It has taken us about twenty minutes to get into Gardiners Creek from a mooring in the town harbor of Shelter Island, set snugly between two peninsulas, the North and South Forks of Long Island, New York, whose tips stretch out to touch the western edge of the Atlantic Ocean, where the Gulf Stream runs close to the continent as it flows north and east toward Europe.
The tide is full as we ease the dinghy through a big pipe that supports a bridge, a bridge so low to the water that we have to flatten ourselves on the thwarts to get through without banging our heads. The pipe acts as an echo chamber, even for a whisper. It is too narrow for us to use the oars, so we brace our hands on the curve of the low ceiling and push. A friend has brought me here to see “something,” but he won’t say what. It is a summer day in 1984.
Finally out in the light, we see nothing but woods looming down to the water. Then, about a half mile off, at what seems to be the end of the inlet we have found our way into, phragmites and cattails fringe the shore. On our right are a few roofs, half hidden in the trees. On our left, toward the east, lies only a salt marsh where white egrets stalk in the long grasses. No houses. Not even a dock, a boat, or a mooring. Gulls wheel above a low hill covered with large trees: oak, hickory, walnut. Turning east means seeing land set back in time, so far back it looks as if it had never been inhabited. We blink, feeling tension rise between the modern world we’ve left behind so abruptly and the past we are rowing into.
A mudbank lies ahead, lurking under shallow water, and we get stuck, briefly. It is only when we steer into the tide channel, stirring up silty brown clouds in the water as we pole ourselves with the oars, that we first see the big yellow house. From its hip roof and big brick chimneys to its well-proportioned bulk, the house quietly acknowledges its eighteenth-century origins. I’m in a time warp.
As we cautiously approach, rowing as quietly as we can, hulking blackish-green boxwoods suddenly loom above the corner of a porch. Buxus sempervirens, or common box, these shrubs look to be an astounding twelve feet tall. Is this an illusion created by looking up from such a small boat? No, it isn’t. They’re gigantic. We’re used to seeing boxwoods as frilly edging around flower beds, or modest green bosses set to either side of a front door. Slow-growing boxwoods do well in this moderate climate, tempered by the surrounding waters of the Atlantic, but they seldom exceed eight feet north of the Mason-Dixon Line. As a landscape historian and a gardener, I feel that these linebacker giants must be very, very old. Boxwoods, one of the few shrubs that in optimum conditions can live for hundreds of years, are like the guardians of history. The dense evergreen foliage of specimens like these seem to hold memory in each small, shining leaf.
Boxwoods, seen here in a family photograph taken before 1908, have guarded the central garden path at Sylvester Manor for at least two hundred years.
The reflection of the house in the glassy water doesn’t tremble. No wind. I hold my breath too, as if the building itself would disappear if the water moved.
My friend idles his oars. As we pull closer to shore, we see what looks like a place to land. Apparently a crude boulder wall, it has a few stone steps rising from the water. Nobody is around. Can’t resist. I climb the steps; my friend waits, amused but concerned that I’m going to get caught trespassing. However, he’s used to my marauding tactics in deserted gardens.
Once up the steps, I see that the wall is actually a land bridge carpeted with grass. Wonderfully strange. On the far side of the bridge, another part of the inlet we’ve ventured into continues. A track runs down from the woods we just rowed past, heading for the house. I follow it. I knock softly at the front door, then louder. I call. Still no answer, nobody home. Great. So I check out the gangling, rusty windmill and water tank on stilts near a big barn, and an old cannon facing the water, sitting on a crude wooden carriage. Where the heavy lower branches of a gigantic copper beech have reached the ground, they have taken root and sprung up into a copse surrounding the mother tree. The tree bulks almost as large as the long, elegant house that was clearly built over many generations, lying composedly in the sun on a summer afternoon.
On the east side of the house, away from the water, white pickets protect a rambling flower garden. The big boxwoods I glimpsed from the boat flank the garden gate. Now that I am close to them, I see they are indeed twelve feet tall, and fifteen feet broad. Inside, the garden is cut by a central path running straight and narrow through two lines of more boxwoods. The far end of the path telescopes to a distant gate, a view that seems to stretch back at least two hundred years. Grand gardens were built like this then, fenced rectangles on axis with the main house.
I climb back into the rowboat, stunned. This place isn’t self-consciously “historic”; it’s not restored in any sense. It has simply been here, waiting for time to pass. Waiting for me.
Suddenly we hear water moving. The Atlantic tide begins to empty itself in a thin silver coil from the inlet above the stone bridge. Twice a day, every day, for how many years? This place stands still, outside any ordinary dimension of time or space, but tide and time move through it. We row out of Gardiners Creek, moving with the tide.
* * *
Curious to find out exactly where I’d been in the dinghy, I checked a map of the island to get my bearings, and asked the owner of the local sandwich joint if he knew who owned the place: an Andrew Fiske, and his wife, Alice. I wrote asking to meet them. I had trouble with my letter, trying out various versions of “Who are you and what is this place?” At last I settled on something economical and true, but pitifully inadequate to express the curiosity I felt. “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Fiske,” I wrote, “I rowed into the creek below your house and could not resist walking around your lawns and garden,” and I finished by saying I was a garden historian and would like to meet them and learn about the history of their house. Several months and three letters later, I received a reply, and an invitation to visit.
I pulled through the white-painted cement gates opposite Shelter Island’s lone supermarket and rattled down the long wooded driveway, two worn sandy tracks separated by a grass ridge. Not much traffic here, that was clear. I wondered whether the couple I would meet could possibly match the magic of my waterside introduction.
To the Staircase
Two small figures stand under the front portico, one in a wrinkled linen jacket and open-necked checked shirt, the other in skirt and blouse, with a chintz mobcap topping the ensemble. Sensible shoes on both, and an air of the fifties about them. Pleasant greetings, a swift assessment from Andrew’s pale blue eyes, a big lipsticked smile from Alice. As they invite me into the darkened front hall, light hits the polished brass doorknob. A large key gleams in the heavy, square lock. I step across the threshold and into a history project spanning eleven generations, three and a half centuries, and four continents. Here, where the Hamptons, jittery playground of the rich and famous, are only eight miles away, I am astonished to learn I’m meeting a member of a family that has lived on this tranquil-seeming property in an unbroken line since 1652.
Alice, clearly a character and perhaps the boss, departs for the garden. Andy asks whether I’d like to see the house. As we continue to stand in the front hall, he regales me with his romantic version of a family story passed on to him and shaped mostly during America’s Colonial Revival, between 1876 and the twenties, by his great-grandfather Eben Norton Horsford and his youngest daughter, Cornelia Horsford. I would review and reassemble this history many times.
Eventually I combined the results of a decade of research into Andy’s documents with information from oral and traditional histories; intellectual, economic, agricultural, and architectural history; and archaeology, dowsing, and dendrochronological analysis of the timbers of the house. This book offers an interpretation of the Sylvester Manor site that is more startling, more full of gaps, and more complex and paradoxical than Andy’s tale—and it still leaves the place and its history open to further study. The colorful Andy version rings with a certainty that my version doesn’t possess, but I would discover many disconcerting errors and gaps in his tale.
His account runs like this: In 1652, the dashing Nathaniel Sylvester, son of an English merchant family, sailed north from Barbados, where his family owned sugar plantations that depended on the labor of hundreds of Africans. With him came his teenaged bride, Grizzell Brinley, daughter of Charles I’s court auditor, Thomas Brinley. After a dramatic shipwreck, the newlyweds landed on Shelter Island, where a large and comfortable house (built previously by Nathaniel and his servants) stood ready to receive the young couple. Nathaniel and his brother Constant and two other Barbadian planters, Thomas Middleton and Thomas Rous, had bought the island from Stephen Goodyear, the deputy governor of New Haven Colony, who had bought it as a speculative venture in 1651 from the estate of the Earl of Stirling, its first English owner, for 1,600 pounds of the unrefined brown sugar known as muscovado. Andy carefully explained that even though Nathaniel and Grizzell were not Quakers themselves, a sense of noblesse oblige moved them to offer their isolated island as a sanctuary for the earliest Friends fleeing the savage persecution of Boston Puritans. The young couple invited George Fox, the Quaker founder, to visit in 1673 and preach the Inner Light. Because Grizzell’s father, a high civil servant who served in the Royal Exchequer, had the ear and the gratitude of the king, Charles II, the persecution stopped. The Sylvesters enjoyed good relations with the Indians and respectfully purchased the island again from the local Manhansett chief, Youghco. They hobnobbed with, and married into, New England’s ruling elite. Last but not least, Grizzell bore twelve children, eleven of whom lived to maturity, thereby begetting the long line that led to Andy Fiske.
Andy fast-forwards two generations to Nathaniel’s grandson, the fashionable Brinley Sylvester, born in Newport, who inherited in 1733. To Brinley, the ramshackle eighty-year-old family mansion seemed very out of date; he tore it down and built this house. We are standing in the east parlor as Andy tells me this, a room of extraordinary beauty and strangeness. Beautiful because the proportions and the fully paneled walls are exquisite, and all the more so for being so very early Georgian high style in this now remote corner of the world, once part of a thriving maritime economy. Strange, because there are only two coats of paint on these walls, through which the silvery old wood shows in patches. The bottom coat is that acid blue-green so fashionable in the mid-eighteenth century. The top coat is a modest biscuit color, emblematic of good taste, applied sometime in the 1840s, just before wall colors turned dark and Victorian. How peculiar and lucky it is that no one put on a third coat, I think to myself.
On one wall hangs a dingy portrait of a solemn man with a very large nose, Andy’s notable ancestor Ezra L’Hommedieu, Nathaniel Sylvester’s great-grandson, an American statesman who died in 1811. As we turn away from the painting, I am startled to see the same nose confronting me in the flesh—on Andy’s face. The doubling of past and present doesn’t stop with the portrait. Andy gently coaxes me to notice that the same blue and white pearlware basket depicted in the portrait of a little girl in red over the mantel now sits safely on a shelf behind the parlor door. Despite the past, how strangely lived-in this room feels, with its big bunch of plastic daffodils, box of mah-jongg tiles, and folding card table, vintage 1950.
It hits me that Andy and Alice are living in a place that is hidden away from the outside world—but in plain sight. Everything is simultaneously ghostly and absolutely present. I’ve lost my bearings and have no idea how to deal with the vast world laid out before me. But because I’m a landscape historian, and landscape historians always look out the window to see what’s there, I peer through the east window. Yes, the axial garden path that marches through the giant boxwoods does align exactly with the view from this window, meaning there is a good chance that the builder of the house knowingly connected the two. I feel I could follow this slim lead on the ground and backward into history. We head into the library, dimmed by half-drawn blinds, where the rare histories of rail that are Andy’s passion stand shelved beneath a sepia photograph of a fur-hatted “Papa” Horsford, as Professor Eben Norton Horsford, Andy’s great-grandfather, is called by the family. The personal fortune of this self-made man gave the manor a sorely needed boost in the 1850s. I’m told that a framed crewelwork strip hanging beside the photo came from a set of eighteenth-century bed hangings. Andy says that the bed once furnished a room on nearby Gardiners Island, a sister manor first settled in 1635 by Lion Gardiner, a Dutch-trained English fortifications engineer. A Gardiner descendant married the girl in the red dress, a Sylvester descendant. I nod. Of course.
The next stop is a blank wall in the front hall, or so it seems. Andy waits a beat, which allows me to see the outline of a secret jib door cut into the garlanded silk wallpaper. He then creaks open the thick panel to reveal a walk-in safe, a vault that Andy has been told could withstand the hottest flames for six hours. I can barely keep from saying that fire would probably consume this wooden house in minutes, the timbers are so old and dry. The vault ceiling is about seven feet high, and the walls—lined with high dark chests and file cabinets—press in on us from every side. Old trunks crowd the red-tiled floor. By the single sixty-watt bulb, I can pick out one with a curved top painted the same acid blue-green as the parlor undercoat; another is covered in hide. Thousands of documents are housed here in these trunks and many others, in drawers, and in albums in which Andy has flattened some several hundred of his most precious ones, decoding them over countless Sunday mornings. (Andy, quietly determined not to be a churchgoer like his wife, has found a convincing escape.) Other papers have not been read since the original recipients broke the wax seals, or slit the envelopes, and then bundled them up with ribbon or string for reference someday. Someday in 1690, or 1790, or 1890, or today.
Andy opens what he calls “the object case.” Each dark metal shelf is loaded—a framed letter from Thomas Jefferson to Ezra L’Hommedieu about “the Hessian fly,” a crop pest; an antique meerschaum pipe; an Indian treaty of 1654, written on both sides of the parchment paper and signed with the “marks” of many Indian sachems. And there are things that are counted as treasures only by those who have stashed them here: a woman’s long, fat braid of light brown hair, a tarnished metal spirit level barely an inch long with the bubble still intact. Silver candelabra lord it over prosaic metal file cabinets. In glass-front cupboards, display dishes are heaped with brooches, strands of beads, and earrings, a stone block incised with the date 1777, a small yellow brick, sets of porcelain cups, pincushions bristling with pins. As Andy puts each precious artifact into my hands, he tells me its story, making the past as vivid for himself as for me.
We take the heaviest album into the dining room, where there is more light. I watch while Andy quietly smooths out on the mahogany table the original parchment charter for what had once been an 8,000-acre water-bounded domain—the entire island. Blobs of red wax, the personal stamps of the various parties, dot the wide sheet, from which dangles a large, handsome governmental seal. Signed in 1666 by Richard Nicolls, the first governor of the English colony of New York, the document defines the place, “by the Indyans formerly called by the name of Manhansucke Ahaquatzuwamocke and now commonly known as by the name of Shelter Island.” The island, and 435-acre neighboring Robins Island, had previously been conveyed “into the hands of Constant Silvester of the Island of Barbadoes Esqr, and Nathaniell Silvester now Inhabiting and residing in Shelter Island aforesaid Merchant,” and their two other partners in 1651. But Nicolls’s signature now affirms more than mere ownership: “NOW KNOW YEE That … I do hereby … Give Grannt and Confirme … that the said Island & premises, now is, and forever hereafter, shall be … deemed, reputed, taken and held as an absolute Intire, Infranchized Township mannor and place of it selfe in this Government.” (Governor Nicolls and his home government mistakenly imagined that the feudal system of hereditary rights bestowed with the land itself would take root across America.) For the powerful privileges of manorial squires, which included the appointment of a magistrate and exemption from taxes and military levies, the two Silvester (later Sylvester) brothers paid Nicolls a hefty sum, £150 sterling in beef and pork, probably raised on the island. I briefly wonder what happened to the other two partners, then discard the thought—there are too many other questions crowding my mind.
Such as: Why isn’t this incredible document about the very earliest colonial history of this country in a museum or a library? Like the several hundred acres of open land that Andy still owns, reduced from the original 8,000-acre domain, the creased old charter has survived intact for more than three centuries through a combination of design and accident and pure luck. I was brought here by water to be shown an eighteenth-century house and a landscape seemingly unchanged by time; I am now about to discover a great deal more. Before my eyes, the written history of this refined eighteenth-century house has now been pushed back about a hundred years to a highly experimental period of European settlement. Andy Fiske carefully slides the charter back into its heavy red leather housing.
In the west parlor, we gaze at a gorgeous nineteenth-century French panoramic wallpaper: snowy peaks, garden terrace balustrades topped with overflowing urns of flowers, and peacocks. I sign the guestbook and turn to admire the mantel. To the left of it is a closed door with two oval holes cut in the transom panel above. Walking toward the door, Andy says, “This leads to the slave staircase,” as if it were the most natural thing in the world to have a slave staircase in your early Georgian house on Long Island. A breeze suddenly blows through the window that overlooks the creek, lifting the organdy curtains like a breath. The openings in the transom become eyeholes in a mask, studying us.
The staircase behind this door spirals up to the attic, Andy remarks, pointing out how narrow and high the steps are. But nobody walks up this pinched back staircase any longer: the steps are blocked by a collection of small vases and dishes, mostly crystal and metal, which glitter in the light from a glassed side entry. Later I can’t help but notice the luxurious treads of the front stairs, whose four-inch risers are so shallow I seem to float effortlessly upward.
It begins to sink in: the “servants” who Andy said built the house were slaves. So were those who lived in the house built by Nathaniel and his wife in the 1650s. In common seventeenth- and eighteenth-century American parlance, slaves were often called servants, as were indentured servants, whose terms did not last for life and whose children would be free. As I listen to Andy’s glancing mention of the staircase, I realize I am face-to-face with slavery in the North.
In 1984, Andy was among the comparatively few who were aware of Northern slavery. His family had lived with that knowledge as his ancestors had lived with their captives. The door to memory had never closed.
Human bones were discovered in 1991 in New York City about a mile and a half north of Wall Street as builders began to clear the ground for another skyscraper. The struggle to stop construction occupied many column inches in every newspaper. Archaeologists who excavated only a portion of the area estimate that as many as ten thousand people may have been interred there. During a long century (the burial ground was opened in the late 1600s and closed in 1794), burials may have stretched for miles beyond the original five- to six-acre plot. By 2003, 419 human remains exhumed from what was identified as the old “Negro Burial Ground” had been carefully analyzed by Howard University. Nearly half of them were those of children under twelve. Placed in wooden coffins hand-carved in Ghana, once the grisly center of the West African slave trade, all 419 were reburied at the site and mourned publicly by some ten thousand visitors. The discovery of the African Burial Ground brought with it the dawning recognition that wealthy colonial society in the North—epitomized perfectly by the Sylvesters’ lucrative Long Island plantation—was initially shaped by generations of captive people, until 1827, when slavery was finally abolished in New York State.
Did slaves live in the attic of this house? Andy assures me they did. I pose my questions politely and ask whether I might see it. To avoid the knickknacks on the lowest flight of the slave staircase, we take a different route to reach the second floor. In the top hall hangs a photograph of James Russell Lowell, a committed abolitionist, his snowy beard spread comfortably over his waistcoat. He looks at me. What does Mr. Lowell think about slaves at the manor, I wonder. And why is he here?
On we go, Andy and I, through a bedroom door that leads to the top flight of the slave staircase. Climbing the steep steps makes my calves ache. Or maybe it is just that I can’t yet believe who climbed them. The attic is full of racks of clothes, colored lithographs in chipped but handsome frames, a tiger-skin rug complete with snarling head, a beautiful train set, hatboxes, and dozens of flowered china chamber pots. Andy says the slaves may have slept on the boards that rest on joists above our heads. Two crude ladders lie on the floor. Are they proof that somebody climbed up there? The spaces around the two massive chimneystacks are the warmest places in the house, Andy adds.
Andy is not unsympathetic to my interest in the slaves, nor is he apologetic about them. They are part of his history, his life, what roots him to this land. He is proud to have preserved all this and to know all he does about it. Standing in the dusty summer heat, he tells me about the earliest slaves, twenty-four people who are listed as property of Nathaniel Sylvester or of his partners, in Nathaniel’s 1680 will. But Andy is more interested in pointing out the detailed images of ships, probably scratched with a penknife, in the whitewashed sheathing inside the attic dormers. A sailor himself, Andy admires the knowledge of hulls and rigging displayed by the unknown carver. One dormer looks out over Gardiners Creek. Who wanted to sail away from here?
Now Andy wants to lead me outdoors on a walk to what his family calls the Quaker Graveyard. We leave the house by the front door. As we turn to follow a deeply cut turf track that runs south through some woods, Andy pauses, looks back, and points to a tall stone standing in the lawn near the giant boxwoods. “The First House stood there,” he says with certainty. Well, of course, I say to myself, Nathaniel Sylvester, the hardy seafarer and merchant who came to the island in 1651 and died here in 1680, couldn’t have lived in this fine Georgian structure. It will turn out that Nathaniel’s dwelling was more than the standard, modest, one-over-one First Period house that still can be seen occasionally in New England. Much later, I will discover it was described as “the late mansion house of Captain Nathaniell Sylvester” and stood surrounded by a throng of outbuildings. But Andy is moving on into the woods. So I leave my phantom Jacobean house, its mullioned windows glittering in the sun, to follow him. We emerge at the top of the creek, where a low metal railing encloses a small cemetery. From here we can look back toward the bridge that my friend and I had rowed under.
From what I have seen this morning, I get an uneasy sense of a history that has been prettified and mummified in family stories like the ones I just heard from Andy. This graveyard memorializes Nathaniel Sylvester and his clan as protectors of oppressed Quakers. Only later will I discover that, contrary to what Andy had told me, they were in fact Quakers themselves—and slaveholders, the ultimate contradiction. The top of an imposing table monument erected in 1884 bears a family coat of arms and a list of the manor’s proprietors—which, to my surprise, acknowledges the island’s original inhabitants, the Manhansetts. Scattered around the monument are a few gravestones. Some are carved with the winged skull that reminded seventeenth-century believers of where they came from and where they were headed, dust to dust. But Nathaniel and Grizzell’s remains are not among them. More questions …
We leave the graveyard via a bridle trail cut through a grove of tall white pines. The path is carpeted with soft reddish-brown needles; we make no sound as we walk. We skirt a freshwater swamp edged with pepperidge trees and fragrant summersweet. The fine south front of the manor house appears from time to time through the trees and across a wide meadow.
The penumbra of beauty and power that vibrates around this house bears little relation to its compact size. The south front measures only forty-two feet across. From this angle, so different from my first water view of it, the serene shingled mass and ample hip roof are perfectly framed by the two mighty chimneys just behind the ridge. Why does this place create such a profound impression? Partly because it has all apparently survived—house, garden, landscape, papers, stories, and people still around to tell those stories. In this day of You Are Here restorations and re-creations, it’s a potent mix. And partly it’s a matter of perfect proportions. Early Georgian architectural harmony and symmetry triumphed with the first flowering of the British Empire. The sense of domination over the physical world, the aura of special grace, and the confidence of the Enlightenment are twined with that empire, and with this structure. More than anything else, however, my sense of this place comes from my visit to the attic with Andy, the stories he has told me, and my queasy sense of more to come. And all this is made increasingly extraordinary because we are in a Long Island enclave where ostentatious beachfront houses on tiny parcels of land that cost millions of dollars are built, torn down, rebuilt, and flipped every year.
The unknown people who lived here and helped create this place step forward when Andy and I reach what he says some call the slave graveyard, others the Indian burying ground. As I drove in, I had noticed an old gray fence line, but missed a big boulder lying closer to the main drive. Now I see an inscription carved on the flat side: “Burying Ground of the Colored People of the Manor since 1651.” There are no gravestones in this graveyard under the pines. Andy tells me that more than two hundred people may be buried here. I don’t ask where are the records, why are there no markers? I can guess the answer. These are the ones who slipped soundlessly through history.
In later conversations, Andy will expand on what he knows about the manor slaves, acknowledging that the forced labor and hardships of many people helped to make possible the building of this fine yellow house and the fortunes of this family, still in residence after nine generations. For now, all I see is that he keeps the interior of the fenced rectangle comparatively free of underbrush. The fence is in good repair. Andy opens the fine little gate on the northeast side. The metal gate latch clicks crisply behind us. We are back outside.
Reading a Plantation Landscape
Although the lure of the manor was undeniable, it was not until I was writing a book about George Washington that I grasped what I had seen on Shelter Island. Results of documentary and archaeological research at Mount Vernon drove home the obvious: that often when Washington said “I,” he was talking about the slaves who did the work of shaping his immense plantation landscape.
Before the discovery of New York’s African Burial Ground, slavery in the North had generally been considered a passing phenomenon pushed by a pressing need to clear the land, not as a powerful social structure that lasted for more than two hundred years. Northern slavery was largely obliterated from memory because it didn’t serve the North’s version of the Civil War. Although the fight for African American freedom began in New England, the story of race relations in this region was put aside. Slavery became the skeleton in the attic.
New York City slavery comprised only one aspect of the system. By the time Andy’s house was built in the 1730s, Long Islanders owned more human chattel than any other group of colonists in the North. In outlying areas such as Shelter Island, up to half the workforce was enslaved. After the Revolution, in 1799, the new state enacted agonizingly complex graduated manumission laws. New York State’s last slaves were set free on the Fourth of July, 1827, only thirty-four years before the outbreak of the Civil War. Buying and selling continued through the years of graduated manumission: Sylvester Dering, Andy’s forebear and lord of the manor between 1785 and 1820, purchased a “Negro man Joseph” in 1810. In 1821, Dering’s widow would emancipate London, the last of the slaves at the manor. Because there was never a single cash crop nor a united slaveholding oligarchy to point a finger at, the ubiquitous presence of slavery, which shaped New York physically, financially, and socially in profound ways, was obliterated. After the Civil War, the legend of a victorious Abolitionist North expanded. As the struggle for an appropriate monument to the cemetery continued in New York City, and even before my Washington book was published in 1999, I found myself longing to be back in the Sylvester Manor vault.
Andy died of cardiac complications in 1992, at the age of eighty. Alice, in her late seventies by the time I returned in 1996 to do some research for an article about the manor garden, was still wearing a version of the remarkable mobcap she had worn when we first met in 1984. It turned out to be her daily attire, one of dozens in chintz or plain fabric made up for her by her dressmaker. She also wore fifties-style plastic poppit beads carefully matched to her blouse and skirt, along with diamonds and gold bracelets. And wrist-length white gloves. People on the island said, “Alice dresses up to go to the post office.” Indeed she did. On summer afternoons, crisply clad in white, she also whacked croquet balls across the part of the garden lawn dedicated to the game. She brushed her hair a hundred strokes every day, as instructed by her mother long ago, and often demonstrated to me how she could put her hands flat on the floor from a standing position. No doubt she owed her flexibility to the many years in the garden that occupied so much of her time and affection, those two acres where she dug and sweated, hollered and gave orders. An autocrat, she was also smart, funny, manipulative, outspoken, observant, and, on occasion, tactful and empathetic. She was very much the lady of the manor, loving both the place and the status it gave her.
When Alice and Andy met, both of them were just emerging from their first marriages. He was land poor, owning little except the island property and a great book collection. To economize, he lived in the back bedrooms of his house, shutting off much of it in winter to save money. Alice, the only heir to a compressed-gas fortune, saved him and his place from penny-pinching, land sales, and slow decay. Still, theirs was a love match and more; the marriage had lasted for fifty-four years.
By the time I returned to the manor, Alice was searching for a way to memorialize him. Andy, who had loved his family papers so dearly, had also loved archaeology. Fortuitously, I had just hired Gresham O’Malley, a graduate student at the New York Botanical Garden, to make measured drawings as illustrations for my article, a narrow look at the manor’s Colonial Revival garden history. While Gresham and I tugged on strings and tape measures and yelled at each other across the hedges, he told me about his digger brother-in-law, Professor Stephen Mrozowski of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who had excavated at Jamestown and other seventeenth-century sites in Virginia and New England.
As Gresham talked over our sandwiches about his brother-in-law’s excavations, Alice realized this might be the way to keep Andy vividly close to her. The methodology of an archaeological dig struck us both as a way of continuing Andy’s dig among his papers—and with the same intention to discover things and make connections. Later, I asked Gresham if he thought Steve would like to visit, maybe even consider Sylvester Manor as a project.
On a drizzly winter day, Steve drove up with his wife and kids, absolutely prepared, he later told me, to say no, but as we walked toward the house, he bent down and, from among the pebbles on the back drive, picked up a piece of creamware pottery and then a piece of eighteenth-century blue and white porcelain. Then he met Alice, who with her characteristic mix of down-home style and ceremony offered Pringles in a silver bowl as just the right pre-luncheon hors d’oeuvre. That clinched the deal.
Field archaeology requires squads of people, wads of money, and a lab to process the “finds.” Alice soon funded a research center at UMass in memory of Andy. Ruddy, balding, and bearded, invariably dressed in shorts, T-shirt, and sandals, and often visibly excited by what he found, Steve came to the manor with a preliminary team in the summer of 1998. Fieldwork would continue for eight more years.
Steve is a historical archaeologist, which means he studies the recent past, not prehistory. Although historical archaeology is sometimes also described as the study of cultures that have a written record, ironically, in the Americas, it has proved most effective at revealing the lives of those who had little chance to enter that record because they were illiterate: native and enslaved people and the poor—laborers, factory workers, common soldiers, migrant workers. Steve, like others in his field, was digging to expose what James Deetz, who was considered the world’s foremost historical archaeologist until his death in 2000, called “the spread of European cultures throughout the world since the fifteenth century, and their impact on and interaction with the cultures of indigenous peoples.” On Shelter Island, Steve’s team focused on the Indians of the East End, both before Europeans arrived (the “pre-contact era”) and after, as well as on traces of the voiceless Africans.
Although Alice encouraged and cheered Steve’s endeavors, she was hunting primarily for ancestors and real estate. She wanted to find Nathaniel’s lost grave and authenticate the location of the vanished “First House.” Buildings—even long-gone ones like this one—have a special place in American history: appearing so solid and reassuringly tangible, they are also roosts for folklore and speculation as well as repositories of the facts and dates from which we imagine we have built “the past.”
Shovel test pits (archaeology’s first marks in the soil at any excavation) mark the eight years (1999–2006) of archaeological summer field schools at the manor by the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Steve’s eight summer field schools undoubtedly will prove to be only the first phase of excavation on the incredibly rich site. He and his team came with the intention of unearthing what they called a multicultural Northern provisioning plantation that dates to the earliest days of European settlement on the Eastern Seaboard. Calling a farm in the North a “plantation” startled me, as did the concept that such places were specifically set up to provision West Indian sugar plantations powered by slaves. Steve’s digs would unearth the often voiceless “conversations” that had taken place on Shelter Island between Europeans, Indians, and Africans, struggles over power and the use of space revealed by artifacts and the faint, multilayered evidence of fences, roads, and buildings.
Once the UMass team started, the Sylvesters’ ease as travelers and merchants would also become visible as artifacts were teased out of the ground: English and European ceramics of every description, coins of five nations, Dutch clay pipes and bricks, a German silver stickpin, pounds and pounds of Caribbean coral, stockpiled as a vital ingredient for making mortar. Evidence of an enormously wide and adventurous world of people on the move rose up from beneath the manor’s green front lawn, so smooth and settled.
Within the first year of the dig, my own path became clear. I asked Alice if she would agree to my writing a three-century history of the place that would include not only information from the documents but also some of the excavation results, and the day-to-day processing of the finds. For several years, however, “reading the landscape” of the manor as a landscape historian meant spending most of my time studying old letters, deeds, and other papers, hoping for clues to what had happened on the ground. The paper trail led me to many places where the Sylvesters had lived, worked, or merely visited. Meantime, out of doors, sticking up everywhere through the surface of the present were genuine landscape history question marks such as a garden gate to nowhere and a curious six-inch level change running across a meadow.
Steve and I had much to learn from each other. He, too, delved into the written history of the place, and he found, tucked away in the vault, a precious 1828 map of the existing house and its outbuildings that I had missed. And I discovered the thrill of thinking about this place as a dig site that sometimes supported the written evidence, sometimes proved it wrong. This island, Manhansucke Ahaquatzuwamocke—translated from the Algonquian as “island sheltered by islands”—was thickly inhabited by the Manhansetts before the Sylvesters settled it as part of a larger business project that foreshadowed modern global capitalism. It was a system born in what a new cadre of scholars term “the Atlantic World,” a restless, constantly evolving web of ship-born connections, not the isolated New World of settlement that Andy—and many historians before him—had considered to be the core of early American history. Money—how the Sylvesters made it, married it, lost it, kept it over three centuries—is also part of the tale. From their Atlantic World mercantile beginnings, Nathaniel’s descendants would become colonial—and then American—lawyers, magistrates, revolutionaries, soldiers, government officials, speculators, and scientists. They also continued to farm, although it was never their sole occupation.
From a contract Nathaniel and his partners had drawn up in 1652, it was clear that the four had initially envisioned the island not only as a place to raise livestock for the Caribbean market but also as a trading post for the exchange of goods with the Indians and with Europeans: the Dutch in New Amsterdam, for instance, or the Swedes, who had colonized Delaware, or with anyone else who was staking a claim in what was still essentially very contested territory in the 1650s. Nathaniel, younger than the three others, and with his fortune still to make, became the resident partner. Archaeology would show that his settlement evolved restlessly over almost thirty years, with buildings being moved, demolished, and rebuilt as needed. His polyglot establishment circled the same spot by Gardiners Creek, like a dog circling its bed before finally lying down.
So a big question now arose for me: Who exactly were those first Sylvesters? Andy and Alice knew that Nathaniel and his brothers and sisters, children of English expatriates, were born and raised in Amsterdam, but that was it—why they lived there and for how long, why and how they left, seemed relatively unimportant to them. The Dutch information coming out of the soil didn’t connect with the eighteenth-century American colonial landscape I walked through every day. How could I write a book about these implacably disconnected fragments of an older Atlantic World?
I found funding for a Dutch graduate student to hunt down references to the family in the Netherlands. She located thirty-three precious Sylvester documents in the Amsterdam notarial archives. Transcribed and translated from the seventeenth-century Dutch, they charted the birth and growth of a far-flung trade network in which men like Nathaniel and his five brothers spent more time afloat than ashore. Their canny merchant father, Giles, remained in Amsterdam, the center of their operations. Demonstrably fluent in Dutch as well as English and powered by a fierce mercantile drive, these Atlantic adventurers operated with ample credit, relying on kinship and contacts to manipulate the levers of power—and injustice.
Shelter Island was hardly unique as a provisioning plantation. There were scores of such ventures along the coast of New England long before the monster establishments of the South were created. Nathaniel employed a heterogeneous force of indentured servants, enslaved Africans, and nominally free but virtually enslaved Indians. They shaped white oak timbers into staves, which he shipped south to the Caribbean to make barrels, the indispensable containers of the day. They bred and broke horses that were sent to carry sugar from mill to port. The grain they grew would feed man and beast. They butchered, salted, and casked cattle, sheep, and hogs, which were also shipped south to feed the hundreds of slaves who powered the sugar operations of the Sylvesters and their partners—and any other West Indian planters to whom they could sell their goods. Sugar, rum, and molasses came back to the manor or went to New England or Amsterdam or other European ports. There, sugar in its various forms was converted into cash to buy manufactured goods of all kinds to send back to New England and the Caribbean.
Sylvester Manor is the earliest of the Northern provisioning plantations to survive in such complete form. I learned that it has an integrity few others possess, retaining its original water access, land, architecture, and documents. But the larger interest collects around the American—the human—polarities that the place displays: the slave burial ground and the Quaker cemetery, the impulse to exploit versus the exceptionalist city-on-a-hill resolve that we could start over in the New World and this time do it right. The house and its landscape are where these opposites meet. Wrestling with the Sylvesters’ problems of good and evil means wrestling with ours: What drives us to the crucial moment when one force overcomes the other? Interpreting the sketchy personal data available, taking historical events into account and making character judgments, I found that this question loomed over the full range of centuries and cultures at the manor. My answer would be very different from Andy Fiske’s.
Telling the Tale
Andy had told me his version of the story as he had received it from his nineteenth-century forebears, the first people to look back at their history as history. For them, the house, its landscape, and the carefully preserved contents of the vault were what mattered. What I found mesmerizing in the vault were the fleeting references to what Andy’s family historians didn’t value: the stories of generations of slaves. As I wrote, the outlines of slavery in New England, of which Shelter Island was considered a part for the first century of settlement, began to take shape for me. Despite much recent scholarship, it’s still a history that is harder to grasp than that of the plantation slavery system in the American South. This is partly because slavery did indeed take a different and less overtly vicious form here. Because the numbers of slaves were fewer and the labor arrangements and tasks more varied, the Northern system seemed at first to offer a greater range of freedom and choice. But whether it was crueler or kinder, Americans ceased to know anything about it.
By contrast with the rubbed-out actuality of Northern slavery, I found that many of the places people had left to come to Shelter Island exist weirdly unchanged. In Banda, near the Volta River in Ghana, where slave coffles once crossed on their way south to the slave castles of the Gold Coast, a rural life continues: field after field of cassava, outdoor cooking fires flickering, children dancing and shrieking in the last minutes of daytime play, yam stew and peace under a neem tree as the light fades and the earth cools. The steep thatched roof of the replica of an Asante fetish shrine museum in Besease still guards a mediating spirit, an obosom, who resides in a tree in the courtyard. On Barbados, Constant Plantation continues to be planted in sugar. (The local telephone directory lists hundreds of people named Sylvester.) In sleepy little Charlton Adam, in Somerset, the tithe barns and meadows that Nathaniel’s father left when he emigrated to the Netherlands still stand. Nathaniel would have no trouble recognizing the houses I saw along Amsterdam’s Singel Canal, where he lived. In London, and in Datchet, near Windsor, I walked among the landmarks of Grizzell Brinley’s childhood.
As I arrived back on Shelter Island from travels in Europe, Africa, and Barbados, the unusual name of one of the manor’s first Africans, Semonie, jumped out at me again and again from the pages of later local church records on Long Island. Someone carried this precious name down the generations. At the manor, archaeologists unearthed huge animal bones and the unbroken top half of a Manhansett pot from a slaughter pit beneath the lawn. A garden set aside for the slaves to cultivate as their own was discovered only inches under the brambles. The heron, the red-winged blackbirds, and the deer of Shelter Island appeared—and still appear—at the secret time of day when flowers of the imagination open, pale as X-rays.
Copyright © 2013 by Mac Griswold