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Originally published July 28, 2013 at 5:11 AM | Page modified July 28, 2013 at 7:11 AM

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‘The Manor’: unearthing a history of Northern slavery

Mac Griswold’s fascinating history “The Manor” tells the story of a Long Island plantation, owned by the same family for nine generations, and how an investigation and excavations revealed its slave-owning past.

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“The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island”

by Mac Griswold

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 461 pp., $28

History comes down to us in such neat packages that it’s always bracing to discover less-tidy truths. That’s the fascination of Mac Griswold’s meticulously researched and tightly focused account, “The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island.” Yes, we already had the big picture, but her micro view brings the past alive in exquisite detail.

Griswold’s nonfiction book focuses on one family, the Sylvesters, and the provisioning plantation that became one of their stops on the trans-Atlantic trade route that brought settlement to America. Her particular emphasis is the Middle Passage, in which Europeans traded goods for African slaves and then sold the slaves in the New World.

This is not news; Seattle’s Charles Johnson won the 1990 National Book Award by building a terrific novel around this hideous practice. But Griswold’s up-close-and-personal look shows how insidious and widespread slavery was. The entire continent, not just the South, prospered on slavery’s back.

An economy that depended on forced labor endured for two centuries, right through the Revolutionary War. All along the Eastern Seaboard, Native Americans were pressed into service until their ranks were reduced by disease. The Africans took their place, and soon race was the defining element of slavery.

What’s as compelling as the book’s subject is how Griswold, a landscape historian, found her topic. In 1984 she was rowing along the Long Island shore when she came across some giant boxwoods, trees that told her the house nearby was very old. When she knocked on the door and met the older couple in residence, she discovered she was talking to the ninth generation of a family that had owned the property since 1653.

The original 8,000-acre spread had dwindled to 243 acres. But the manor house had been preserved. With it were historical documents detailing the family’s early history, and that of the slaves who occupied the manor’s top floor.

She began to research the God-fearing and ambitious seafarers who bought the place in 1653. She also enlisted a team from the University of Massachusetts to launch an archaeological dig that uncovered a treasure trove of items. Then she wrote this gem of a book in a first-person, I-am-there style, re-creating life in the days of sailing ships not only on Long Island, but also at other trading stops — London, Amsterdam, the Ivory Coast and Barbados.

The book peers deep into the early Sylvesters’ lives, explaining the significance of the manor’s cobbled stones (a status symbol) and the white linen shifts both patriarch Nathaniel and matriarch Grizzell wore as their sole undergarments. But it is largely preoccupied with how Indians, blacks and whites coexisted in those early times.

Ultimately, Griswold acknowledges, the North absorbed a relatively small number of the estimated 12.5 million Africans transported across the Atlantic in chains. So calling the Long Island property a “slave plantation” seems a bit of a stretch, given the image that phrase conjures.

But Griswold’s argument for the term may rest on what her research shows: Slavery persisted longer in the North than popular perception holds. The manor was bought with a slave-dependent crop, sugar, and operated with slaves. New York didn’t fully outlaw the practice until 1827.

The original Sylvesters — patriarch Nathaniel and matriarch Grizzell — were devout Christians, Separatists-turned-Quakers who, like their brethren, bought a biblical justification for slavery. As with many of their compatriots, they came for religious freedom, but were also in it for the money. Their story exemplifies the tension between idealism and profit that became a defining element of our national character.

Ellen Heltzel is a Portland book critic and writer.

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