THE MANOR: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island 
by Mac Griswold

THE MANOR is the biography of a uniquely American place that has endured through wars great and small, through fortunes won and lost, through histories bright and sinister — as well as the tale of the family that has occupied it for three and a half centuries.

In 1984, the landscape historian Mac Griswold was rowing along a Long Island creek when she came upon a stately yellow country house and a garden guarded by hulking boxwoods. She instantly knew that boxwoods that large—twelve feet tall, fifteen feet wide—had to be hundreds of years old. So, as it happened, was the house; Sylvester Manor had been held in the same family for eleven generations.

Formerly encompassing all of Shelter Island, a pearl of 8,000 acres caught between the North and South forks of Long Island, the manor had dwindled to 243 acres. Still, its hidden vault proved to be full of revelations and treasures, including the 1666 charter for the land, and correspondence from Thomas Jefferson. Most notable was the short and steep flight of steps the family had called the “slave staircase,” which would provide clues to the extensive but little-known story of Northern slavery. Alongside a team of archaeologists, Griswold began a dig that would uncover a landscape bursting with stories.

Based on years of archival and field research, as well as voyages to Africa, the West Indies, and Europe, THE MANOR is at once an investigation into forgotten lives and a sweeping drama which captures our history in all its richness and suffering.

It is a monumental achievement.


SLAVERY BEFORE RACE: Europeans, Africans, and Indians at Long Island’s Sylvester Manor Plantation 1651-1884 
by Katherine Howlett Hayes

The study of slavery in the Americas generally assumes a basic racial hierarchy: Africans or those of African descent are usually the slaves, and white people usually the slaveholders. In this unique interdisciplinary work of historical archaeology, anthropologist Katherine Hayes draws on years of fieldwork on Shelter Island’s Sylvester Manor to demonstrate how racial identity was constructed and lived before plantation slavery was racialized by the
legal codification of races.

Using the historic Sylvester Manor Plantation site turned archaeological dig as a case study, Hayes draws on artifacts and extensive archival material to present a rare picture of northern slavery on one of the North’s first plantations. The Manor was built in the mid-17th century by British settler Nathaniel Sylvester, whose family owned Shelter Island until the early 18th century and whose descendants still reside in the Manor House. There, as Hayes demonstrates, white settlers, enslaved Africans, and Native Americans worked side by side. While each group played distinct roles on the Manor and in the larger plantation economy of which Shelter Island was part, their close collaboration and cohabitation was essential for the Sylvester family’s economic and political power in the Atlantic Northeast. Through the lens of social memory and forgetting, this study addresses the significance of Sylvester Manor’s plantation history to American attitudes about diversity, Indian land politics, slavery and Jim Crow, in tension with idealized visions of white colonial community.


NORTHEAST HISTORICAL ARCHAEOLOGY: Special Issue The Historical Archaeology of Sylvester Manor
by Stephen A. Mrozowski and Katherine Howlett Hayes

Starting in 1998, faculty and students from the University of Massachusetts Boston began an extensive program of excavation and analysis at Sylvester Manor that continues to unfold. Excavations were carried out every summer between 1998 and 2005 with subsequent, more limited excavations carried out in 2006 and 2007. The results of the investigations at Sylvester Manor to date indicate that during the first 80 years of the plantations existence it evolved from a provisioning plantation, into a tenant run commercial farm after Nathaniel Sylvester’s death in 1680, and then reconfigured into a Georgian-inspired, country estate. The evidence also suggests that the early plantation may have gone through several smaller transitions. Landscape features such as an ornamental paving believed to date to the 1660’s may well have been constructed when the plantation was given manorial status by the English crown in 1666. Although the site produced a wealth of evidence concerning the changing landscape of the plantation, the bulk of the cultural material recovered from the site is linked to provisioning activities, building construction and demolition, and household production and consumption.

Taken as a whole, the archaeological evidence from Sylvester Manor suggests that Native laborers, enslaved Africans and Europeans all lived together in a space that was an arena for a series of simultaneous cultural entanglements. This image of a dynamic environment in which cultural traditions were being brought together at places such as Sylvester Manor is consistent with the growing appreciation archaeologists have for the complexities of most colonial encounters. The archaeological record at Sylvester Manor reflects the global connections of the actors who shaped its history.

With such a large project analysis has continued; papers continue to be published and can be found at the Fiske Center's website:

In 2007 an initial summary of the project’s results was published as a Special Issue of Northeast Historical Archaeology Volume 36.