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Guide to the Sylvester Manor Archive
1649-1996
 MSS.208

Fales Library and Special Collections
Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
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Phone: (212) 998-2596
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Fales Library and Special Collections

Collection processed by Colin Wells, with the assistance of Liza Harrell-Edge and Noah Gelfand, 2008-2010. Description revised and enhanced by Rhyannon J. Rodriguez , December 2015

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on November 02, 2017
Description is in English.

Historical Note

Sylvester Manor and its grounds are located on Shelter Island, an 8,000-acre island situated between the north and south forks of eastern Long Island that was inhabited by Manhansett Native Americans until its purchase in 1651 by the first permanent European settlers. Nathaniel Sylvester, an Englishman born and raised in Amsterdam, and three Barbadian planters, his brother, Constant, Thomas Middleton, and Thomas Rouse, bought the property to use in the Caribbean provisioning trade. Enslaved Africans, impressed Natives, and European indentured servants raised livestock, produced timber for barrels, and grew food to sell in the West Indies, where most arable land was devoted to valuable sugar cane. In 1653, Nathaniel (Nathaniell in most records) Sylvester and his wife Grissell Brinley (also recorded Grizzell), married and moved to Shelter Island, creating the establishment that would later bear their family name. The property was granted royal manor status by Governor Richard Nicoll of New York Colony in 1666.

In 1752 with the death of Brinley Sylvester, the estate passed to his daughter, Mary (Nathaniel’s great-great granddaughter), and her husband Thomas Dering. The Manor remained in the Dering family for another two generations before debt forced the sale of the property. Dering records do not appear in any number in the Archive. The property was purchased from the Derings in 1827 by Samuel Smith Gardiner, a Suffolk County and New York attorney who had married into a different branch of Sylvester descendents.

Samuel Gardiner’s wife was Mary Catherine L’Hommedieu, the daughter of Ezra L’Hommedieu, a very prominent attorney, national and state political representative, Suffolk County Clerk for some twenty years, and a great-great grandson of Nathaniel Sylvester. Although Ezra L’Hommedieu never owned Sylvester Manor, the collection houses a substantial volume of his papers. The Gardiners produced three daughters, Mary L’Hommedieu Gardiner, Phoebe Dayton Gardiner (sometimes spelled Phebe, particularly in earlier records), and Frances (Fanny) Gardiner.

Mary L'Hommedieu Gardiner wed Eben Norton Horsford, a professor of chemistry at Harvard University, a pioneer in food science, and founder of the Rumford Chemical Works in Providence, Rhode Island. Mary and E.N. produced four daughters, Lillian (also Lilian), Mary Katherine (Kate), Gertrude, and Mary Gardiner (Mamie). Mary died in 1855, and E.N. Horsford married her sister Phoebe two years later. Phoebe gave birth to one daughter, Cornelia Conway Fenton (referred to as Nellie in her younger years). Samuel Gardiner died in 1859, passing the Manor to Phoebe and E.N. Horsford, at which time it became a summer home, as the Horsfords were well established in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Following her mother's death in 1903, Cornelia Horsford, who never married, retained the property until her death in 1944. The property then passed to the Fiske family, a family of Boston attorneys into which Gertrude Horsford had married. Augustus Henry Fiske briefly inherited the Manor before passing the estate to his son Andrew, who held the Manor from 1949 until his death in 1992. His widow, Alice Hench Fiske, retained life interest until her death in 2006.

The original house was probably constructed soon after Nathaniel and Grissell’s arrival. Provisioning activities likely ended in 1680 at Nathaniel’s death, but farming and trading continued. After Brinley Sylvester, a successful merchant operating regionally in the New England and New York sphere, tore down the first dwelling, he constructed the current surviving house around 1735. By the time Samuel Gardiner became the owner of the manor in the early 19th century, the Manor property had been significantly reduced and much of the remaining arable land was leased to local farmers. When the Horsfords took possession of the manor, they hosted members of Boston's intellectual and social elite during the summers. While some small-scale farming continued, the existing gardens were formalized and expanded. The Horsfords set up monuments and fenced enclosures, including two extant graveyards, to relate their understanding of the landscape features of the property's history. After her mother's death, Cornelia Horsford maintained the home as a summer residence; continuing work on the gardens and overseeing a substantial renovation to the residence by the well-known architect, Henry Bacon, in 1908.

The estate currently comprises approximately 243 acres including the manor house, several subsidiary houses, as well as barns and out-buildings, most of which date to the nineteenth century. Sylvester Manor remains in the possession of family descendents and is today being cultivated as an educational organic farm. In addition, nine seasons of field schools were conducted by archaeological teams from the University of Massachusetts Boston, providing further information on the original buildings and activities conducted on the site. See http://www.fiskecenter.umb.edu/excavations.htm for information on the archaeological activities.

Due to the large number of individuals whose records are included in the Archive, more detailed Biographical Notes are made at the appropriate level of the finding aid.

Sources:

Sylvester Manor Archive, MSS 208, Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University Libraries.

Thompson, Benjamin F. History of Long Island, Vol. II. Port Washington, N.Y.: Ira Friedman, Inc., 1962