Column: A New Way to Look at History in the East End

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“The past is never dead. It didn’t even happen. – William Faulkner

In a voice touched with emotion, Donnamarie Barnes stood under a pine canopy on a hill on Shelter Island and recited the names.

“The slaves,” she began. “Hannah, Jacquero, Hope and Black John. Free people of color, once enslaved: Violet, Mathilde, Cato, London, Comus Fanning and Dido. Isaac Pharaoh, a man from Montaukett, entered the mansion as a child. David Hempstead Sr., a free born colored man. Julia Dyd Havens Johnson, a free born woman of color, daughter of Dido and an unnamed white man.

About 75 people standing around Ms Barnes fell silent. Some have bowed their heads. She continued, “We honor you, respect you and celebrate you.”

History was written last Friday afternoon on Shelter Island, when Sylvester Manor greeted members of the Shinnecock Nation in a ceremony honoring and blessing the Indigenous peoples and slaves who were buried at the mansion as it It was a large plantation in the 17th and 18th centuries.

While “history” has been studied, written and exhibited on East Long Island for generations, the stories of slaves and the plight of indigenous peoples after the arrival of Europeans in the mid-17th century have been largely ignored. , otherwise ignored outright.

It changes. Mrs. Barnes, the mansion’s curator and archivist, spoke for the dead on a beautiful fall afternoon. She recited their names on the hill considered to be the burial place of slaves and natives. It was a touching memory and a recitation of real names found in the mansion records.

As she pronounced each name, it was possible to imagine them as individuals, as real people, who lived, worked and died on this earth.

Sylvester Manor, led by Executive Director Stephen Searl, is way ahead of Long Island in terms of learning the truth about the land the mansion sits on. The story, the whole story, is not circumscribed here, nor embellished for the benefit of those who prefer another version of the past.

On Friday, Mr Searl hosted a team of archaeologists from the University of Massachusetts who, in the coming weeks, will map the burial sites on the hill. It has also hosted members of the Shinnecock Nation from Southampton, whose ancestors are buried on the island.

He hailed the collaboration as historic and “long coming”.

Stephen Mrozowski of UMass, who led the archaeological work at the mansion for 20 years, noted that this effort to work with today’s Indigenous peoples to map burial sites represents an inflection point in the narrative of the history in the East End.

“For the first time in 150 years, we are working with people whose ancestors have been buried,” he said. “We never invited them, the people we say we honor and love. This project is the first time in my work as an archaeologist that I do not ask myself any questions about my ethics.

Shane Weeks, Co-Chair of the Shinnecock Nation Graves Protection Warrior Society, spoke about the history of Indigenous peoples – from owning the land to themselves, to the arrival of Europeans, and to the loss of land and their culture , and their history being left aside by generations of historians as if they had never existed or were only simple actors in a drama about Europeans.

“You must do what you must do today, so that the next seven generations will know who they are,” he said of blessing the earth. “Our job when our ancestors are discovered is to make sure they rest in peace. “

Mr. Weeks’ haunting voice echoed over the hill as he sang while playing the hand drum. Around him were small stone markers meant to designate burial sites. He said the stones faced west in a traditional indigenous custom.

In the 17th century, the Sylvester family owned large sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean, where living conditions for slaves were horrendous. This part of the mansion’s history has yet to be explored. Slaves from Barbados were brought to Shelter Island to work the land and die and be buried there. Julia Dyd Havens Johnson, a free-born woman of color, was the last person buried on this hill, in 1908.

The effort to reclaim ancestral lands on eastern Long Island took a big step forward in July, when the Peconic Land Trust purchased part of Sugar Loaf Hill near the Shinnecock reserve in Southampton.

The 4.5 acre site will be preserved forever. The site has been recognized as one of the most important Indigenous cemeteries in New York State. Land will eventually be returned to the Shinnecock.

In the late 19th century, the Shinnecock Hills north of the present reserve were removed from the tribe by an act of the New York State Legislature which allowed the railroad to cross the canal and s ‘extend to Montauk. Much of the hills are now home to some of the most prestigious private golf courses in the country.

No historical markers on the routes take note of the loss of indigenous ownership of the land. The acquisition of Sugar Loaf Hill by the Peconic Land Trust is the first time that land in the hills has come back under tribal control.

For generations, North Fork farmers have discovered skeletal remains on their land, some of which were collected and sent to the Museum of Natural History in New York and the Indian Museum in Southold. Southold Town records suggest that Indian Neck in Peconic was a burial place for people the English called Corchaugs.

The fate of the Corchaugs after the arrival of the English in the mid-1600s remains one of the unanswered questions in North Fork history. It is known that in the late 1680s a reserve for the Corchaugs was established at a place then called Corchaug Pond in Peconic. No historical landmark mentions this site today.

In 2018, Suffolk County purchased property along the north side of the main road in Jamesport, believed to contain an indigenous cemetery, to be preserved. The site had already been proposed for a community of retirees. Part of the property should be cordoned off as a “sacred site”.

With his work, Sylvester Manor turns local history upside down. It should be like that. They basically start over by telling the story of the land and the fate of the people who worked it. In terms of local history, from what we remember, a new day has arrived.


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