The Provisioning Plantation: 1652-1693:
Slavery as the Economic Engine
by Patricia Shillingburg
In his March 19,1680 will Nathaniel Sylvester lists his 24 slaves -- a large number for any enterprise on Long Island -- by name and family groups. This is extraordinary good fortune for us who soon will be celebrating the European settlement of Shelter Island in 1652. By knowing their names of the slaves we can see them as human beings with skills, aptitudes and cultural backgrounds. Also in his will, he describes his estate -- the buildings and the cultivated acreage -- so we also know the activities in which the slaves were engaged.
The will lists seven men, five women as "wife", and 11 children (at least seven of whom are girls). An inventory completed on September 8, 1680 following his death, lists 6 men, five women, six girls and three boys. The slaves named in the will and their family groups are as follows: Tamero, his wife Oyou and their four children, three of whom were possibly boys; Black John and his daughter Prescilla; Negro J:0 and his wife Marie; Negro Jenkin; Jaquero, his wife Hannah, and their daughters Hope and Isabell; Tony, his wife Nannie, and their four daughters Hester, Abby, Grace, and Semnie; and Japhet and his wife Semnie. The inventory values the slaves: "To three negro men 60.00.00; To three negro women 45.00.00; To five negro girles 40.00.00; Here follows what is in partnership viz one halfe: To two negro women L30.00.00; To three negro menn 45.00.00; To three negro boys 30.00.00; To one negro girle 8.00.00."
Mac Griswold, archivist at Sylvester Manor, thinks it ironic that Nathaniel lists the slaves in family groups as a preface to breaking up those families by bequeathing them and their children separately to his wife or to his own children on their majority or marriage.
By 1680, the Island community in its first European-based form had been in existence for 38 years, more than a generation. The over-all patterns for the plantation complex -- whether originally English or Dutch or a blend of both -- would have evolved into something very different from the originals of 1652, inflected by climatic demands and and by specific provisioning and trade needs of the plantation. What we do know from Nathanielís will is that there were cultivated areas such as fields, orchards and gardens, and structures such as dwelling houses ěwith all the additions thereunto belonging,î mill and millhouse, cider mill and press, barn and warehouse.
The eight thousand acre Island to which the enslaved workers had been transported, probably from the Caribbean, and where some of their children were doubtless born, had been occupied for centuries by Native Americans. Entries in account books and correspondence reveal that Native Americans were impressed in various capacities to serve the new patterns imposed on both their land and their culture. Indentured Europeans may also have been employed. Though much of the labor carried out fulfilled European requirements, how it was done would doubtless also have reflected Native American, African and African-Carribbean cultural attitudes and traditional skills.
In his will Nathaniel lists a total of 65 acres of plowed land: "...the planting feeld behind the Orchard Containeing about fourtie akers and the planting feeld called Mannanduck [the Menantic area] Containing about twentie five akers..." Through various other documents from the period one can conjecture that Nathanielís 65 acres yielded from 975 bushels to 2,166 bushels of wheat per year.
In addition, he also describes the manor buildings and cultivated farm areas adjacent to them. "... that my Indeared Wife Grizzell Sylvester, shall have the absolute Use and injoy the dwelling houses with all the additions there unto belonging according as she Judge meet Convenient with the Garden Orchards Sider Mill and press ... that is to say so much of the now planted orchard as together with the Gardens and sight of the houses and Meddows abutting as shall Containe fourtie Akers statute Measure, to be Limited with the kreek or salt Water, on the West, with a Gully and spring of Meadow laying to the North of the Orchard on the North and so up to that gully so farr as a straight line runs South and North may take in all houses, Gardens and sight of the same and Containe the said fourtie akers, with all ways and previledges to the same premisses keepin the same in Repairs, together with Convenient dyet for her ..." The September 22, 1680 inventory lists livestock as follows: 427 sheep, 40 horses, 200 cattle, and 120 swine. That same inventory values the entire estate of both Shelter Island and what what then known as ěRoberts Islandî (Robins Island) as 1559 pounds sterling.
The period of the first family plantation ended in1693 when Nathanielís eldest son Giles entered a lease agreement with Edward Downing for the Shelter Island plantation. This agreement also gives texture to activities.
Everyone labored from dawn to dusk in dozens of occupations. To build up such an extensive plantation over 38 years, there was no time for idle hands.
Just dealing with the livestock required skills in herding and tending, breeding, training oxen to plough and horses to halter, hay making for winter fodder of fresh meadow and salt marsh hay, sheep shearing, wool washing, carding, spinning and weaving, butchering, smoking, salting and packing up beef and pork, rendering of tallow, candle making and soap making.
To build and maintain the buildings suggested skills in felling and sawing of timber, shaping shingles and other wood products for domestic use or for sale, construction of buildings, carts, and general carpentry.
In the fields, skills included clearing land not already cleared by the Indians, making and planting, harrowing, hoeing, and weeding of crops, harvesting, threshing, winnowing, carting, cleaning, milling, and storage of grains which included wheat, winter wheat, oats and Indian corn. They had to make lanes for oxen teams.
They made fence railings and fences. They stocked the ware house and loaded and unloaded vessels. They made bricks and laid them.
The garden, orchard, and cider mill meant digging, manuring, sowing, weeding, harvesting, hoeing, sowing, gathering, cleaning and storage. Also planting, pruning and harvesting fruit, making cider and casks for storage. Also, skills were required for fishing and fowling. The salt marshes required the drying of salt.
The kitchen and household demanded cooking, gathering of vegetables and eggs, butchering, plucking and hanging poultry, making pillows and featherbeds, desalting brined foods, grinding corn for bread, baking and yeast preservation, pickling, preserving and drying, preparation of medicines, laundry and ironing, sewing and mending.
In the areas of birth, life and death, skills were required in child birthing procedures and childcare, not only for the slaves themselves but also for the Sylvesters' 11 children, nursing the ill, preparations for burials and the burials themselves.
Firewood was chopped, hauled, and stacked, Ashes were saved for lye and dying. Roads, walls and foundations were built with stone which needed to be broken and hauled. The landing which is mentioned in the Downing lease required sinking of piles and building the stone foundation.
In a letter in August 1653 to John Winthrop, Jr. of Connecticut, Nathaniel notes building a three ton boat. East Hampton records show N. Sylvester pasturing horses on the common. For transportation of livestock, they built boats.
Economically, the slaves, many of whom we know by name, were essential to the success of the Sylvester plantation and indeed to the survival of the Sylvester family. In his will, Nathaniel claims to have cleared 25 acres and to have built the warehouse himself "for want of Negros or other servants to perform..." So, clearly, he never had enough.
I am deeply grateful to Mac Griswold, archivist at Sylvester Manor,
for the information she made available to me for this article.