When I began my research for this book in 1997, I became the tourist that the cultural geographer J.B. Jackson described as "the solitary, uninformed traveler, setting out, hardly knowing why, in search of a new kind of pleasure and a new kind of knowledge." I found both at Sylvester Manor on isolated Shelter Island, set between the North and South Forks of Long Island. It is the only former slaveholder's plantation north of the Mason-Dixon Line that still exists with papers, architecture, and landscape all in one place to tell its story. The property remains in the hands of the eleventh generation of the European colonists who settled there in 1651. The graves of Africans and Manhansett Indians lie quietly under the pines.
Though I have walked through dozens of historic landscapes, some abandoned and others restored, I never felt the immediacy of history so intensely as at Sylvester Manor. What sounds did these Shelter Islanders hear? What did they eat, how did they talk, what did they smell (and smell like)? Which cultural traditions, social ambitions, and political forces had shaped their experiences? I needed to get a clear picture of how oppression, war, religious beliefs, and a morality that accepted chattel slavery had operated at Sylvester Manor. At first I saw only that a line ran from the canals of Amsterdam to this handsome, smallish house and to scientists and poets in nineteenth-century Cambridge, Massachusetts. Soon the manor landscape swelled outward to include the Atlantic World as far as the West Indies and the slave-trade castles of the African Gold Coast. What I saw at the manor was connected to the flow of people, ideas, plants, and animals from a dozen other landscapes on four continents.
The written history of the manor has lasted for more than three and a half centuries, but half of this book is devoted to its first eighty years, because, as Richard Rabinowitz, who in 2005 mounted the first exhibition about the pervasive presence of slavery in New York, said, "The founding of Sylvester Manor is as exciting as the moment when people stepped across the Bering Strait. Here African, European, and Native American people came together to build an economic enterprise that was rooted in an ecology, a technology, and a set of racial hierarchies that continue to mark our lives today."
I made many discoveries. To find out where slaves such as Reuben and Chloe slept, I tiptoed through an ancient probate inventory, reconstructing the path of the appraisers through each nook and cranny of the house. A man at the Plimoth Plantation museum, near where the Pilgrims landed in 1620, sang a psalm tune for me that Nathaniel Sylvester had sung as a child in 1620s Amsterdam. A snowfall picked out in white a lost eighteenth-century entrance drive. I learned that the most lethal malarial mosquito in colonial Jamestown (where Nathaniel spent almost a year in 1644) had striped legs. On a June morning, I opened the door to the secret vault where priceless family documents were kept and smelled rotting paper (the antique plumbing above had burst). We saved them.
One midnight I asked myself, Why do we say "slave plantation"? It is, as one friend said, "as if they were growing slaves" like cotton or sugar or tobacco. It's a dehumanizing phrase we've come to live with, to romanticize. When I started to write, I was aware that my family tree, like that of many white Americans, includes generations of slaveholders who migrated across the South from Virginia to Texas. As my understanding of manor life deepened, I was seduced by the beauties and terrors of the place. By the time I finished writing about this Northern plantation, my bones had been rattled by the everydayness of slavery and its long legacy in our country.
I have written this study of a single piece of land and its inhabitants expecting that it will light up a long stretch of our American history. I hope my sensory impressions, combined with the historical facts -- the moral paradoxes, combined with my guesses as a writer -- remain as fresh and startling for the reader as they were when I gathered them.