Northern slavery, often overlooked by historians, is the subject of this detailed history of a well-preserved plantation at the far end of Long Island.
Landscape historian Griswold (Washington’s Gardens at Mount Vernon, 1999, etc.) stumbled upon Sylvester Manor during a boat trip in 1984. Intrigued by the gardens, she sought out the owners and discovered that the property had been in the same family since the 1650s—and that the owners had, in its colonial heyday, kept slaves. That set Griswold on a search for the manor’s history, carefully preserved over the generations. The first owner, Nathaniel Sylvester, was apparently the youngest son—birth records are missing—of an English Protestant family that had relocated to Amsterdam during the religious turmoil of the early 17th century. Like many of their fellow exiles, they became merchants, sailing from Africa to Barbados to New England, buying and selling. The family bought the manor from a Long Island Indian tribe, seeing it as a northern base for their trade operations. Griswold has conducted massive research, traveling to locales important in the history and, when possible, visiting the places her subjects lived or did business—including African slave ports and the family’s sugar plantation on Barbados, as well as sites in England, New England and the Netherlands. She has also read the original family documents, especially those preserved by the Sylvesters. The result is one of the most detailed examinations of the culture of slavery and slave-owning and its deep influence on the development of the American colonies. While Northern slavery died out well before the crisis of the 19th century, its role in the establishment of a solid economic base cannot be overlooked. Among the ironies of the narrative is the fact that Nathaniel Sylvester’s wife became a Quaker, one of the denominations that later did the most to advance the cause of abolition.
A deeply researched, painstakingly detailed story of a forgotten chapter of our nation’s history. Highly recommended.