Slavery, Native Americans, African Americans, Algonquians
In 1652, Nathaniel Sylvester left England for Shelter Island, an 8,000-acre land mass on the eastern end of Long Island. The merchant soon presided over a bustling plantation. Built to provision sugar plantations in Barbados, Sylvester Manor became New York’s largest slaveholding and perhaps its most diverse: Nearly two dozen bound Africans labored alongside local Algonquians and indentured Europeans on the property. Together they tended crops, pressed apples into cider, and slaughtered livestock to ship into the Atlantic. The heterogeneity of the manor’s early labor force would have been unmistakable to seventeenth-century observers, but Sylvester’s descendants would later misremember the plantation’s past, flattening the island’s complex history of slavery and race into a story of liberty that separated the Manor’s Africans, Native Americans, and Europeans both temporally and spatially. In this compelling work of historical archaeology, Katherine Howlett Hayes takes a twofold approach to understanding the Manor’s past: First she reconstructs the early plantation community through extensive use of archaeological evidence, and then she traces the process of remembering (and forgetting) that so distorted the plantation’s history in the nineteenth century.
Hayes begins by navigating the historical processes that brought the Manor’s sundry inhabitants to Shelter Island. She discusses Algonquian life prior to European settlement, Dutch and British colonialism in New York, and the consequences of disease and war on the region’s inhabitants. The book’s most valuable findings surface in the third and fourth chapters, which focus on the early plantation community. Here Hayes makes meaning of all manner of material evidence: fragments of maize kernels; bits of plaster; waste from fish processing; shards of ceramic; deposits of crushed shell; patterns of micro-flaking on flint cores. These remains reveal what written records do not: that the local Algonquians (known as the Manhanset) stayed on Shelter Island after Sylvester’s arrival and participated extensively in plantation labor. Evidence of Manhanset expertise at Sylvester Manor is ubiquitous. Early buildings were [End Page 285] assembled using Native construction practices rather than common colonial ones; pottery was produced by hand and decorated with emblematic Algonquian motifs; stones were knapped into usable flakes. Hayes’s discussions of local ceramic and lithic production are particularly noteworthy, as they link Native technologies to African practice. Assembling evidence related to the composition and firing methods of ceramic shards as well as the heat treatment and micro-flaking of flint cores, Hayes argues that Africans did not simply reproduce Algonquian production processes. Instead they innovated, contributing their skill and experience to local ceramic and tool manufacture.
Africans and the Manhanset labored side by side in very close proximity to the manor’s Europeans. Archaeological evidence locates the work yard immediately adjacent to what seems to have been the original Sylvester residence. However, the intimacy with which Africans, Native Americans, and Europeans interacted did not linger long in historical memory. By the late nineteenth century, Sylvester’s descendants—who still lived on the estate—had fashioned their own version of the manor’s history by erecting monuments that memorialized Africans, Algonquians, and Europeans separately, as if to suggest that each group had “minimal to no interaction with [the others], by reason of time, race, and social standing” (161).
The final portion of Slavery Before Race details the processes of (mis)-remembering that performed this “severing of associations” (152). Here Hayes situates those making memory in the context of “national events contributing to racial discourses” in order to understand why they clung to certain aspects of the manor’s history and discarded others (123). Though she makes a solid case that contemporary ideas about race shaped the memories of Shelter Island’s keepers of the past, occasionally the broader “history” by which she explains the Sylvesters’ actions is dubious. In one particularly egregious instance, she attributes the Sylvester children’s rejection of Shelter Island’s manorial status and decision to sell...