With a video shoot on the Island recently, performing artist Beyoncé became the latest in a long line of fascinating women in the history of Sylvester Manor.
In 1652, 17-year-old Grissell Brinley and her husband Nathaniel Sylvester sailed from England to the New World. Nearly four hundred years after they settled on Shelter Island, the Sylvester family home continues to provide clues to the complicated history of the Island.
For most of the time they and their descendants lived in the Manor House, it was a private home, its stories and secrets quietly stored within. The veil was lifted when Alice Fiske, a descendant by marriage, invited archaeologists to research the grounds of the Manor in 1998. The history they unearthed was often discomfiting; the existence of slavery on the plantation could no longer be denied.
Each new discovery revealed more of the story of past inhabitants of Shelter Island — of the Indigenous Native People who had made “Manhansack-aha-quash-awamock” — “Island sheltered by islands” — their home for millennia, Nathaniel Sylvester and the plantation he established, and the enslaved Africans he brought from Barbados to work the land and serve his household.
A find from the Manor’s archaeological digs was the circular seal bearing the initial “B” and the name “Sylvester.” It appears to be from the 1740s, a bottle seal probably used by Brinley Sylvester, grandson of Nathaniel.
“Nothing beats finding an artifact that actually carries a name,” said the archaeologist at the dig, Stephen Mrozowski. “In more than 40 years of archaeological research I have only had such a thrill two or three times … I doubt he was thinking of someone finding this almost 300 years later, but by his own actions he sought to perpetuate his identity.” The identities of the European settlers and their descendants have been captured for history; less so, the stories of the enslaved people of the plantation.
The Manor’s secrets have continued to unfold, many documented by a vault filled with the intact archives. Donnamarie Barnes, the Manor’s curator and archivist, said “The descendants were great record keepers, and they retained so much documentation within the house.”
Ms. Barnes has been focusing on bringing to light more about the lives of enslaved people who lived and worked at the Manor. In most cases, little was known about their lives other than what was recorded in a book of accounts. This was not uncommon, she said, for to acknowledge much about the slaves’ lives you would have to face a consciousness of what you were doing to them. “Would you enslave people in the first place,” she asked, if you could relate to their lives.
She’s made a determined effort to integrate the streams of knowledge we have from the Manor into a single history.
The story of slavery on the Island wasn’t limited to the Sylvesters and their descendants, Ms. Barnes makes clear. “The Nicolls and the Havens had slaves, as did people all over the Island.” It’s part of the growing reckoning with the record of slavery throughout the East End, and of Northern slavery in general, that is still coming to light.
Ms. Barnes chairs the board of the Plain Sight Project, co-sponsored by the East Hampton Star and East Hampton Free Library. The Project works to restore the stories of enslaved persons to their essential place in American history. They have documented stories of as many as 250 people from as far back as 1657 (a woman named Boose) to 1829 (a girl named Tamer).
On Shelter Island, a woman named Julia Havens was born free to a former slave named Dido, who had been enslaved by the Havens family; Julia’s father is believed to have been a Havens. When Julia’s stepfather, Comus Fanning, died in 1831, he left land he had purchased from the Gardiners to Dido and Julia.
After working as a housekeeper for the Manor and other households, Julia died in her late 90s in Sag Harbor in 1906. At her request, her body was brought back to Shelter Island to be buried in the Sylvester Manor burying ground, nearby her mother Dido and step-father Comus Fanning.
When Beyoncé filmed a visual album on the site, she and her dancers celebrated the theme “Black is King,” utilizing the woodlands, waterways and many of the ancient trees in interpreting the story of a young Black king’s journey of self-discovery.
Recalling the group’s time spent filming on the Manor grounds, operations director Tracy McCarthy said Ms. Barnes spoke with the dancers “to give them a sense of where they were and the context” of the enslaved people who had lived and worked on those very grounds. “The way Beyoncé portrayed the story line connected back to the Manor,” Ms. McCarthy said.