At home with slavery in the North

August 23, 2013

Prior to “The Manor,” landscape historian Mac Griswold had written books called “Washington’s Gardens at Mount Vernon” and “The Golden Age of American Gardens.” Both traced the cultural history of their subjects through the way in which gardens were designed and executed. The woman knows from gardens — and she knows that greenery can begin to tell a much larger story about the meaning and history of a place.

So it’s not surprising that back in 1984, while canoeing with a friend, she was mesmerized when she came across an enormous stand of boxwoods, massively larger than these bushes usually grow in the Northeast. Most of us would have paddled on by, perhaps noting their beauty but unaware of their distintiction. But Griswold knew instantly that the bushes were hundreds of years old. Curious, she climbed out of the boat and took a look around at the house and grounds that they obscured. Here’s how she describes that moment: “The big boxwoods I glimpsed from the boat flank the garden gate. Now that I am close to them, I see they are indeed twelve feet tall and fifteen feet broad. Inside, the garden is cut by a central path running straight and narrow through two lines of more boxwoods. The far end of the path telescopes to a distant gate, a view that seems to stretch back at least two hundred years. . . . This place isn’t self-consciously ‘historic’; it’s not restored in any sense. It has simply been here, waiting for time to pass. Waiting for me.”

And so it was. “The Manor” traces the history of the house and its inhabitants, quickly leaving the garden behind to explore archaeology and research that range from West Africa to Barbados and back to Shelter Island. When Griswold stumbled upon the place, it was inhabited by Andrew and Alice Fiske, descendants of the original owners, Nathaniel and Grizzell Sylvester. Called Sylvester Manor, the house had been in the family in an unbroken line since the 1650s, providing an extraordinary lens with which to view a complex American story about (among other things) race, religion and the history of slavery in the North — largely documented.

Somehow deeds, charters, letters and other crucial historical documents, dating back to 1666, were simply kept in an album by the Fiskes, many of them in the original envelopes. The first document Andrew Fiske shows to Griswold is a charter from Richard Nicolls, the first governor of what became New York, describing how the island was purchased by Nathaniel and his brother Constant. “Why isn’t this incredible document about the very earliest colonial history of this country in a museum or a library?” Griswold wonders. “Like the several hundred acres of open land that Andy still owns, reduced from the original 8,000-acre domain, the creased old charter has survived intact for more than three centuries through a combination of design and accident and pure luck.”

Griswold picked up this find and gradually guided others to it, first through her own research, then through her instrumental role in bringing an archaeological team from the University of Massachusetts at Boston to carry out a dig starting in 1997 (the cataloguing of the materials found continues to this day). Ultimately Alice Fiske endowed the Andrew Fiske Memorial Center for Archaeological Research at U.Mass in honor of her late husband, who had worked so hard to preserve the history of the land and house.


‘The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island’ by Mac Griswold (FSG)

The Fiskes seemed unperturbed by the racism and slave labor that helped build and maintain the house (in fact, Griswold notes late in the book, Alice does not invite any black residents of Shelter Island to the house). This aspect of the house’s history is the primary theme that Griswold follows from West Africa to Barbados to the United States. While slavery was not as long-lived or pervasive in the Northern United States (by 1840, virtually all slavery was below the Mason-Dixon line, and it had been abolished above the line), it did shape Northern life as well as Southern.

The book is strong in its vivid and compassionate description of the horrors of the slave trade. No matter how many times one has read about the middle passage, an explicit description never fails to horrify, and Griswold hits hard with it. She is also careful to note black resistance to slavery, particularly in Barbados. And she also makes clear the gradual, step-forward, step-back way that abolition came to the North. The Sylvesters exemplified some of the paradoxes of that process — they were Quakers, once hosting George Fox, the founder of the faith, at their home. But their faith did not move them to free their slaves for many years. As Griswold puts it, “Everything depended on the Sylvesters’ needs and wishes, which would trump Quakerism.”

Griswold’s passion for her subject is obvious, and the degree to which the history of the house has been preserved is impressive, but it’s easy for the reader to get lost in the many names, journeys, digs, historians, historical figures et al. While an exclusive focus on slavery might have been too narrow, Griswold’s focus is a little too wide.

Even so, history buffs will love “The Manor,” and it tells a story that needs to be told. As for Sylvester Manor, its tale continues. The house still stands on Shelter Island, brought to new life by a new generation. It now functions as an organic farm and history museum — a far cry from its original roots and a suitable new act for a remarkable relic of American history.

Martha Southgate ’s most recent novel is “The Taste of Salt.”

THE MANOR

Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island

By Mac Griswold

Farrar Straus Giroux. 461 pp. 28

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