes said.

One of those buried in a grave marked by only a stone is a man named Comus, who was bought in 1762 and died in 1820, according to records of the Shelter Island Historical Society. By all accounts he was an imposing presence, well over six feet tall, and worked with livestock, threshed wheat and harvested apples. He also had a sense of pride that got him into trouble with his owners, as a letter in the historical society archives states: “… Commo [sic] will be a plage [plague] to you & I suppose you intend to Sell him there.”

Comus was never sold, according to Ms. Griswold, but lived and died enslaved on the island. Ms. Griswold reports that when Comus was in his 70s, he was admitted into Shelter Island Presbyterian Church “along with another manor slave, Matilda. He paid pew rent as a full subscriber ($2.50) but he sat in the four short rows reserved for his race at the back of the church.”

Heartbreak and hope

Several years ago, during partial construction work at the Manor, a “spiritual cache” was found in the enslaved people’s attic living quarters, a hiding place for talismans in West African religious belief, said Maura Doyle, a former Manor historic preservation coordinator. The enslaved people would bundle together everyday articles — a brass button that fell to the floor, a slate picture frame or a used candle — and hide them away to ensure, for example, a successful birth.

The slave staircase at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island was dedicated to the few known slaves who lived there. The photograph shows Julia Dyd Havens Johnson, formerly enslaved, and was taken around 1885. (Credit: Rachel Siford)

But what is most striking in the attic, inspiring a mixture of heartbreak and hope, are etchings of sailing ships on a wooden beam near a narrow attic window. You can see a progression in the work, from the suggestion of a ship to finely drawn images of sails and intricate renderings of ropes and riggings. The etchings speak of an indentured boy’s need for expression and freedom.

The drawings — probably carved into the wood with a nail — were made by William Pharaoh, a boy of African-American and Indian heritage, who came to the Manor when he was eight. William lived in the spaces under the eaves in the 1830s with his brother, Isaac, who was five when they arrived.

Ms. Barnes, in her research, found a letter written in August 1840 that began, “William has run away.”

The letter, she said, recounts that William and Isaac had gone to Greenport on errands one day and were seen speaking to the captain of a sloop that was bound for New London that night. “The boys came home and had dinner,” Ms. Barnes said. “But the next morning, William and his things were gone. He was never heard from again.”

Isaac, she said, stayed at the Manor for the rest of his life and was laid to rest in the burying ground down the hill.

[email protected]

Part I: Before anything else, there was ice

Part II: Long before the ‘first families’

Part III: When English arrive, Indians disperse?

Part IV: So, who was really here first?

Part V: Slavery, an ignored part of our history