Chronicling the North’s hidden history of slavery

The Sylvester Manor house circa 1870
The Sylvester Manor house circa 1870

Historian Mac Griswold has been on a quest for the past decade and a half to tell the half-forgotten story of slavery on Shelter Island.

Ms. Griswold, a landscape historian, first saw Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island while she was rowing in a nearby creek in 1984. She was intrigued by the age of the large boxwoods she could see from the water and resolved to learn more about the Manor.

But her exploration into the history of the Manor’s landscape lead to a deeper and more personal search for the truth about the lives of the enslaved people who kept the manor and its 1,000 acres of farm fields running from its start in 1652 to the time the last slave was freed from the Manor in 1827.

Her chronicle, titled “The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island,” is due to be released July 2. Ms. Griswold will read selections at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor this Friday, June 28 at 5 p.m.

Mac Griswold
Mac Griswold

Ms. Griswold’s search for the truth about slavery has deep roots: her family’s ancestors were slave holders in Texas, a family history that still haunts her.

“We want to make it seem like slavery here was better than in the south,” she said but “there was less family life (for slaves) and more surveillance. They lived in the same house with their masters. They were in the uncomfortable position of being seen as both a thing and a human being.”

“When I first went there, I had no idea there was slavery in the North,” she added of Sylvester Manor. “The memory of slavery in New York was buried by abolition and by the Civil War. It was erased as a memory. But it’s hard to erase what you’re surrounded by. You can’t erase the memories. Nobody really wanted to connect the dots. They didn’t want to remember.”

Ms. Griswold, who had published “Washington’s Gardens at Mount Vernon” in 1999, had begun to examine the hidden legacy of slavery in American life when reading George Washington’s diaries about the gardens at his home.

“Every time he said ‘I’ did something in the garden, he meant ‘they,’ his slaves,” she said. “There were 300 people enslaved there.”

Ms. Griswold began working on “The Manor” in 1997, where she spent years studying records in a second house stuffed with documents on the property of the Manor.  The farm is now a Community Supported Agriculture project still owned by the 11th generation descendents of its original owner, Nathaniel Sylvester.

She received a Guggenheim grant to continue her work in 2003, and helped to restore documents damaged in a flood when antique pipes in the house burst in 2004.

In the original 1680 records at the Manor, there are 11 adult slaves and 13 children listed as the property of the Manor. The last enslaved person was freed from the Manor in 1827.

“Some came to Sag Harbor once freedom came. They left Shelter Island because no one wanted to sell them land,” she said. Many African Americans from Shelter Island became founding members of the Eastville community in Sag Harbor in 1840.

But in the time between 1680 and 1780, few records exist of the lives of the slaves at Sylvester Manor.

At Friday’s reading, Ms. Griswold will tell the story of a man named Obium who was born at the Manor. He was sent to Boston with Nathaniel Sylvester’s son-in-law James Lloyed sometime after 1687, but ran away, and was caught and sent back to Boston, where he stayed for 12 years and taught himself to read. He eventually ended up in the hands of relatives of the owners of Sylvester Manor in western Long Island.

“Most people ran back to the community they were a part of,” said Ms. Griswold. “It’s counter-intuitive, but the statistics are there.”

“Scholar Philip Morgan says that those who were recaptured and were said to be visiting friends or family outnumbered by four to one those who were attempting permanent freedom,” she added.

Ms. Griswold had suspected, throughout her research, that Obium was the father of the first published African American poet, Jupiter Hammon, who was born in Lloyd Harbor in 1711. Her research has borne out that theory.

She will also tell two other stories, one of a slave named Comus, who acted as a lawyer to defend another slave at the Manor, and the other of a woman named Julia Dyd Havens Johnson, who took names from her matrilineal ancestors, a long-held African custom of honoring the women in her family. Ms. Griswold learned in her research that Ms. Johnson was one of the few slaves who inherited land on Shelter Island after she was freed.

Ms. Griswold’s book also chronicles the calculations that were made as it became clear the slaves would soon be freed. She found one record of a four-month old boy named Achilles, who was registered at the Manor in 1819. No other record of Achilles exists in the Manor’s archives.

“He either went to the poor house or was sold,” she said. “But the guy who made these calculations also freed people. Everybody was a mixture of good motives and bad ones.”

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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