As the nation celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, I started thinking about how slavery was practiced in colonial New York. Slavery? On Long Island? Yes. In 1625 The Dutch West Indies Company imported the first eleven Africans into the colony. And Nathaniel Sylvester brought the first slaves to Long Island in 1654 (or some historians think it was his wife who did so in 1653). One historian notes that “until thirty years before the American revolution, Islanders held more enslaved Africans than colonists in New England or mid-Atlantic colonies.” It is estimated that in 1698 there were 1,100 slaves on Long Island and by 1775 there were 5,000. Most Long Islanders owned few slaves. It was a matter of economy and not of benevolence to limit ownership. It was not until 1827 that slaves in New York were set free.
There are contemporary newspaper ads mentioning runaway slaves, wills passing slaves to family members and census records indicating the slave population. But there is little written history of slaves and their lives.
I just finished the new book about Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island. Author Mac Griswold does an amazing job tracing the three centuries of the Sylvester family in her book, The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island. Nathaniel Sylvester and his wife, Grizzell, were the first Europeans to live at this Shelter Island plantation where trees were grown for wooden barrels, and food and livestock were produced to supply the Barbados plantation owned by Nathaniel’s brother, Constant, and two partners. There were certainly not enough European settlers to make this provisioning plantation successful. It relied on the labor of African slaves, Native Americans and indentured servants.
The author presents fascinating research about the horticulture and archaeology of the island and she delves into the cultural, political and religious trends that influenced the owners of the plantation. But it was her study of slavery that held my attention.
Perhaps you have heard of Jupiter Hammon, the first published African- American poet. He was a slave in the household of the Lloyd family in nearby Lloyd Harbor. Read about his life and poetry here.
Add a strange twist to the story: Grizzell Sylvester, daughter of Nathaniel and Grizzell, married James Lloyd in 1676. They were the parents of Henry who owned the Lloyd Manor when Jupiter Hammon was born. When Henry died, Jupiter lived with James’ Lloyd’s grandson, Joseph. Jupiter accompanied Joseph when he fled the British forces on Long Island during the American Revolution.
For more on the topic of slavery consider Grania Bolton Marcus’s A Forgotten People: Discovering the Black Experience in Suffolk County, Mary Feeney Vahey’s A Hidden History: Slavery Abolition and the Underground Railroad in Cow Neck and on Long Island, Samuel McKee’s Labor in Colonial New York and Thomas Davis’ Rumor of Revolt.
Hofstra University has a summary of the history of “the peculiar institution” on Long Island.
If you want to take a quick road trip, you can visit the Sylvester Plantation or Lloyd Manor at Caumsett State Park.
– posted by Brenda, Reference Librarian