In 1652, Nathaniel Sylvester purchased Shelter Island from the Manhansett tribe, with the intention of producing food to support his family’s lucrative sugar plantation in Barbados. For more than 350 years, direct descendants of Sylvester lived on his estate, now reduced to 250 acres overlooking Gardiners Creek.
Archeologists from the University of Massachusetts were first invited to Sylvester Manor in 1998 at the bequest of then-owner Alice Fiske, the wife of a descendant of Nathaniel Sylvester. As a means of satisfying a question held by her late husband Andrew, Ms. Fiske sought a definitive answer as to where on her estate the original house, built in the mid-17th century, stood.
Among the graduate students from UMass invited to the Island was Katherine Hayes, who now is a professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota.
Working every summer until 2006, the UMass team discovered remains of a structure located just a few feet from the manor’s current footprint. They also researched the relations between the three races living on the island, which Dr. Hayes explored further in her 2013 book, “Slavery Before Race: Europeans, Africans and Indians at Long Island’s Sylvester Manor.”
Eight years after completing her work at Fiske’s estate, Dr. Hayes has returned to the Island with twelve students of her own from in tow. Dr. Hayes and her team began digging last week, focusing on two locations, the Manor’s garden and the burial ground.
The garden, separated from the stately yellow manor by a thin dirt road, offers a unique opportunity for Dr. Hayes. Alice Fiske had kept her garden strictly off-limits to the UMass archeologists, but since her passing the garden has fallen into disarray. Sylvester Manor plans to renovate the garden, but not without affording Hayes an opportunity to research the one piece of land inaccessible between 1998 and 2006.
Helping the team in their search will be “light detecting and ranging scans,” or LIDAR, technology unavailable eight years ago. Beams of light directed at the earth create images, which provide a three dimensional view of the target area. According to Dr. Hayes, “right angles nearly always signify the location of structures or pathways,” and such shapes appear in scans of the garden.
The archeologists have completed a series of test digs in the garden, with the hope of performing a large-scale excavation in the coming days. While confirming earlier theories, these preliminary digs have also revealed vestiges of colonial era America that remain intact, including tobacco pipes and tools fashioned from ballast left behind by ships docking in Dering Harbor.
Before the team sets its full sights on the garden, however, it must first complete its study of the cemetery. Located three hundred yards south of the house, a crude wooden fence and weathered stone designate the resting spot of as many as two hundred African and Native Americans. The stone, virtually illegible, reads: “Burial Ground of the Colored People of Sylvester Manor.”
The team has no intentions of digging in the cemetery, opting instead to use ground-penetrating radar. Of particular interest to the Minnesota students is the possibility of finding rudimentary gravestones, though as Dr. Hayes pointed out, “these are not the headstones you would typically expect.”
The team plans to date rocks found at the site, and hope to match those dates with the estimated burial date of the bodies located below. Although seemingly unorthodox, Dr. Hayes noted that a number of tribes in the area marked gravesites in a similar tradition.
Dr. Hayes and the Minnesota students plan to show their findings at noon on June 7 at an event open to the public at Sylvester Manor.
Visitors are asked to reserve for the June 7 event by emailing [email protected], or by calling (631)749-0626. House tours are also available.