- Slavery before Race: Europeans, Africans, and Indians at Long Island’s Sylvester Manor Plantation, 1651–1884 by Katherine Howlett Hayes
A midden of butchered porcine bones. A deposit of copper tinkling beads. A cobblestone walkway set in a checkerboard pattern. These are the sorts of material records that historical archaeologist Katherine Howlett Hayes draws from the landscape of Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island, New York. She interprets these features in concert with rich local and family archives to show how the family of Dutch planter Nathaniel Sylvester, the African persons he enslaved, and the indigenous Manhanset Natives lived and worked on a seventeenth-century plantation off the eastern shores of Long Island. Whereas later memory segregated the residence and labor of these groups into separate times and spaces of the island’s history, Hayes shows how European, Native, and African Americans formed a “precarious community” by defining physical and social difference in subtle ways before race-based slavery was codified (3). Hayes uses evidence from the landscape not simply to uncover what happened during the colonial era but also to show how later generations remembered and forgot this colonial past. In so doing, she limns a view of Sylvester Manor that prompts historians to rethink characterizations of plantation life, colonial labor, and the role of memory in defining racial identity.
Hayes situates Shelter Island at the center of a Venn diagram of circles encompassing Puritan New England, the Dutch West Indies, Algonquian societies, and the transatlantic maritime world. When Nathaniel Sylvester and his wife arrived on the island around 1653, they brought enslaved Africans from Barbados to a place where the conditions and terms of slavery were vaguely defined. Hayes argues that the Sylvesters, Africans, local Manhanset, and possibly poor white laborers lived in much more intimate arrangements than written records suggest. Her survey and excavation revealed evidence of a system of plantation labor very different from southern and Caribbean models. Enslaved family groups—recognized by the Sylvesters in the written record—did not live in external domestic quarters or work in spaces separate from the Sylvester family. Native laborers, sometimes paid for their work, cleaned fish and made wampum in the plantation yard. Residents of European, Manhanset, and African descent [End Page 444] all used the same hybrid constellation of material culture, including food preparation, pottery design, and lithic tool production. Still, Hayes argues, this “landscape was a setting of both spatial proximity and an ongoing negotiation of social distance” (86). Her excavation of locks, keys, and distinctive items of self-adornment speaks to the ways that Sylvester Manor residents distinguished themselves through movement, control of labor, and personal statements of cultural identity.
Just as the landscape gave Hayes insight into this plantation community, it also revealed how subsequent generations remembered and erased evidence of it. As early as 1735, Sylvester descendants turned the manor’s back on its maritime commercial past, reorienting a new Georgian house toward the island’s agricultural interior. The absence of separate domestic quarters for enslaved or indentured laborers made it easy to overlook the lasting presence of slavery in the region, even beyond the passage of New York’s 1799 Gradual Emancipation Act. In the antebellum decades, local historians cited the Sylvester Manor landscape to distance themselves and their ancestors from the practice of slavery that increasingly divided the Union. Similarly, nineteenth-century historians portrayed indigenous populations as a thing of the past, pointing to a few dwindling sites and declining individuals. In so doing, they sidestepped contemporary debates over the fates of Native Americans in the United States. When amateur historian Eben Norton Horsford took up residence at Sylvester Manor during the Civil War, he built a commemorative landscape to reinforce this belief that the lives of the island’s indigenous population, European colonists, and enslaved Africans rarely had intersected. Horsford engraved a large boulder on the North Peninsula to designate the site of the ancient Youghco Native community. Close to the manor house, he...