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1700s-era document sheds new light on Island history

There are two inescapable certainties of life, as Ben Franklin famously said, and a recently-surfaced document from long ago shows that the tax collector was busy even during the earliest days of Shelter Island. 

It also sheds light on a mostly forgotten conflict on North American soil, alternatively called “The War of Austrian Succession” or “King George’s War,” fought between the French and British between 1744 and 1748. To clarify (or maybe confuse the matter further) it was also called the Third French and Indian War.

But even more importantly, the document brings Brinley Sylvester, one of Shelter Island’s most fascinating characters, to light again for Island historians and the general public.

The document, now for sale by Manhattan’s Gosen Rare Books & Old Paper, is a 356-year-old tax warrant issued in October 1744 from Suffolk County to “freeholders and inhabitants” of Shelter Island. It called for taxes to repair and complete “fortifications of this colony” — meaning the British colony of New York. Piggybacked on the defense tax warrant, the funds would also be used for “building a new house, proper for Residence of Governors thereof, of the time being …”  It was signed by Brinley Sylvester and seven other men.

The War of Austrian Succession, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, was a battle between Britain and France to assert control of North America. It began over boundary disputes in southeastern Canada and northern New England, and spread as far as the Ohio valley. Some Indigenous tribes allied themselves with either the British and French forces, and the conflict “was characterized by bloody border raids by both sides,” according to the encyclopedia. It was finally settled in 1748 when the French accepted that they wouldn’t have control of New England or the Ohio valley.

Brinley Sylvester, who called on his fellow Islanders to pony up for the king’s war, was the grandson of Nathaniel Sylvester, who purchased Shelter Island in 1652 and set up a plantation with enslaved people. Brinley, born in East Hampton, spent his boyhood and young adulthood in Newport, R.I. where he worked as a merchant, according to Ralph G. Duvall’s “History of Shelter Island.”

When he was 32, his father died, and Brinley went to Shelter Island to take over the estate he had inherited. He lived in the Manor House built by his grandfather, and in 1733 replaced it with the house we see today.

Jacob E. Mallman, in his “Shelter Island and Its Presbyterian Church,” writes: “It is said that when Mr. Sylvester was building the new house, which was the largest structure of its kind in the three counties of Long Island [Nassau, Suffolk and Kings], it occasioned much talk among his Puritan friends and the raising of it was made a great affair for those days … Much of the interior work such as cornices, panels, wainscoting, and the like, was executed in England; that which was serviceable of the prior homestead, such as doors, sashes, tiles, etc. were worked into the new building.” 

According to Duvall, Brinley was a “very interesting and picturesque personage.” Another historian, Martha J. Lamb, wrote that he “was extravagant in his expenditures, and lived in a style of grandeur exceeding all his predecessors. He resided over his rich and extensive plantations with the dignity of a lord, and on every side there was costly and showy display. He was polished in his manners, scholarly in his tastes, hospitable, generous even to recklessness.”

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Brinley’s riches were formed by keeping up the family tradition of holding people in bondage.

He held one public office or another on Shelter Island from 1732 to 1752, the year of his death. One important part of his legacy is building the Presbyterian Church. In an 18th Century form of GoFundMe, he solicited funds from Islanders and people living elsewhere for the building project, with Brinley giving the largest donation. 

In 1742, a plot of land where the present church and cemetery now stands was donated, and Brinley supervised construction. When the church was finished, he supplied a preacher, his family’s private chaplain, Rev. William Adams.

Duvall describes Rev. Adams as a man who “never married, and while he was a preacher for more than 60 years, yet was never ordained, as he said he would not be encumbered with either a wife or a parish.” 

Mallman describes the eccentric churchman as “short and stout: wore a white wig and cocked hat, and usually walked about the streets dressed in a black study gown.”

Brinley died at Sylvester Manor on Christmas Eve, 1752, aged 58. He was buried on the Manor grounds, but then his remains were removed to the Presbyterian churchyard, where visitors today can see the table monument marking his and his wife Mary’s graves.

Duvall called Brinley a “good and useful man.” The first attribution can be debated. The second is incontrovertible when looking at his contributions to the early governance of Shelter Island, his building of the Presbyterian Church, and his supreme accomplishment, rebuilding and fortifying the Island jewel that is Sylvester Manor.