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Column: A new way to look at history on the East End

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — William Faulkner

In a voice touched with emotion, Donnamarie Barnes stood under a canopy of pine trees on a hill on Shelter Island and recited the names. 

“The enslaved,” she began. “Hannah, Jacquero, Hope and Black John. The free people of color, formerly enslaved: Violet, Matilda, Cato, London, Comus Fanning and Dido. Isaac Pharaoh, a Montaukett man, indentured to the manor as a child. David Hempstead Sr., a freeborn man of color. Julia Dyd Havens Johnson, a freeborn woman of color, the daughter of Dido and an unnamed white man.”

Approximately 75 people standing around Ms. Barnes fell silent. Some lowered their heads. She went on: “We honor you, respect you and celebrate you.”

History was made last Friday afternoon on Shelter Island, when Sylvester Manor welcomed members of the Shinnecock Nation at a ceremony both honoring and blessing the Indigenous people and the enslaved who were buried at the manor when it was a large plantation in the 17th and 18th centuries. 

While “history” has been studied and written about and put on display on eastern Long Island for generations, the stories of the enslaved and the fate of the Indigenous people after Europeans arrived in the mid-17th century has been left largely untold, if not ignored outright.

That is changing. Ms. Barnes, the manor’s curator and archivist, was speaking for the dead on this lovely fall afternoon. She recited their names on the hill believed to be the burial ground for enslaved and Native people. It was an emotional remembrance and a recitation of actual names found in the manor’s records. 

As she spoke each name, it was possible to picture them as individuals, as real people, who lived, worked and died on this land. 

Sylvester Manor, under executive director Stephen Searl, is far ahead on Long Island in terms of learning the truth of the land the manor sits on. History, the whole story, is not circumscribed here, or prettied up for the benefit of those who prefer a different version of the past. 

On Friday, Mr. Searl welcomed a team of archaeologists from the University of Massachusetts who, in the coming weeks, will map out gravesites on the hill. He also welcomed members of the Shinnecock Nation of Southampton, whose ancestors are buried on the island. 

He praised the collaboration as historic and “a long time coming.”

Stephen Mrozowski of UMass, who has led archaeological work at the manor for 20 years, noted that this effort to work alongside present-day Native people to map out the gravesites represents an inflection point in the telling of history on the East End.

“For the first time in 150 years, we’re working with the people whose ancestors have been buried” here, he said. “We’ve never invited them in, the people we say we honor and love. This project is the first time in my work as an archaeologist that I’m having no questions about my ethics.”

Shane Weeks, co-chair of the Shinnecock Nation Graves Protection Warrior Society, spoke about the history of Native peoples — from having the land to themselves, to the arrival of Europeans and the loss of land and their culture, and their story being left out by generations of historians as if they never existed or were mere bit players in a drama about Europeans.

“You must do what you need to do today, so the next seven generations know who they are,” he said of the blessing of the land. “Our work, when are ancestors are uncovered, is to be sure they rest in peace.”

Mr. Weeks’ haunting voice reverberated over the hill as he chanted while playing a hand-held drum. Around him were small stone markers believed to designate burial sites. He said the stones faced west in a traditional Native custom. 

In the 17th century, the Sylvester family owned large sugar plantations in the Caribbean, where conditions for the enslaved were horrific. That part of the manor’s history has yet to be explored. Slaves from Barbados were brought to Shelter Island to work the land and to die and be buried on it. Julia Dyd Havens Johnson, a freeborn woman of color, was the last person buried on this hill, in 1908.

The effort to reclaim ancestral land on eastern Long Island took a big step forward in July, when the Peconic Land Trust purchased part of Sugar Loaf Hill near the Shinnecock Reservation in Southampton. 

The 4.5-acre site will be preserved forever. The site has been recognized as among the most important Native burial grounds in New York State. The land will eventually be returned to the Shinnecock.

In the late 19th century, the Shinnecock Hills north of the present-day reservation were taken from the tribe by an act of the New York State Legislature that allowed the railroad to cross the canal and be extended to Montauk. A huge portion of the hills today are home to some of the most prestigious private golf courses in the country. 

No historical marker on the courses takes note of the land’s lost Native ownership. The acquisition of Sugar Loaf Hill by the Peconic Land Trust is the first time any land in the hills has been returned to tribal control. 

For generations, North Fork farmers have uncovered skeletal remains on their land, some of which were collected and sent to the Museum of Natural History in New York City and the Indian Museum in Southold. Southold Town records suggest Indian Neck in Peconic was a burial ground for the people the English called the Corchaugs.

The fate of the Corchaugs after the English arrival in the mid-1600s remains one of the unanswered questions of North Fork history. It is known that, in the late 1680s, a reservation for the Corchaugs was established at a place then called Corchaug Pond in Peconic. No historical marker makes note of that site today. 

In 2018, property along the north side of Main Road in Jamesport believed to contain a Native burial ground was purchased by Suffolk County to be preserved. The site had once been proposed for a retirement community. Part of the property is expected to be cordoned off as a “sacred site.”

With its work, Sylvester Manor is upending local history. This is how it should be. They are essentially starting anew in telling the story of the land and the fate of the people who worked it. In terms of local history, of what is remembered, a new day has arrived.