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Column: Group confronts ‘historical amnesia’ identifying more than 500 local slaves

In 1748 and 1749 announcements were placed in several New York City newspapers about slaves that had run away from their owners. The slaves in question, however, weren’t fugitives who might have fled north to escape Southern owners.

“Run-away on the first of November last, from John Tuthill of the Oyster Ponds, at the East End of Long-Island, a Mulatto Man Slave named Toney, aged about 19 years. Had on when he went away, a Felt Hat, a brown Camblet coat, a red Jacket and speckled trowsers. 

“Also run away in company with him an Indian Man named Jack, belonging to John Petty of the same place, aged about 18 years. Has his hair cut off. Had on when he went away an old Beaver Hat …

“Whoever takes up the said Toney and sends him to his said Master, or to Obadiah Wells in New York, shall have forty shillings as a reward and twenty shillings for doing the same with the said Jack …”

No, these enslaved men were not from Virginia or Maryland who had escaped bondage, perhaps hoping for better lives in the North, even though slavery was legal there. These were Long Island slaves; specifically, they were slaves from Southold and owned by families in the community of Orient Point. A 1754 announcement in another New York City newspaper read: “Run-away, on the 4th ult., from Daniel Tuthill, of Southold, a light colored Mulatto fellow named Caesar, about 23 years old, pretty tall, and has a mole under his left eye.” 

The announcement described his clothing: an old hat, a dark colored coat and breeches, gray stockings and old shoes. It went on to say whoever captured him and returned him to his “master” would receive “three pounds reward and all reasonable charges.” There was one further demand: “All masters of vessels are forbid to carry him off, at their peril.”

These announcements, first discovered by independent researcher Jackie Dinan, shed a great deal of light on a long-ignored subject. The institution of slavery as it existed here, and the fate of Natives who were removed from their land a few short years after the arrival of Europeans, was not something that drew the attention of local historical societies or was part of the historical narrative. 

A new group has been formed to correct this historical amnesia. Not to discard parts nor weigh them on a political scale and find them wanting in the current climate, but instead to widen the narrative, to reach back into our past and to name, every chance we get, those people, indigenous and of color, who made essential contributions to the making of the place we call home. 

After all, they were the “founders,” too. That their story has been overlooked by the so called “old” families who have dominated the narrative here — many of whom had ancestors who owned slaves — needs to be corrected.

The group includes Riverhead historian Richard Wines, who along with his wife, Nancy Gilbert, has long studied this subject in a town where his mother was an unofficial town historian; Amy Folk, Southold’s town historian who sees history as a story to be broadened and not constricted; Sandi Brewster Walker, who has done years of work in African American and indigenous history and genealogy on eastern Long Island and who traces her roots to the ancestral Montaukett people; and me. 

To date, our group has unearthed — from wills, diaries, all manner of official documents — more than 1,400 records, of which 957 concern the enslaved. Some 542 of the enslaved have been identified by name — far more than have been known up to now. The data collected so far also includes Shelter Island, home to the large slave plantation at Sylvester Manor. 

The research has begun to allow putting flesh and bones on some of those names, such as enslaved couple Brister and Zippora Youngs, who were owned by the minister of Old Steeple Church in Aquebogue, the Rev. Daniel Youngs. They were freed by 1800 and are buried in Aquebogue. Their son, Brister, and his wife, Phillis, were early members of Sound Avenue Congregational Church. 

One critical goal: to extend these stories to the descendants of the enslaved living here today. 

As Mr. Wines put it, “Basically we are trying to identify not only every enslaved person who lived on the North Fork from mid-1600s to the end of slavery in 1827, but we are also tracking freed slaves and other free persons of color — including Indians — through that entire period and into the mid-19th century and beyond.”

While this group is working exclusively on North Fork and Shelter Island records, we hope down the road to link the databases we assemble — which will eventually be available to the public and searchable — with the remarkable Plain Sight Project underway in East Hampton under the leadership of David Rattray, owner and editor of the East Hampton Star. His project focuses on the enslaved people of the South Fork and can be found at plainsightproject.org. Ultimately we hope to become part of the far larger enslaved.org database. 

Mr. Rattray and Donnamarie Barnes of Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island, who is co-director of the Plain Sight Project, will discuss their research Friday, Feb. 19, at 5 p.m. at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton. For log-in information on how to watch a livestream of the event, go to parrishart.org

Sylvester Manor, which once encompassed all of Shelter Island, was a large slave plantation with direct links to plantations in Barbados that were part of the trade in slaves and sugar. The Caribbean part of the Manor’s story remains to be fully told.

It is clear to all of us that slavery was deeply embedded in the local culture and not something that happened somewhere else. The enslavers are the forebears of many of the North Fork’s oldest families. That is not to induce some sense of moral shame for events from centuries ago, but rather to acknowledge the actual history of this extraordinary region and to deal with it head on — to tell the complete story, not the part that makes us feel good.

History can’t be cherry-picked; it’s not a buffet where you take the roast beef and mashed potatoes but skip the mixed vegetables because you don’t like steamed carrots. It’s the whole story we are going for and the whole story we aspire to tell.

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