Slavery before Race: Europeans, Africans, and Indians at Long Island's Sylvester Manor Plantation, 1651-1884

Slavery before Race: Europeans, Africans, and Indians at Long Island's Sylvester Manor Plantation, 1651-1884

Slavery before Race: Europeans, Africans, and Indians at Long Island's Sylvester Manor Plantation, 1651-1884

Slavery before Race: Europeans, Africans, and Indians at Long Island's Sylvester Manor Plantation, 1651-1884

Synopsis

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 artefacts and extensive archival material to present a rare picture of northern slavery on one of the North's first plantations. There, 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. Katherine Howlett Hayes is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. She holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from UC Berkeley, and an M.A. in Historical Archaeology from the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Excerpt

When Nathaniel Sylvester and his young bride Grissell came to reside on Shelter Island sometime around 1652 or 1653, they might have spoken between themselves about how they had landed in a lonely place, feeling that the two of them had only one another in this unfamiliar land. Writing to his business colleague, Connecticut Colony Governor John Winthrop Jr., Nathaniel commented about his marriage, “I find my selfe very happie and I hope in God wee may be a Confort unto Each Other [sic].” Their comfort likely came from a shared background, shared values, and a shared understanding of their place in society. in the new colonies and in independent settlements like this one, colonists had to adjust to not only a new environment but also a social order without precedent or tradition. This was partly what they had gone to the New World to achieve, but they perhaps had not anticipated the variety of people that they would also have to accommodate in their society, particularly American Indians and Africans.

Nathaniel, one of four partners who sought to supply their sugar plantations on Barbados, had settled here because of a business venture, but he was the only one of the four who would live on this 8,000-acre island. Located between the two forks of eastern Long Island, Shelter Island was also wedged between the Dutch West India Company settlement based in Manhattan to the west and the Puritan New England colonies which had begun settling on the east end of Long Island in the prior decade. Sylvester had encountered diversity in his life; born in Amsterdam of English Separatists, he had traveled widely throughout the Atlantic world . . .

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