July 2013

If this plantation could talk

By Mac Griswold
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When cultural landscape historian Mac Griswold first saw the boxwoods in 1984, they appeared to be 12 feet tall and 15 feet wide. She knew immediately that the slow-growing shrubs must be hundreds of years old. As she learned later, the house, built in the 1650s, and gardens beyond were known as Sylvester Manor, and had been there a long time: through 11 generations over three and a half centuries. Finding out as much as she could about the manor and the people who lived there became Griswold’s history project for many years. The research and excavation continues, but she shares her exciting and complex—and surprising—journey with us in her extraordinary book, The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island.

Long before large plantations were created in the American South, there were many plantations along the New England coast. They were provisioning plantations, part of what is called “the Atlantic system,” a constantly changing web of connections in trading and shipping that kept the system going. Sylvester Manor, on Shelter Island between the North and South Forks of Long Island, New York, is the earliest of these plantations to survive in essentially complete form. It was the first Northern provisioning plantation to be systematically excavated. As was the case with the better-known plantations in the South, these Northern plantations depended on the labor of African slaves. The workers also included Native Americans and indentured servants. Griswold speculates that this Northern slavery may be harder to grasp because the numbers of slaves were smaller and the labor arrangements and tasks more varied.

Landscape historian Griswold discovered a little-known story on a Long Island plantation.

Nathaniel and Grizzell Sylvester, the married couple who established the Manor, came from quite different backgrounds. Nathaniel was born in Amsterdam in 1620, where his father, who had immigrated from England, had become wealthy and developed connections that would help his sons establish themselves as significant players in shipping. Nathaniel’s roots in entrepreneurial Amsterdam and his time spent in Barbados—on a plantation owned by his brother, Constant, where he first dealt with the practice of slavery—shaped his approach to Sylvester Manor. Grizzell Brinley was born in England in 1636, where her father was an auditor in the court of Charles I. Changing political winds in England led Grizzell’s family to send her, in 1650, with her sister and brother-in-law to the New World: a quite different life than the one she had expected to live.

Several revelations stand out in Griswold’s research. In her first tour of the house she hears about a “slave staircase,” but the steps are blocked. This is the first indication to her that although they were often called “servants” in this period, in fact it was slaves who built the house. Later on, it became clear that the slaves did live in the same house as their owners, a policy that appears to have continued until at least the mid-18th century. Common housing also was the case, we now know, for the earliest planters of Virginia and Maryland.

Another revelation is that, contrary to what Griswold was originally told, the Sylvesters were not only slaveholders but also converts to the Society of Friends. Nathaniel had grown up as a religious nonconformist and would have been receptive to the Quakers’ radical message, in opposition to the more restrictive Puritans. Nathaniel’s unique and courageous contribution was to offer a lawful sanctuary to Quakers in a region where they were most severely prosecuted. Ship captains knew they could leave Quaker passengers on Shelter Island and they would be safe. Grizzell had been raised as an Anglican and, in her new circumstances, participated in studies of the Bible and theology. Although Quaker leader George Fox and others preached freedom for the slaves, the slaveholders among their ranks did not release their slaves for many years. Their wealth and status was too strongly dependent on this source of labor.

Griswold’s engaging book takes the reader with her on a voyage of discovery over years of meticulous research from many sources, including fascinating treasures found in a vault in the house. She presents her material in such a way that we feel we learn about the lives of the inhabitants of the house at the same time as the author.

The focus on this one plantation raises—and is able to answer—some questions about relationships between and among European colonists, African slaves, Native Americans and slaveholding Quakers. This fine book shines light on an important but little-known (at least to the general public) aspect of our history.

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The Manor

The Manor

By Mac Griswold
ISBN 9780374266295

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