The history of Sylvester Manor — from the mid 1660s through to the present day — is so much more than the story of the fortunes of the family that has owned the land through 15 generations. It’s a reflection of the history of Shelter Island itself, of Northern slavery and a “Negro Fellow named Jo” who lived most of his life as an indentured servant on that land, even remaining at the Manor long after he could have left, a free man.
Thanks to curator Jennifer Anderson, a Stony Brook University assistant history professor, that story is now told through an exhibit at New York University’s Bobst Library titled “Land, Food and Power.”
“It’s 300 years of family and community history,” Ms. Anderson said. “Sylvester Manor is a microcosm of early American history,” she said.
The exhibit opens with a painting of the Manor house, looking very much as it looks today. But the Georgian house that dominates the land today is a replacement built by the grandson of the original Manor owner, Nathaniel Sylvester. In 1733, Brinley Sylvester, Nathaniel’s grandson, “embraced his new role as a member of the Colonial elite,” replacing the original house with the Georgian style manse that he thought better expressed what he saw as his own more genteel image.
The picture offers a “serene” vision of the manor house. But in the mid 17th century, it was a vision of “raucous workers butchering shrieking pigs, packing port in barrels, tanning leather and burning lime amidst boiling pots, smoky fires and overflowing waste pits,” according to the description accompanying the exhibited materials. Pastures were teeming with hundreds of sheep, cattle, horses and pigs.
But take a step back from the painting and the exhibit takes you back to the mid 1600s when Nathaniel Sylvester first purchased Shelter Island — all of Shelter Island.
“Sylvester’s plantation complex was a lively, noisy, smelly place,” as described in the exhibit. Nathaniel Sylvester and three partners — Constant Sylvester, Thomas Rose and Thomas Middleton acquired Shelter Island from a Northeast land speculator for 1,600 pounds of Muscovado sugar. The aim was to create a provisioning site to supply Barbados sugar plantations.
Nathaniel and his wife Grizzell became the first Europeans to settle on Shelter Island, bringing three enslaved Africans who joined 20 other slaves and a handful of European indentured servants. They also brought with them a concept previously unknown to the Manhansett Indians — privatizing of land. Disagreements between the Europeans and Indians eventually led to Nathaniel repurchasing the land from the Indians for “a piece of turfe and twig,” a typical conveyance ceremonially represented by a piece of the ground and twigs.
In 1666, Nathaniel won manorial status for the development, formally creating his own “private fiefdom” that came to hold “one of the largest enslaved populations” in the North. Slaves, mostly from South Africa, “were torn from their homes, endured the horrors” and traveled through the West Indian slave trade, ending up Shelter Island. Along with the West African slave trade were those European indentured servants whose families sold them into slavery, though usually for a limited time, with the understanding that they would learn to read and write and learn a trade that would enable them to establish themselves in America once they were 21.
But whether slave or indentured servant, they found themselves living in an “alien, disorienting environment.” Their lives entailed “an exhausting routine of toil.”
The exhibit will run through July 15. Ms. Anderson credits Liza Harrell-Edge, project archivist at NYU’s Fales Special Collection, for work in archiving the exhibit and director Marvin Taylor for his cooperation in bringing the exhibit to New York City. Thanks to an archaeology team from the University of Massachusetts that has been digging up artifacts from Sylvester Manor grounds and items, records and deeds collected by the Shelter Island Historical Society, Ms. Anderson said her greatest challenge was to ferret out the most pertinent information from the massive amount of material available. She spent a full year simply examining more than 10,000 documents to find those that would best tell the story.
This is Part I of a two-part series on the Sylvester Manor Exhibit at New York University’s Bobst Library. Part II will appear on the Reporter’s site later this week.