It’s rare that historical findings cause a rethinking of a mainstream record, and rarer still that historians admit that much about their discoveries results from chance rather than ratiocinative work. However, in the hands of professionals, there are no dead ends in research, and so-called happy accidents can make a significant contribution to published accounts. In this regard, all those involved in the Sylvester Manor Archive exhibition of primary documents and artifacts that opens on April 10 at the Fales Library and Special Collection at New York University have reason to be proud of what they have assembled from the Shelter Island manor house and grounds. Sylvester Manor preservations coordinator Maura Doyle credits friends and family of the Manor with the NYU connection, and she is delighted that the university, with its well-regarded interdisciplinary programs, is the recipient of this “fascinating hodge podge” of loaned materials, which will surely modify what is known about early East End social and political history.
Called Sylvester Manor: Land, Food, and Power on a New York Plantation, and curated by Stony Brook University professor of history Jennifer Anderson, the display documents the complex and surprising relationship of Europeans, Native Americans and Africans on Shelter Island that began in the colonial period and continued for 300 years. Relationship? Aren’t we talking here about slaves provisioning sugar plantations in the West Indies and about the Atlantic Triangle Trade? Of course, but the findings in effect argue that the relationship in the colonial and antebellum periods was more nuanced and mutually influential than originally thought. Over 10,000 primary documents—among them a first edition of Thomas Paine’s January 1776 Common Sense—and material evidence were unearthed by Stephen Mrozowski, director of The Andrew Fiske Memorial Center for Archaeological Research and his team at UMass, Boston. The findings suggest that the original Sylvester family (Nathaniel Sylvester, d. 1680) and descendants housed both enslaved and indentured “diverse inhabitants” who probably served as domestics, some living in the house and producing “food for home use, regional consumption and overseas export.” The exhibit thus sheds new light on “the politics of food and changing land uses,” not to mention interactions of Europeans, Native Americans and Africans.
The documents were discovered by chance at the manor house, many of the artifacts by the UMass team who were first investigating pig and cow remains found in a large slaughtering pit dating to 1660–1670. Subsequent digs yielded evidence of a structure that was probably a workhouse for Native Americans. Although Sylvester Manor is now known for sustainable farming, the plantation was largely provisioning livestock. Evidence on site, however, also indicates home use that signals a “Creolized diet” and “hybrid cultural forms”—foodstuffs, such as a mix of corn and turtle. Ceramic mugs, for example, clearly styled by slaves, contained handles, a decidedly European touch. Kettles with ceramic lining instead of iron reflect Native American hands at work because slaves from Barbados did not like the taste iron gave food.
Moreover, Mrozowski speculates on the basis of “negative evidence,” both Native Americans and Africans lived together with Europeans and not in separate quarters. Among other inferences, Mrozowski suggests that such findings may prove that Native Americans on Shelter Island were not decimated by The Contact (the euphemistic phrase used for the arrival of Europeans). In short, these remarkable documents and archeological recoveries imply a new narrative about a critical time in American cultural history.
The NYU exhibition is free and open to the public through July 23. sylvestermanor.org