The Manor

In 2008, theology student Katrina Browne documented a discovery she’d made about her family, the Rhode Island de Wolfes. Though it’s common to encounter the name de Wolfe on graceful buildings and streets around Harvard University, Browne had begun to grapple with the fact that her upright northern forebears had originally made their fortune in America as slave traders, running an empire that imported Africans and exported rum — founding a global slave empire centered in a shipping business headquartered in Rhode Island. Browne had grown up aware of her ancestors, but oddly, the source of her family’s wealth had been hidden in plain sight. Browne’s resulting documentary film, Traces of the Trade, explored a difficult truth northeasterners sometimes like to forget: Slavery was vital to the North as well as the South. 

Mac Griswold echoes this unsettling confrontation with the past in The Manor: Three Centuries on a Slave Plantation on Long Island, the history of a great house on Shelter Island that has been held in one extended family, the Sylvesters, since the early seventeenth century. Griswold first encountered the house on a visit to Shelter Island in the mid-1980s, when she was a young landscape historian. She asked for a tour of the grounds and historic (but still lived-in) quarters. On that tour, the manor’s owner casually referred to a “slave stairway.” Griswold was caught off guard by a surprising realization: The Shelter Island manor she was exploring had been a northern plantation.

Fifteen years passed. Griswold returned, this time in concert with a group of archaeologists who began to excavate the site.  Now, nearly thirty years after Griswold’s first visit, she narrates the findings of those excavations, providing a revelatory window not only into the means by which the Sylvesters became wealthy but into how America as a whole did.

How was slavery practiced in the North? How did the North profit from it? Indeed, despite commonly held ideas to the contrary, the North was in the slave business nearly as long as the South was. Browne notes that her slave-trading ancestors stayed in business well into the 1820s, and as Griswold notes, slavery wasn’t fully abolished in New York until 1828. Even then, children born into slavery remained indentured.

Slavery is amanifold and unwieldy institution, which is why it helps that Griswold makes it her project to learn as much as she can about the way it was practiced in just one influential house. Her book, and her excavations, are richest in looking at the founding moments of American colonial slavery, when Quakers Nathaniel Sylvester and Grizzell Brinley — he a former Puritan, she a Royalist fleeing Puritan England — find themselves married in the New World. The two (an odd couple in the Old World they had left behind) settled on Shelter Island in the early 1650s, when it was still Algonquian land. Griswold is able to retrace the moment when Sylvester “purchased” the use of the island from Youghco, Long Island’s chief sachem. Movable tribal gardens and seasonal villages gave way to English settlement, embodied in a first manor house. 

Despite their Quaker persuasion, from this house Grizzell and Nathaniel ran their end of a Sylvester family business based on the so-called triangle trade. Nathaniel’s brother was farming sugarcane for rum in the West Indies. Nathaniel’s Shelter Island home was used as a provisioning farm whose products were sent to Barbados to feed enslaved Africans; every year, barrels of salted meats were sent to become the rations of a chained workforce whose lives were spent growing sugar. Meanwhile, the labor on the Shelter Island plantation was itself carried out by a mix of enslaved Algonquians and Africans, as well as white indentured labor. In 1680, Sylvester’s will documents his intention to pass down twenty-five enslaved Africans among his own family. What became of enslaved native people is not mentioned.

Even though this book purports to follow the life of the plantation through three centuries, this first generation — in all its recombinant strangeness — is the one that Griswold has done the most to uncover. It is a striking and haunting portrait, of three or four distinct groups of people working, unevenly, to build a new world. What skills did native Shelter Islanders offer the English who had so recently taken their land? What skills did Africans bring to their work? Griswold paints evocative and surprising images of this workforce, all sharing the same house; of the shifting seventeenth- and eighteenth-century names for varieties of racial mixing, and of an entire household subsisting on “samp,” a cornmeal mush native to Algonquian peoples. Nevertheless, despite a decade of research by top archaeologists, Griswold uses shards and documents to encircle stories whose central truths remain mysterious. Why, for instance, was a nearly unbroken clay vessel placed on top of a seventeenth-century bone pit? After a mass slaughter of animals that were salted and barreled to feed other slaves, one vessel waited, as if consciously placed, on top of bone waste. In it, Griswold theorizes an act of ceremony, an act of resistance. 

But the silence speaks volumes. For all of Griswold’s ambitious designs, it’s clear that there are limits to what she can bring into view, even after years archaeological work. Names of those enslaved and handed down like property, disappear. Those families cannot be traced. Even the free blacks who did eventually own land on Shelter Island in the nineteenth century were often divested of property. Meanwhile, though the unrecorded slaves vanished into history, the wealth they generated remains. As Griswold notes, the banks and investment houses of the North, which built the country and sustained it, have their roots in slave-trade profits. Here’s Griswold quoting Bernard Bailyn describing the foundations of the financial institutions of New England and New York: “Without the sugar and tobacco industries, based on slave labor, and without the growth of the slave trade, there would not have been markets anywhere nearly sufficient to create the returns that made possible the purchase of European goods, the extended credit, and the leisured life that New Englanders enjoyed. Only a few of New England’s merchants actually engaged the slave trade, but all of them profited by it, and lived off it.”  

It’s sobering and true. With deft research and appropriate wonder, Griswold brings us closer to reckoning.