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Slavery before Race

Europeans, Africans, and Indians at Long Island's Sylvester Manor Plantation, 1651-1884

Katherine Howlett Hayes

Publication Year: 2013

The study of slavery in the Americas generally assumes a basic racial hierarchy: Africans or those of African descent are usually the slaves, and white people usually the slaveholders. In this unique interdisciplinary work of historical archaeology, anthropologist Katherine Hayes draws on years of fieldwork on Shelter Island’s Sylvester Manor to demonstrate how racial identity was constructed and lived before plantation slavery was racialized by the legal codification of races.
Using the historic Sylvester Manor Plantation site turned archaeological dig as a case study, Hayes draws on artifacts and extensive archival material to present a rare picture of northern slavery on one of the North’s first plantations. There, white settlers, enslaved Africans, and Native Americans worked side by side. While each group played distinct roles on the Manor and in the larger plantation economy of which Shelter Island was part, their close collaboration and cohabitation was essential for the Sylvester family’s economic and political power in the Atlantic Northeast. Through the lens of social memory and forgetting, this study addresses the significance of Sylvester Manor’s plantation history to American attitudes about diversity, Indian land politics, slavery and Jim Crow, in tension with idealized visions of white colonial community.
Katherine Howlett Hayes is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. She holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from UC Berkeley, and an M.A. in Historical Archaeology from the University of Massachusetts Boston. 

Published by: NYU Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-9


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pp. ix-x

List of Figures and Table

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pp. xi-xii


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pp. xiii-xvi

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pp. xvii-xviii

These days, as in the past, anyone who wishes to visit Shelter Island must travel by water, for there are no bridges spanning the passage. Sturdy ferries, carrying fifteen or so cars on a trip, make the crossing at the north and south ends of the island. Boat travel to me feels like a sidestep into...

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1. Tracing a Racialized History

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pp. 1-16

When Nathaniel Sylvester and his young bride Grissell came to reside on Shelter Island sometime around 1652 or 1653, they might have spoken between themselves about how they had landed in a lonely place, feeling that the two of them had only one another in this unfamiliar land...

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2. Convergence

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pp. 17-56

Contrary to popular historical depictions, Europeans did not arrive to a find terra nullius in the New World; likewise, history did not begin with their arrival. To understand the relationships and interactions of European colonists and Native Americans in southern New England and coastal New York, we must first look to Native histories prior to Euro-...

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3. Building and Destroying

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pp. 57-85

Landscapes are not neutral spaces. They are the places of ongoing actions of humans on the environment and the environment on humans, a relationship so constant in its performance that it occurs at a level of bodily habituation. Landscape can include both built structures and natural features, each structuring our experience in such a way that we come to ...

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4. Objects of Interaction

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pp. 86-120

Landscape might be the literal grounds for interaction, but very often the material world on a smaller scale—objects portable, intimate, handled, crafted, passed from hand to hand—provides the rationale and locus for people to come together. In chapter 3 I imagined seeing the early plantation core setting, arriving from the water, viewing the house, walk-...

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5. Forgetting to Remember, Remembering to Forget

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pp. 121-162

The physical face of the plantation and its complex human geography were nowhere to be seen by the end of the eighteenth century. A new landscape, a succession of generations with new political concerns, and the dispersion of the descendants of the indigenous and the enslaved undercut the durable materiality and means of transmitting social...

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6. Unimagining Communities

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pp. 163-180

Artifacts, unseen archives, and anecdotal histories thus act to introduce doubt, to disrupt the grand narratives of race. They await our willingness to see them and our ability to recognize them as ruptures. If we give attention to the haunting figures and conspicuous historical silences and juxtapose those silences with the reconstructed archaeological facts and ...

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pp. 181-182

The Manor today is undergoing yet another radical transformation. Since Alice Fiske passed away, the descendant family has chosen not to keep the estate solely as private property. Recognizing the great historical value of the place—in all of its iterations—they have moved toward more public preservation and maintenance, in part by returning to some ...


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pp. 183-186


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pp. 187-214


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pp. 215-220

About the Author, Early American Places

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pp. 240-241

E-ISBN-13: 9780814724699
E-ISBN-10: 0814785778
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814785775
Print-ISBN-10: 0814785778

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 830323665
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Slavery before Race

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • African Americans -- New York (State) -- Shelter Island -- History -- To 1863.
  • Slavery -- New York (State) -- Shelter Island.
  • Shelter Island (N.Y.) -- Race relations -- History.
  • Indians of North America -- New York (State) -- History.
  • Shelter Island (N.Y.) -- Antiquities.
  • Excavations (Archaeology) -- New York (State) -- Shelter Island.
  • Sylvester Manor Plantation Site (N.Y.).
  • Plantation life -- New York (State) -- Shelter Island -- History.
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