Sylvester Manor, Shelter Island, NY

Established in 1652, Sylvester Manor was a large provisioning plantation that originally encompassed all of Shelter Island, an 8,000 acre island located between the North and South Forks of Eastern Long Island, New York. Today the property consists of about 250 acres including what had been the core of the plantation since it was first established. This includes a circa 1735 manor house, Quaker and African burial grounds; a large (2 acre) enclosed garden, several cottages, and farm out buildings. Before the arrival of Europeans the island known by local Native groups as Manhansack-Ahaquatuwamock, “an island sheltered by islands” according to Elizabeth Tooker was home to the Manhanset or Manhansacks, a group politically and culturally affiliated with the Montauk of Eastern Long Island.

Shelter Island was purchased by Nathaniel Sylvester, his brother Constant Sylvester, Thomas Middletown and Thomas Rouse in 1651. Constant Sylvester operated two large sugar plantations on Barbados, (Constant and Carmichael Plantations) where he, Middleton and Rouse were part of a group of elite planters who dominated the sugar industry on the island. Like so many of the plantations in the Caribbean, Constant and Carmichael Plantations relied on foodstuffs and raw materials from off island to support their operations. Through out the North American colonies provisioning plantations like Sylvester Manor were established to meet the needs of the sugar industry in the Caribbean. Documentary sources, although limited in what they reveal about the day to day operation of the Long Island plantation, do confirm the fact that live stock, foodstuff, and raw materials such as wooden barrel staves were mainstays of this colonial trade. Documents have also confirmed the fact that Nathaniel Sylvester and his wife Grissell owned at least 20 African slaves. Little is known about the role of these enslaved Africans in the operation of plantation during the seventeenth century. When they were noted in Nathaniel’s 1680 will they always discussed as small family units of not more than three members, normally a man, woman and child. These small groups were given to the individual children of the Sylvester’s suggesting that they probably served as domestics in the household.

Starting in 1998, faculty and students from the University of Massachusetts Boston began an extensive program of excavation and analysis that continues to unfold. Excavations were carried out every summer between 1998 and 2005 with subsequent, more limited excavations carried out in 2006 and 2007. With such a large project analysis has continued. In 2007 a summary of the project’s results was published as a Special Issue of Northeast Historical Archaeology Volume 36. The results of the investigations at Sylvester Manor to date indicate that during the first 80 years of the plantations existence it evolved from a provisioning plantation, into a tenant run commercial farm after Nathaniel Sylvester’s death in 1680, and then reconfigured into a Georgian-inspired, country estate. The evidence also suggests that the early plantation may have gone through several smaller transitions. Landscape features such as an ornamental paving believed to date to the 1660’s may well have been constructed when the plantation was given manorial status by the English crown in 1666. Although the site produced a wealth of evidence concerning the changing landscape of the plantation, the bulk of the cultural material recovered from the site is linked to provisioning activities, building construction and demolition, and household production and consumption. The most direct evidence of provisioning activities came in the form of slaughter remains found in a large bone pit that appears to date to approximately 1660-1670. The deposit was dominated by pig and cow remains. Close to two-thirds of the deposit was comprised of the remains of 13 large pigs that it is estimated represented close to 1300 pounds of meat. Based on documented estimates that enslaved populations were provided approximately one pound of meat per week, the 1300 pounds represents three months ration for a force of 100.

In addition to the large slaughtering pit found on the site, structural remains of an early structure were uncovered that may have served as a work house for Native laborers. The dimensions of the building are not clear, but based upon the combination of residue from wampum production, fish bone and fish scales it appears to have been the locus of Native American laborers during the earliest phases of the plantation’s operation. The interaction of Native American, African American and European cultural practices is also evident in botanical and faunal remains that suggest a creolized diet. Similar evidence of creolization and hybrid cultural forms is visible in groups and individual artifacts that exhibit a combination of cultural traits. These include European coins that have been etched with what appear to be small Native American symbols including what appears to be Thunderbird motif. Other evidence includes European bottle glass and flint that appears to have been worked in a manner consistent with Native lithic traditions. Ceramics have also been recovered that appear to combine stylistic and manufacturing attributes consistent with both Native American and African American traditions.

Taken as a whole the archaeological evidence from Sylvester Manor suggests that Native laborers, enslaved Africans and Europeans all lived together in a space that was an arena for a series of simultaneous cultural entanglements. This image of a dynamic environment in which cultural traditions were being brought together at places such as Sylvester Manor is consistent with the growing appreciation archaeologists have for the complexities of most colonial encounters. The archaeological record at Sylvester Manor reflects the global connections of the actors who shaped its history.


K. Hayes and S. Mrozowski, eds. (2007) The Archaeology of Sylvester Manor, Special issue of Northeast Historical Archaeology, Volume 36.


Mrozowski, S. A. (2009) Creole Materialities: Archaeological Explorations of Hybridized Realities on a North American Plantation, Journal of Historical Sociology 23(1)462-485.

Trigg. H. and D. Landon. (2010) Labor and Agricultural Production at Sylvester Manor Plantation, Shelter Island, New York. Historical Archaeology. 44(3)36-53.

Related Dissertations

K. Hayes. (2008) Race histories: Colonial pluralism and the production of history at the Sylvester Manor site, Shelter Island, New York. Doctoral Dissertation, University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, CA.

Related Masters Theses

Hancock, Anne P. (2002) The changing landscape of a former northern plantation : Sylvester Manor, Shelter Island, New York. Unpublished Masters Thesis, University of Massachusetts Boston, Boston, MA.

Priddy, Katherine L. (2002) On the mend : cultural interaction of Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans on Shelter Island, New York. Unpublished Masters Thesis, University of Massachusetts Boston, Boston, MA.

Proebsting, Eric L. (2002) History From the Ground Up: Soil Micromorphology at a Long Island Plantation. Unpublished Masters Thesis, University of Massachusetts Boston, Boston, MA.

Sportman, Sarah P. (2003) A Zooarchaeological Analysis of Animal Husbandry at a Northern Provisioning Plantation: Sylvester Manor, Shelter Island, New York. Unpublished Masters Thesis, University of Massachusetts Boston, Boston, MA.

Gary, Jack (2005) Functioning in Another Register: Manifestations of Colonial Interactions in the Material Culture of Sylvester Manor. Unpublished Masters Thesis, University of Massachusetts Boston, Boston, MA.

Kennedy, Jonathan Ryan (2008) Multi-Cultural Meals: A Zooarchaeological Study of the Plantation Core at Sylvester Manor. Unpublished Masters Thesis, University of Massachusetts Boston, Boston, MA.