Shelter Island’s Sylvester Manor Educational Farm has announced that Phase 1 of its Afro-Indigenous Burial Ground rehabilitation project begins this month.
Through the use of ground-penetrating radar, Sylvester Manor discovered the remains of what appears to be nearly 200 people buried in the fenced rise of land between the driveway forks, with some of the individual graves set apart by small, unmarked glacial stones. Ongoing, non-invasive archaeological and archival study indicates that the burial grounds may even extend beyond the site that the Horsford family fenced off and marked with a large boulder stating, “Burying Ground of the Colored People of the Manor from 1651.”
“The Afro-Indigenous Burial Ground at Sylvester Manor is a sacred place honoring the Native and Enslaved people who lived and worked at Sylvester Manor and who are considered the ancestors of this place,” says Sylvester Manor Archivist/Curator Donnamarie Barnes.
Working extensively with an archaeological team from the University of Massachusetts Boston over the past 24 years, the Sylvester Manor team had planned to continue their research into the lives of the people who worked on the manor, including those laid to rest in the burial ground, this summer, but the pandemic put these plans on hold until 2021. However, this unfortunate circumstance has given Sylvester Manor the time to focus on rehabilitating the site, rather than studying it.
Phase 1 begins with removing the dead and fallen trees in the area, as well as the dilapidated fence, which Sylvester Manor Executive Director Stephen Searl estimates will be completed by early fall. “We are also developing a plan to improve delineation of the actual burial ground, improve public access to the area, install interpretative signage and create space for contemplation and reflection,” he adds. “The planning part of this project is expected to be complete by early fall, and the improvements to be finalized by this winter.” Other future improvements include a new pathway connecting the burial ground to the nearby Barn Complex and a visually porous fence following ancient island topography.
The rehabilitation is intended to further illuminate the cultural significance of the site, while also protecting and improving the ecological integrity and health of the area. The improved access to the burial ground will enhance the way the Sylvester Manor team educates visitors about the history of enslaved labor at the manor, leading to enlightening discussion about the role of slavery and indentured servitude as far north as New York.
“Since its founding, Sylvester Manor has been dedicated to telling the stories and histories of all the people of Sylvester Manor—the Indigenous Manhansett people, the colonial European Sylvester Family and descendants and the Enslaved Africans brought to Shelter Island against their will,” says Searl. “By rehabilitating this culturally significant site we are improving the interpretation of Sylvester Manor’s history and providing a place for our visitors to experience the history of those who built and sustained this place.”