grizzell brinley sylvester
from england to long island in the 17th century
I have been avoiding you. I don’t want you to feel hurt by this, or as if you aren’t valuable to me — you are! That’s why I think you deserve my honesty. Honesty about the fact that I’ve been avoiding you.
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I worry that your hearts could grow cold toward me, that your eyes will grow increasingly judgmental. In part, I have not written because it was the new year, and I returned to work after what felt like a very long break from it. In part, I was buried in reading about the Sylvesters, the enslavers who colonized Shelter Island in the 17th century. As I’ve learned more, I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable. I think it’s important for me to include this line, though I’ll admit to debating about it for a while: what is my discomfort, in the grand scheme of things? Who is my discomfort centering and what is it driving me to do?
The historian Michael Kammen, whose work was mostly interested in the foundation of the United States and its role in the traditions and culture that make up what we might now consider “American,” writes about the American “penchant for amnesia,” which he says comes from “the American inclination to depoliticize the past in order to minimize memories (and causes) of conflict” (Mystic Chords). I think this is particularly true for white Americans, for whom it’s so easy to turn away from the past or to glorify it, dishonest with ourselves about the roles our people have played.
For those of you who don’t lie awake at night thinking about this (which is likely all of you), a brief recap: the Sylvesters who owned property on Long Island starting in the 1650s are connected to me through my maternal line, something that I was not at first certain about. Having proven that connection, though, I can see that by tracing the female lineage, that is my mother’s mother, her mother, etc., I make it to Grizzell Brinley Sylvester, the matriarch of the manor on Shelter Island, and the subject of today’s letter.
In Mac Griswold’s The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island, Griswold carefully traces the history of the Sylvester’s settlement on Long Island. Griswold is a landscape historian, something I didn't know existed until now, and which I think my paternal grandmother would be delighted by. To Grandmum’s dismay, I myself have never connected that well to plants or the earth at all, which is perhaps fodder for a future letter. (Someone remember that for me, please?) But Griswold’s time with the Manor, about a decade starting in the late 90s, was marked by an excavation of the past, a literal digging into the earth conducted by archaeologists at UMass Boston, who held a field school on Shelter Island from 1999-2005.
The reason there’s a fair amount of information to find here is that Sylvester Manor is the only plantation of its kind north of the Mason-Dixon line that still holds so much history for us to dig into: one of the earliest buildings still stands, the Manor itself, and the soil holds secrets that have meticulously been dug up and studied with modern technology, a process which the owners of the house, Sylvester ancestors themselves, have supported.
I certainly associate the word plantation with the south, and the images it conjures up for me are uniquely southern: wide lawns, large verandas, fields of tobacco, Spanish moss. It’s an association that makes sense, as of course the large plantations, what we think of when we hear the word, are (or were) in the south, holding up the southern economy pre-Civil War like thick colonnades to support the roofs of those wide porches.
Sylvester Manor was a provisioning plantation that produced goods that the Sylvesters sent south to Barbados, where Nathaniel Sylvester’s brother, Constant, owned two plantations, the Constant and Carmichael Plantations. When I Googled “Constant Plantation, Barbados,” directions to it instantly came up in Maps, a strange way of the past returning to us, as if I could go there now, could see the plantation as it was in the mid-17th century. It also speaks to the survival of the past in Barbados, a survival that’s echoed in the continued existence of the Sylvester Manor in Shelter Island, still standing, still owned by the family.
The wealth that the Sylvester family earned from the Barbadian plantations directly allowed Nathaniel Sylvester (alongside partners including his brother) to purchase Shelter Island in 1651, and it was in the service of these plantations that the enslaved people of Shelter Island were made to work.
My sources for learning more about the Sylvesters are numerous, and I feel simultaneously lucky and burdened by this fact. The existence of a story necessitates a telling of it, and while you can find these sources for yourself and read (should you be so inclined), I also want to acknowledge throughout the telling my own connection to the story.
Therefore, we are going to have to go slowly.
I want to begin at the start, with several vignettes of people existing in different places, all of whom will soon come together on the land of Manhansack-aha-quash-awamock.
Grizzell Brinley was born in 1635 to a father, Thomas Brinley, who served as one of seven auditors of the royal revenue, working directly for King Charles I. She was one of twelve children growing up in the family’s house in St. James Clerkenwell, a London parish. The house was large, with outbuildings and stable yards that were shared with the neighbors. The brick house was two or three stories tall, boasting gabled roofs and chimney stacks. The site of the house was excavated in 2004 and some truly brave souls, AKA archaeologists who study very old poop, were able to determine that the family ate well: deer, swans, cattle, sheep, pigs, fish. Out back was a very large garden with topiary trees and boxwood; the garden was broken into quarters by two straight lines through the middle, worthy of a court official such as Thomas Brinley.
When 17th century London is brought to mind, I cannot help but think of the scenes in Woolf’s Orlando that take place on the frozen-over Thames. The Little Ice Age that settled over Europe in the period meant that the Thames could freeze, sometimes for months at a time, which would, as one can imagine, cause major problems with supply and delivery (not to mention the many deaths from freezing and starvation). The more negative aspects of the freezing winters, however, likely did not affect the Brinleys. Rather, young Grizzell may have, at some point, tentatively stepped out onto the ice at one of the Thames Frost Fairs. Londoners constructed shops, pubs, and football pitches on the ice. Fruitsellers, shoemakers, and barbers set up camp. Imagine standing on water, feeling a bit like a god (or his son).
Alternatively, it’s entirely possible that one of these frosts did not happen during Grizzell’s time in London, as it’s not clear exactly which winters froze the Thames and which did not. Moreover, the period of Grizzell’s life spent in England was far from peaceful, and though images of bundled children skating on the Thames are nice, Grizzell may not have ever gotten the chance to be one of them.
However, Grizzell’s status does tell us that she would have enjoyed the riches of England’s late Renaissance, where literature and music dominated the scene. Grizzell was literate (she would later own her own Bible indicating as much) and I am drawn to Griswold’s speculations:
“In reviewing what Grizzell was exposed to in her early life, we can ask if she shared the inquisitive spirit of her times. The age was afire with willingness to explore the unknown, whether an entire continent or the unlimited interior reaches of the human head and heart.”
Griswold also finally clued me into the name’s origins, and given its repetition in the family throughout that part of the line, I wonder if it’s indicative of the values, or professed values, the family held. Patient Griselda was a character in medieval and Renaissance Europe. Hers is a horrible story, wherein a man, most famously depicted as a Marquis, marries Griselda, a peasant, and tests her by pretending that he has killed their children and remarried. In the stories, she remains by his side, showing herself to be patient and obedient.
This feels to me like the opposite of something you would bring upon your daughter, and yet, I have always been too taken by the events of a story and not enough by the values it’s intended to teach. The point of Griselda’s story is not supposed to be the horrible things that happen to her, but rather, that patience is a virtue, one of the highest for a woman.
Grizzell’s role was clear from the start, then. She was to be a patient and loyal wife. I wonder if she was these things. Her voice is fairly absent, but there is no reason to believe that she was anything but a loyal, patient, and doting wife.
We might learn more about her disposition from her experiences as a young person. From 1629-1640, a time during which Thomas Brinley served as his auditor and Grizzell Brinley was born, King Charles I decided he didn’t need a Parliament. I’m not too proud to admit to googling the following in an effort to get quickly to the heart of a complex conflict:
(I did find some interesting results here, though nothing important to this letter. That said, I simply must share with you what William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, said of Charles I: “[he] knows not how to be or be made great.” Very sick burn.)
Suffice to say, the Brinleys were likely glad that Thomas did not work in Parliament from 1629-1640, but they were definitely not glad that he worked for the king in 1642, when the royal house fled London for Oxford, escaping growing unrest. During the first years of the conflict that we now call the English Civil War, which led to King Charles I’s execution, Thomas stayed in London (“King Charles who? Oh that guy? Don’t know him.”) but ultimately the family left the city for Datchet, Buckinghamshire, which is really not very far from central London at all. Lest we think this was a particularly sad or difficult time for Grizzell, I think we should note that the Brinleys had family in Datchet, and had been there before. It was hardly an exile to a remote location. Perhaps she liked the slower pace of Datchet, something that she would have for the rest of her life on Shelter Island, never again living in a city like London.
The Brinleys used their connections to not only escape the worst effects of having been Royalists, but also to get some of their children a new start in America. In 1651, no older than 16, Grizzell and her sister Anne traveled to America with William Coddinton, Anne’s new husband. Coddington was one of the first colonists in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and its fourth-richest citizen. He was a Puritan who founded Newport, Rhode Island, and became governor of the colony. Grizzell would live with him and Anne in Newport for two years before meeting and marrying Nathaniel Sylvester.
In 1653, she traveled to Shelter Island, where she lived the rest of her life. But she did not travel alone; sometime between her arrival in Newport and her marriage to Nathaniel, Grizzell herself became an enslaver. If I had had any temptation to view Grizzell as disapproving of the Sylvester family’s slave holdings and business with the West Indies (and I’ll admit that I had those temptations, a desire to depoliticize, a feint toward amnesia), that temptation dissolves with this fact.
Hannah, Jacquero, and Hope were their names. Hannah and Jacquero were husband and wife; Hope was their daughter. (On Shelter Island, the family expanded to include another daughter, Isabell.) The Sylvester Manor website goes into some speculation regarding who they were, as we are bereft of documentation — such a vast difference from the documentation of Grizzell’s life from its very first days, down to what she ate. The folks at Sylvester Manor, along with Griswold, speculate that Jacquero’s name suggests that he “was a captive of Spanish or Portuguese enslavers before being sold to the English.” Perhaps Hannah, with an English name, was born in the West Indies. It is believed that Hannah spoke English, and the author of the Sylvester Manor’s history page speculates that Grizzell may have been drawn to that, as well as the fact that Hannah, Jacquero, and Hope were a family group.
To them, Shelter Island must have been equally as new and, perhaps, shocking as it was to Grizzell. The plants, animals, and weather all differed from that which they were used to. And yet, whatever culture shock they felt, whether they liked the land or disliked it, Grizzell’s arrival on the island is far different from theirs. The Brinleys, through a mix of connections and luck, managed to come out of the English Civil Wars on top, despite having been on the wrong side. Whatever sympathy I may have for Grizzell and the uncertainty of her childhood in a bloody England, it must now live alongside the fact of this Black family. Hannah and Jacquero did not choose where to raise their children; Grizzell made that choice for them.
Hannah, Jacquero, Hope, and Isabell were one of the first Black families on Shelter Island. They were buried there, within a circle of white pines, next to a stone that reads, “Burying Ground of the Colored People of the Manor from 1651.”
It’s tough to know what to make of Grizzell’s life. As I go deeper into learning about her life on Shelter Island, maybe there will be some clues, and yet, I suspect that many things will be true. Perhaps she was patient, as her name hoped for her to be. Perhaps she was a good wife and mother. Perhaps she liked gardening, or art, or music, or nature, or none of these things. Perhaps she missed England. Perhaps she felt that the land on Shelter Island belonged to her, was in some ways a divine birthright. No matter which of these things is true, it’s also true that she had witnessed violence in her early life, and once she got to America, she enacted violence on others by enslaving them. This, too, she may have viewed as a birthright, or perhaps she didn’t think of it further at all. She was to become a Quaker, as well, later in life, and all of these things are difficult to reconcile with one another. Her various competing positions — as a Quaker, colonizer, enslaver, mother, wife — necessitate some level of contradiction, which, had she attempted to reconcile it, would not have settled gently. So, too, does it refuse to settle now. I go back to my own discomfort with which I opened this letter, and with which I will now close it. What contradictions do I live out? What refuses to settle within my life? Within yours?
Landscape and Memory at Sylvester Manor *I want to highlight Donnamarie Barnes’ work as curator and archivist at Sylvester Manor
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