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Uncovering a centuries-old cemetery: Sylvester Manor continues excavating the past

A month before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln famously said, “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.”

Sylvester Manor continues to bring to the surface its often cruel and inhumane past, in an effort to not escape, but to uncover its history.

The Manor is currently undertaking a well-planned and serious rehabilitation of what it calls the “Afro-Indigenous Burial Ground.”

Archaeological finds, using radar so as not to disturb those buried, has discovered up to 200 people interred on a hill surrounded by a fence in a grove of white pine above the driveway entering the grounds. There are no headstones, but some graves are marked by simple stones with no inscriptions. At the foot of the hill is a massive stone with words, cut in the rock, that reads: “Burial Ground of the Colored People of Sylvester Manor from 1651.”

According to the Manor’s Operations Director Tracy McCarthy, archaeological work and archival research has revealed that there may be additional burials outside the boundaries of the cemetery’s fence.

Over the years, the Manor has continued to unearth its history through archaeology. For almost a quarter of a century, Stephen Mrozowski, Ph.D., from the University of Massachusetts Boston, along with teams of students, has worked at the Manor locating many archaeological deposits linked to the original 17th-century plantation. The teams have excavated all parts of the grounds, finding a cultural mix of Native American, African, Dutch and English.

In scholarly journals, Professor Mrozowski has noted that the Manor is a living, archaeological laboratory to study the interactions of the various cultures, enslaved and free, that were here in the 17th and 18th centuries.

During the summer of 2019, Dr. Mrozowski returned with a team from UMB to conduct a dig in a section of the formal gardens area. They uncovered artifacts that are valuable clues to the story of what life was like before modern times at the Manor.

News of new work on the burial ground is significant, said the Manor’s Archivist/Curator Donnamarie Barnes, because “The Afro-Indigenous Burial Ground at Sylvester Manor is a sacred place honoring the native and enslaved people who lived and worked at Sylvester Manor and who are considered the ancestors of this place.”

New archaeological work by the UMB team was scheduled earlier this year but was halted by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic and rescheduled for next year. But this month, work is starting “to remove dead and fallen trees, clear out areas of dilapidated fencing to create a restful and reflective area that will welcome visitors walking the Manor grounds,” Ms. McCarthy said.

The rehabilitation will further illuminate the cultural significance of the site, she added, while protecting and improving the ecological integrity and health of the area, and provide a space for visitors to experience “the power of the place.”

The Manor staff has stated that a new pathway will connect the Afro-Indigenous Burial Ground to the nearby Barn Complex, allowing closer access to the historical features.

In a statement, Executive Director Stephen Searl said:  “Since its founding, Sylvester Manor has been dedicated to telling the stories and histories of all the people of Sylvester Manor — the Indigenous Manhansett People, the colonial European Sylvester Family and descendants, and the enslaved Africans brought to Shelter Island against their will. By rehabilitating this culturally significant site we are improving the interpretation of Sylvester Manor’s history and providing a place for our visitors to experience the history of those who built and sustained this place.”

A gravestone with no inscription at the burial ground. (Credit: Ambrose Clancy photo)