Early History of an Unspoiled Island Sheltered by Islands

Shelter Island Image

Shelter Island is a town and an island in Suffolk County at the eastern end of Long Island, NY between the North Fork and the South Fork. Shelter Island is around 8,000 acres. Vast tracts , nearly one-third of the island, are protected wetlands, a nature preserve marshland. In 1980, The Nature Conservancy purchased the Mashomack Peninsula’s 2039 acres as open space to be preserved in a wild state. The Mashomack Preserve, as it is called now, has four nature and bird-watching trails. Shelter Island has great beaches, golf courses, marinas and homes ranging from modest cottages to the grandest of mansions. There is a renovated manor house, scene of social events in the summer, and a variety of environmental programs for adults and children.

At the time of European encounter, it was occupied by the Manhanset tribe, an Algonquian-speaking people related to the Pequot and other Algonquians of New England. The original name of the island, used by the Manhanset Indians, is Manhansack-aha-quash-awamock, which literally translates to “Island sheltered by islands.”

Its recorded history dates back to the 17th century and the Caribbean sugar trade. Shelter Island was included in the original Plymouth Company land grant made by James I of England in 1620. On April 22, 1636, Charles I of England who was told that the colony had not made any settlements yet on Long Island, gave the island to William Alexander, 1st Earl of Stirling. The grant gave Alexander all of Long Island and adjacent islands. Alexander gave James Farret power to act as his agent and attorney in colonizing Long Island. In reward Farret was allowed to choose 12,000 acres for his personal use. Farret chose Shelter Island and Robin’s Island for his use. Farret in turn sold the islands to Stephen Goodyear, one of the founders of the New Haven Colony.

In 1651 Goodyear sold the island to a group of Barbados sugar merchants for 1,600 pounds of sugar. Nathaniel Sylvester (1610–1680), one of the merchants, was the island’s first white settler. He was among a number of English merchants who had lived and worked in Rotterdam (where he was born) before going to Barbados. On March 23, 1652, he made the purchase official by signing an agreement with Youghco (called Pogatticut), the sachem of the Manhanset tribe.

Nathaniel Sylvester, a young sugar merchant, married 16-year old Grissell Brinley in England in 1652 and sailed for America. Their marriage would start with a shipwreck off Connecticut on their honeymoon trip, where they stopped first before heading to Barbados to visit family there, then headed for Newport, R.I. to prepare for their move to Shelter Island.

After their arrival on the island in March 1652, Sylvester constructed a house for his bride, Grissell Brinley from London. The Sylvester estate was developed as a large provisioning plantation. It raised food crops, as well as livestock for slaughter, sending casks of preserved meats and other supplies to Barbados. They used the island’s white oak to make sugar barrels used in trade with Barbados. Labor was provided by a multicultural force of American Indians, enslaved Africans and English indentured servants. Sylvester and his associates were part of the Triangle Trade between the American colonies (including the Caribbean), Africa and England. His descendants continued to use slaves on the plantation into the 19th century. An estimated 200 blacks are buried at the Negro Burying Ground on the North Peninsula.

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 the sole owner. He also claimed ownership of Fishers Island and other parts of Long Island. By that time, the Manhansett tribe had declined in number and power.

As early eastern Suffolk pioneers, the Sylvesters prospered on their remote island, had 11 children, and gave shelter to many persecuted 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.

Sylvester died in 1680, leaving the island equally to his five sons. 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, 1000 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.

Sylvester Manor stands today, just off New York State Route 114, and is controlled by Sylvester descendants. Over time these estates and parcels were split and divided by marriage and purchase. All but about 24 acres of the original thousands of acres have gone into other hands. The house that Nathaniel Sylvester built in 1652 was torn down and replaced a few feet away in 1733 by a Sylvester grandson who built a more elaborate manor house.

By the early 18th century, 20 farm families lived on Shelter Island. The Town of Shelter Island was established in 1730 by order of the Provincial Government. William Nicoll II was the first supervisor.

The community developed from there.

 

Sources:

Newsday Home Town Long Island

New York Times