Thoughts about ‘labor’ on Labor Day

CAROL GALLIGAN PHOTO | Inside the Sylvester Manor grounds, directly inside “the second gate” on the way to the Manor House, there is a small fenced area with a large rock outside. Although there is no official record, this is believed to be the burial ground for the manor slaves. Overgrown now, the site is scattered with large stones, thought to indicate individual graves. The carving on the rock, no longer legible save for a few letters, reads, “BURYING GROUND OF THE COLORED PEOPLE OF THE MANOR, FROM 1651.”

The Labor Day weekend is coming up. Monday, September 5 is a national holiday designated back in the late 19th century to honor the nation’s workers.

Does anyone think about them? Does anyone here think of the people who have labored on this Island?

Long before the struggles for worker representation, before the first strikes, before the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, before Joe Hill and the copper miners, Hugo Chavez, the AFL and the CIO. the Teamsters or the many teachers unions, there was involuntary labor — both slavery and indentureship. Both happened here.

Although the Revolutionary leaders in New York in 1775 were anti-slavery, the difficulties of the war with England limited activity on slaves’ behalf. But slaves could achieve their freedom by serving in the armed forces, actually on either side. Many joined the British forces and when the British and the American Loyalists pulled out of New York at the end of the war, some 3,000 blacks left with them.

In 1788, the slave trade in New York was banned outright, although the law had several important loopholes. The state also abolished the custom of flogging slaves for curfew violations. In 1799, “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery” was passed with little opposition. It provided for gradual manumission. The law allowed owners to keep their younger slaves in bondage for their most productive years, thereby recouping their financial investment.

In addition, the bill freed all children born to slave women after July 4, 1799, but the males would not become free until the age of 28, the females at the age of 25. Until then, they would remain the property of their mother’s owner. The law sidestepped all the other relevant issues — all questions of legal and civil rights. It was only in this fashion that a bill could be voted on at all.


A requirement when a slave was freed was the proven assurance that they had the means to be self-supporting and would not drain the community of resources. When Thomas Dering, after his death in 1795, freed his slave, Matilda, she was the first slave on Shelter Island to become free. Her certificate of manumission is signed by William Bowditch and Ezekiel Havens, who are listed as “Overseers of the Poor for the Town of Shelter Island” and Sylvester Dering, Town Clerk.

In 1800, to choose a date at random, there were 31 free blacks and 16 slaves living on Shelter Island (see table). Presumably the free blacks were former slaves, who might have continued to live here for many reasons — family ties, an unfamiliarity with “the outside world,” an affection for Island life. But what were their lives really like? Did they socialize with each other? Did the children have play dates? Unfortunately, we have few ways of knowing — slaves, if they were literate, if they kept diaries, left no written words.

Some local men of those days did keep journals and from them we catch glimpses, and in addition, can make educated guesses. One of them was Augustus Griffin, who was the first historian of Eastern Long Island. He was born in Oyster Ponds (now the town of Orient) during the Revolution and kept a journal during his whole life. His journal entry of January, 1844 mentions the death of a former slave, Isabella Moore, also known as Aunt Jenny, age 66. He describes her as “prudent and nice in all her works,” and goes on, “There never was a more faithful, neat and honester (sic) person employed as an assistant in any business of a domestic relation.”

He mentions a slave referred to only as Crank, who was locally revered for manufacturing salt by boiling sea water during the Revolutionary War when that commodity was in short supply. He goes on to describe Crank’s wife, Flora, who “had hardly her equal” as a nurse. He describes Diana Williams, who died on Shelter Island in 1837 and who had obtained her freedom at age 25, after which “by indefatigable, Continuous (sic) labor, united with strictest economy and a wise use of her earnings, she got together property amounting in value to over a thousand dollars.” He then pays tribute to “these two extraordinary Ethiopians who but for their color, would have had a conspicuous place in the register of Columbia’s favorite daughters.”


Certainly to be a slave is not to be free. But what records exist do suggest that slavery as it was practiced here, was far more benign than in many other places. There’s no evidence of floggings, whippings or the punitive sale of family members. In a letter, Nathaniel Sylvester wrote, “I have the happiness to inform you that my family though small are well, 5 whites and 5 blacks.”

There were runaways but what punishment followed seems less than severe. We know from papers left by the Lloyd family of Lloyds Harbor, one of whose sons married one of Nathaniel Sylvester’s daughters, about the slave Obium, whose value is listed as 25 pounds (horses sold for 10). At one point, he apparently tried to free himself, since there is a reference to “the horse that Obium ran away on.” But he was found, the horse was returned and he was then hired out to several successive masters, his annual wage being turned over to his owner. He eventually found his freedom. The last mention of Obium is in a 1832 letter from a physician, prescribing medication for him in his final illness.


Indentureship was also practiced here, a process in which a contract was drawn, specifying the obligations of both parties as well as the life term of the contract. One of these, signed by a Montauk indian woman, follows:

“This indenture, made the 16th day of November in the year of our lord, one thousand, eight hundred and twenty nine, witnesseth that Isaac Pharoah, son of Joseph Pharoah and Esther Pharoah of the tribe of the Montauk Indians, who is aged five years, nine months and 27 days, by and with the consent of the said Esther Pharoah, his mother, the said Joseph Pharoah his father being dead, of the said tribe of Monnock Indians in the town of East Hampton, has of his own free will placed and bound himself as servant unto Samuel S. Gardiner of the Town of Shelter Island, to dwell with and serve him, from the act of these present until he should arrive at the full age of 21 years. During which term of time, the said Isaac shall well and faithfully serve his Lawful commands, the goods of his said master he shall not embezzle or waste nor lend them to anyone without his consent, from the service of his said master he shall not at any time depart or absent himself without leave but as a good and faithful servant shall demean and behave himself towards his said master and all his, during the above mentioned term of his servitude and the said master does covenant and engage that he will find and allow unto his said servant sufficient meat, drink, washing, lodging and apparel and all other necessaries suitable for such servant during the afore mentioned time of his servitude. The said master will teach him to read and write or cause him to be taught. At the expiration of his servitude will give him all his common wearing apparel, one new suit of clothes and $25 in cash.

“In witness whereof the parties have hereunto set their hand and seals at Shelter Island.”

Isaac Pharoah left his mark on the document as did Esther Pharoah, followed by the signature of Samuel S. Gardiner.

Isaac’s brother William was indentured as well. These two children clearly had markedly different personalities — Isaac stayed with the Gardiner family for his entire life, for many years after the expiration of his indenture. But William, apparently unwilling to “demean and behave himself as a good and faithful servant should,” ran away to sea before reaching his majority and never returned to the Island.