Friday Night Dialogue: A family’s history told


COURTESY PHOTO | Stephen Barney, Jr.’s new book ‘The Barneys of Flushing Meadows, American History.’

Shelter Island’s deep and rich history has become increasingly familiar to us through the ever-expanding efforts of the Historical Society, Sylvester Manor, Island historians and indeed many Islanders and visitors whose families trace their roots to its earliest years.

One such visitor, Stephen Barney, Jr., returns to the Island for a Friday Night Dialogue at the Shelter Island Public Library on May 20th to tell the story of his family, including his great-grandparents — William Barney and Abigail Seaman — who were employees of the Island’s Nicoll family in 1850.

Barney spent some time on the Island last summer while researching his book, “The Barneys of Flushing Meadows, American History.” He and his teenage grandsons were the guests of Edward and Patricia Shillingburg, author of many books on the Nicoll family who were former owners of Sachems Neck, now Mashomack Preserve.

Barney discussed his project with key Island resources: at Sylvester Manor, he met with Historic Preservation Coordinator Maura Doyle; at Havens House, he sat down with Executive Director Nanette Breiner Lawrenson and Nancy Robin Jaicks, an Islander who is an historian working in the field of African American Studies; and at Mashomack, Rebecca Mundy guided him through the many rooms of the former country estate of Matthias Nicoll, where, he said, his grandsons “were astonished to hear the mansion referred to as a ‘cottage’.”

A particular highlight was the Nicoll family cemetery where he identified the graves of Charlotte Ann Nicoll and other family members who employed his great-grandparents. Subsequently, in a letter to the Reporter, he characterized that day as wonderful and particularly educational for his grandsons, noting that “as African Americans, we felt fortunate to see the slave quarters in the attic of the Manor.”

“The Barneys of Flushing Meadows” is a unique documentation of the intersection of European and African-American history in America. The book traces the family genealogy by using census and other official documents and by personal research, such as his trip to Shelter Island. The process led Barney to the discovery of his family’s connection with the Nicoll family here and in Mastic, Manhattan and Flushing in the 19th Century. It is the first account of family members who lived between 1800 and 1940, and significantly, their involvement in many American historical events