Julia Dyd Havens Johnson was a free mixed-raced woman born on Shelter Island c. 1808. Her mother Dido, a free woman at the time of her birth, had formerly been enslaved in the household of Nicoll Havens, also of Shelter Island. The identity of her father is unknown but it is more than likely, given circumstantial evidence, that Julia was the child of an unnamed man from the Havens family. On Shelter Island she was occasionally listed as Julia Dido or Julia Dyd – a reference to her mother and also to her officially fatherless status.
The Havens and Dering families were connected by marriage – Nicoll Havens’ daughter Esther Sarah Havens married Sylvester Dering and her sister Mary Catherine married Ezra L’Hommedieu, also a Sylvester descendant. After her manumission, Julia’s mother Dido continued to work for both the Havens and Dering families and maintained close ties to each.
Growing up Julia Havens lived with her mother and her stepfather Comus Fanning in the house and land Comus had purchased from Sylvester Dering in 1820. After Comus’ death in 1831 and her mother’s in 1834, Julia became the sole owner of 21.75 acres of land that today is part of the Village of Dering Harbor.
Following her parents’ deaths, and over the next forty years, the land was bought from Julia little by little at far below market value by members of the Gardiner and Horsford families of Sylvester Manor. Starting in 1836, Samuel Smith Gardiner purchased two acres of land from her for $20 per acre and made subsequent purchases over the following years. Julia’s name appears frequently in the account and daybooks of Gardiner for services she provided and for money that he paid her over the years. She was a constant presence at the Manor and interacted with the other servants and family members in the household.
After Gardiner’s death in 1859, his son-in-law Eben N. Horsford continued the practice of acquiring pieces of Julia’s land with the intention of developing a summer resort and colony for well-to-do friends and associates.
Julia worked as a housekeeper during this time at the Manor house and at other estates on Shelter Island. In the early 1830s, she had met a black man named Morris Johnson and they lived together as common-law husband and wife in her house. They had a son they named Manford as well a daughter who the Shelter Island Church records show died in 1838. There is no name or age listed for their child. The couples’ marital status was especially important to Samuel Smith Gardiner, and he instructed his lawyer to question both Johnson and Julia to ascertain if they were legally married – which they weren’t. If Johnson had been her legal husband, he would have had more property rights than were afforded women at the time. A marriage would have impacted Gardiner’s position in negotiating the land purchases from Julia.
We believe that sometime in the 1840s, Morris Johnson either died or left Julia and Shelter Island. To date, no further records of him have been found. Manford, Julia’s son, went to sea on a whaling ship and again, no further records of him have been found. Julia, living alone in her house, continued working at the Manor and on Shelter Island. Eventually, in the winter of 1880, with the majority of her land sold at prices below what her stepfather had paid for it, she was forced to enter the poorhouse in Greenport until the Horsfords returned to the Manor in the summer from their home in Cambridge, Massachusetts where Eben Horsford taught at Harvard University.
The Horsford daughters frequently referred to Julia in letters to each other, mentioning going to visit her at her house or reporting on her health.
The Magazine of American History published a story about Sylvester Manor in 1887 written by Martha J. Lamb. For the article, a photograph of Julia was taken that was used as an etching for the piece with the caption, “The last of the former Negro Slaves.” The fact that Julia had never been enslaved and was born free was disregarded by the author.
Julia was photographed seated by the back door of the Manor house, dressed in a white dress with an apron, with her hair wrapped and her eyes downcast, an anonymous Black woman. This photograph, which is housed in the Sylvester Manor Collection at the Fales Library at NYU, is the only image we have not only of Julia but of any Person of Color from the Manor. Despite being alone, and possibly the unacknowledged family member of Sylvester descendants, this photograph of Julia Havens Johnson is her tribute and legacy as an Ancestor of this place.
Toward the end of the 19th century Julia moved to Sag Harbor to live in the Eastville community, perhaps with members of the Johnson family who owned homes there. It’s not known if the Eastville Johnson family were related to Morris Johnson or had simply come to know Julia through other Shelter Island connections such as the Hempstead family.
Julia Havens Johnson passed away in her late 90s c.1906. At her request, her body was brought back to Shelter Island by Kate Horsford to be buried in the Sylvester Manor burying ground, with her daughter, her mother Dido, her sister Sophia and her stepfather Comus Fanning. As with all the other burials in the Afro-Indigenous Burial Ground, Julia’s grave is unmarked despite the close to 100 years she spent living and working on the property.