m. Aug 1653 England
Facts and Events
Research being conducted in conjunction with the Sylvester Manor dig strongly suggests there is a new understanding of the dates for the settling of Shelter Island. The records show that Nathaniel Sylvester and his partners purchased the Island along with Robbins Island in 1651. The Articles of Agreement between four partners, including Nathaniel, were signed in 1652. Grissell Brinley was single in early July 1653 when her inheritance of 100 pounds a year was conveyed to her by her guardian, William Coddington, governor of Rhode Island and husband of Grissell's sister, Anne. Nathaniel and Grissell were married by early August 1653, when he wrote to a friend relating that news.
Historical Papers of Shelter Island, p16
Upon coming here to live Nathaniel Sylvester brought Grissel Brinley, his bride. She was the daughter of Thomas Brinley, Esq, of Datchett, Buckinghamshire, England. Her faher was auditor for Charles I and Charles II, the keeper of the accounts of the dower of Henrietta Maria, a position implying great friendship with the royal family.
Shelter Island, Tom Morris
When Nathaniel Sylvester, a young sugar merchant, married 16-year-old Grissell Brinley in England in early 1652 and sailed for America, neither could know the adventures ahead. Their marriage would start with a shipwreck, see them open their wilderness home to cruelly persecuted Quakers, and end with their legacy as the founders of the Town of Shelter Island.
As early eastern Suffolk pioneers, the Sylvesters prospered on their remote island, had 11 children, and succored New England Quakers at a time when it was dangerous to do so. Their brave defense of religious freedom won the reverence of later generations in this country and in Great Britain.
The Sylvesters were shipwrecked off Connecticut on their honeymoon trip, where they stopped first to visit family in Barbados, then headed for Newport, R.I., to prepare to move to Shelter Island before their boat accident. They survived and became the first white settlers of what was to be named Shelter Island. After their arrival in March, 1652, they used the island's white oak to make sugar barrels used in trade with Barbados. Nathaniel's brother Constant, and two other sugar merchants, Thomas Middleton and Thomas Rouse, were co-founders but didn't live on the island, and in 1673 Nathaniel became sole owner.
Historians are unclear whether the Sylvesters themselves were Quakers, but they recognized and detested the religious intolerance of the time. James Bowden, in his ``History of the Society of Friends, says Shelter Island and the colony of Rhode Island were the only places in the North American colonies a Quaker could go without risking severe suffering in the 1650s. Among those martyred for their beliefs who found asylum with the Sylvesters were Lawrence and Cassandra Southwick and Mary Dyer, major figures of early Quakerism.
According to most historians, however, it wasn't shelter for Quakers that gave the island its name. In papers confirming the deed of Dec. 27, 1652, by which the Manhanset Indians conveyed the island, it was called ``Ahaquatawamok, or ``Island sheltered-by-islands.Sylvester died in 1680, leaving the island equally to his five sons. But no headstones mark graves of anyone who died on the island prior to 1729. In 1884, his family placed a monument at the head of Gardiner's Creek.
In 1695 the family sold one-quarter of the island to William Nicoll, who controlled 90,000 acres of Islip via royal patent. Five years later, in 1700, 1,000 acres of the 8,000-acre island were sold to George Havens of Newport, whose family was to become deeply entwined in the government and civic affairs of the island for more than two centuries. Shelter Island became a town in 1730, when there were 20 men, mostly heads of farm families, living there. William Nicoll II was the first supervisor.
Journey Along a Paper Trail, Bill Bleyer
LUCKILY FOR students of Long Island history, Nathaniel Sylvester and his 12 generations of descendants were all pack rats.
Sylvester, who became the first European owner of Shelter Island three and a half centuries ago, was obsessive about retaining documents relating to his island estate and other holdings. And since subsequent residents of Sylvester Manor carried on the tradition, modern-day researchers have a collection of thousands of papers and photographs at their disposal.
The documents constitute a multifaceted collection describing the workings of an estate that once covered 8,000 acres and functioned as one of America's rare northern plantations. They include property deeds signed by American Indian sachems with their marks, slave records and an indenture for an Indian boy after the practice was illegal, and lawsuits and disputes over use of the manor house, letters offering remedies for medical ailments, and a first edition of "Common Sense," Thomas Paine's incendiary spark for the Revolutionary War.
Alice Fiske, 83, the current resident of Sylvester Manor, is no exception when it comes to gathering records about the estate, which now embraces 250 acres. She wanted to complete the task of organizing and preserving them that was begun 48 years ago by her husband, Andrew, who died in 1992 and was a 13th generation direct descendant of Nathaniel Sylvester. Her aim was to utilize the more than 5,000 documents to help guide an archaeological excavation of the property that would provide a better understanding of what life was like in the 17th and 18th Centuries.
"It's a dream situation," said Mac Griswold, the project historian who heads the document research. "We have both the intact site and the series of documents, and they mesh together to form a fabric, which very seldom happens."
Griswold offered an example of how the document research has aided the archaeologists. "I ran across a court case that shows that Nathaniel Sylvester was determined not to yield 150 hogsheads of salt to a merchant who felt he was owed them," she said. "So we begin to think, 'Where on earth would he store 150 hogsheads of salt?' We know in his will he mentions a warehouse. Nobody as of yet has turned up a warehouse."
Ken Kvamme of the University of Alabama, who did geophysical testing for the archaeology team, located a rectangular outline under the ground. "It will be next summer's dig," Griswold said.
While the archaeologists recently completed their third summer of trowel work around the manor house, Griswold continues to enter the documents into a computer database. This means the information can be shared now with the archaeologists and eventually with the public.
The project's beginnings go back to 1985, when Griswold, a garden historian working on a book about American gardens, came to Sylvester Manor to do research. She began to organize the documents but it wasn't until 1996 that the rest of the team of researchers was pulled together. After that, it took two more years to obtain the first funding for the document research part of the project, which was provided by the Moore Charitable Foundation.
The document work is conducted by Griswold, Susan Smyth, an archaeologist and librarian for the local history room at the Sag Harbor library, and Barbara Schwartz, a professional genealogist, who has prepared five maps showing how ownership of the property changed.
The 1,500 documents at Sylvester Manor and another 500 examined so far at other repositories on Long Island, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Barbados and England and the relics found on the property show Nathaniel Sylvester and his wife, Grissell, enjoyed a cosmopolitan lifestyle when they arrived in 1652 after their house was completed. The property was designed as a northern "provisioning plantation" where slaves grew food and made supplies for the family's larger sugar plantation on Barbados.
The documents that have already been sorted are stored in flat files between sheets of acid-free paper. While most of the papers are in surprisingly good shape, two have already been sent to a professional conservator to remove fungus stains.
Among the highlights of the collection is the royal charter King Charles II of England approved for the manor. Dated 1666 and addressed to Nathaniel Sylvester and his brother Constant, it was signed, with a flourish, by Gov. Richard Nicolls.
Then there is a 1654 deed for land then known as Horse Neck but today is a large part of the Town of Oyster Bay. The sale to Samuel Mayo by an Indian chief, Sagamore Latiosan, contains the marks of all of the other sagamores of Long Island including Wyandanch, the chief sagamore, who served as witnesses. Wyandanch's mark is two men shaking hands. Nathaniel Sylvester, who a decade later would own land in the area, also signed as a witness.
Curiously, Sylvester signed his name using different spellings. "Here it is Sylvester with a Y," Griswold said. "And over here it's Silvester with an I. Grissell, Nathaniel's wife, spells her name differently from time to time, sometimes with z's and sometime with s's."
One of the key documents is Grissell's three-page will, in which she leaves her 11 sons and daughters articles of property within the original house-whose location on the estate is still a mystery the researchers hope to solve. In the will, Grissell describes the rooms where the articles are located, "so you start to get some idea of the size of the house," Griswold said. "Any house that was big enough to have 36 chairs is probably a considerable 17th Century house. We know from another document that there were probably as many as six or seven rooms."
From Sylvester's 1680 will, Griswold said, "We know that there were 20 Africans who lived here who probably came via Barbados. It's a very large number of slaves for the North." Nathaniel Sylvester's will provides another unusual insight, Griswold continued. "He names all the slaves in family groups: husband, wife and children. Usually you have no idea what the family relations are." She believes Sylvester may have done it because he was a secret Quaker.
Isaac Pharoah was not a slave but he was still legally tied to the manor. The collection includes an 1829 indenture binding 5-year-old Isaac, a member of a prominent East End Indian family, to the then owner of the manor, Samuel Smith Gardiner, until the age of 21. "He's a fatherless boy and his mother is indenturing him long after the age of legal indenture," Griswold pointed out. "She thought she was giving him a chance to have a safe home and a leg up. On the other hand, it did condemn him to life at Sylvester Manor...He was indentured until the age of 21, but he never left and, in fact, is buried here."