by Annette Hinkle
Mac Griswold, whose new book “The Manor, Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island” tells the story of Shelter Island’s Sylvester Manor, which was founded as a provisioning plantation in 1651 with slaves, Native Americans and the Quaker land-owners working side by side. This Saturday Griswold speaks about her book at the annual meeting of the Sag Harbor Historical Society.
You came to the project as a landscape historian — and your initial interest were the towering boxwoods you saw on a stealth reconnaissance canoe mission up Gardiners Creek in 1984 with your accomplice, Fred Seidel. Can you recall the excitement you felt when you first saw the property?
The house was lovely, a beautiful Georgian house, and the great beech tree was lovely — which I later knew was planted by Asa Gray, the great botanist. From the water, I could see these enormous green blobs. I thought ‘What are those?’ If these are what I think they are they are very old.
I trespassed — Fred is used to me trespassing — I was saying, ‘Anyone home?’ I was glad no one was, because the garden was mine for the moment. I had gotten close to the boxwoods and a path which led straight back to history. My hair, which stands on end naturally, stood on end even more. The boxwoods were very old and the path also was very old.
So you had no clue what you had stumbled upon?
You have no mailboxes when you come by boat, so I had no idea whose property this was. I discovered it was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Fiske. I wrote them a proper letter, which I found difficult to write. It wasn’t so much about the trespassing, but wondering what on earth they were doing there and why no one knew about it. When you come in through Gardiners Creek there are no houses. You are looking back into primeval oak hickory forest and there are egrets, herons and marshes. You have no idea it’s one property, you just know something mysterious is there.
Luckily, the Fiskes responded and you soon learned the extent of what was there.
Only when I went to visit Andy did I begin to find out what was there. When he gave me a tour of the house I asked, “Where does that door go?” and he said, ‘It’s the slaves staircase.”
That was nine years before the African American burial ground was unearthed in lower Manhattan, and no one remembered northern slavery existed. Andy accepted his family’s responsibility to slavery. He was neither ashamed nor proud and made no excuses. He walked me up three flights to where the slaves slept.
At that point, you must have really thought you had stumbled into a land time had forgotten.
The whole property got me — not just the boxwoods. There was a sense of many layers of history. But at the time, I didn’t know there was a slave and Quaker graveyard. Being a landscape historian, I was interested in how it was laid out. It’s like a triangle, with the apex being the manor house. It was a designed landscape, a cultural landscape in many senses. I immediately began to see what else was at Sylvester Manor. How come they were Quakers? How come they had slaves? As I discovered, not only had Asa Gray planted the beech in 1877, until 1758 Quakers were free to hold slaves and be traders of them.
It was a kind of paradox I would run into often — a strand of good and evil intertwined that ran closely together.
What surprised you most about what you eventually learned there?
It was the power and depth of the slave history and the extent of [the Sylvesters’] reach across the world they were a part of — the Atlantic world as we call it. They were global and made a trip to Africa for slaves. They wanted labor for Barbados and were among the richest landowners of the 17th century.
Now that this book is done, what are your hopes for it and how did it change you?
I hope this is a gift to future historians so they can find the sources. I’m hoping there are many graduate students all issuing forth with different aspects of this history. The book is 350 pages – one for each year of the manor’s existence. I suppose the biggest leap I made was from garden historian to cultural historian. It’s a very steep climb.
The annual meeting of the Sag Harbor Historical Society begins at 3 p.m. this Saturday, May 25 at the Annie Cooper Boyd House, 174 Main Street, Sag Harbor. Griswold will also speak on her book at the Madoo Conservancy in Sagaponack on June 15.