Wampum, the Iroquois Connection, and Monetizing the Landscape

A couple of months ago a professor of mine and I were ushered into a spare ante room of the Akwesasne Cultural Center and Museum in St. Regis, NY. The room was dedicated to a single exhibit; a glass case containing a 250-year old belt made from white and purple wampum beads. Our guide, Sue, explained to us that the belt is referred to by her people as the Wolf Belt, and commemorates the peace between the various Iroquois communities of the St. Lawrence Valley and the English crown following the Seven Years War (which ended with the vanquishment of France from North America) . The Wolf Belt, which had been housed at the New York State Museum in Albany since the turn of the 20th century, was repatriated to the Akwesasne Mohawks in 2010.

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Wolf Belt upon its return to Akwesasne (©Indiantime.net)

At the time of my visit to the museum I was reading Katherine Howlett Hayes’s Slavery Before Race, and was aware of the possibility that some of the beads threaded into the Wolf Belt, if not from Shelter Island, may have been manufactured in the general eastern Long Island area. Wampum, which comes from the Algonquian wampumpeague, is manufactured from either whelk or quahog shells, depending on the maker’s desired bead color. Contrary to popular historical perceptions, wampum was not “Indian money”; that is, it could not be used to purchase goods or services. Instead, wampum was exchanged among coastal Algonquian communities as a gift that carried political undertones; several strings of wampum might be exchanged among visiting sachems as a substantiation of a diplomatic partnership. These networks of exchange penetrated inland into the eastern Great Lakes region, where the Iroquoian nations, especially Haudenosaunee (the confederacy between the Cayuga, Seneca, Onondaga, Oneida, Tuscarora, and Mohawks) came to value wampum as a means of declaring war or, in the case of the Wolf Belt, friendship.

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Spiraled whelk shells were used to make white wampum beads, which were considered to be less valuable than purple beads from quahog shells.

Europeans, however, did treat wampum as a currency. Dutch settlers used wampum as a means of procuring beaver pelts from inland Indians, while both Dutch and English colonial officials at times sanctioned wampum as legal tender in monetary transactions for lack of standard coinage. Given Shelter island’s estuarine location, it is unsurprising that the manufacture of wampum was one of multiple commercial activities that took place at Sylvester Manor during its plantation days between 1652 and 1680. A ready supply of Manhanset laborers experienced in the techniques of shell bead making provided Nathaniel Sylvester with an additional source of wealth, at least until overproduction of wampum (as a result of the introduction of European steel awls) ate away at its value. Excavations of the original plantation core have turned up copious amounts of tool-worked outer shell fragments that were discarded in favor of the inner shell parts from which beads were produced. Some beads stayed in the economy of Long Island Sound, while others undoubtedly ended up in Haudenosaunee territory in northern New York and the St. Lawrence Valley.

Sylvester Manor’s one-time status as a mass producer of wampum bears special significance on several fronts, not least because it represents an early, explicit instance of European commercial interests monetizing an indigenous cultural practice. As it happens, Nathaniel Sylvester’s great-grandson, the lawyer Ezra L’Hommedieu (whose daughter, Mary Catherine, served briefly as the mistress of Sylvester Manor in the 1830s) had a hand in determining how the state of New York dealt with its indigenous nations. As a member of New York”s Indian Affairs Commission in the 1790s, Ezra and his colleagues negotiated with constituent members of Haudenosaunee (which was still divided in the aftermath of the American Revolution) for the overwhelming majority of each nation’s historical lands in exchange for reserve territory. The commission also treated the indigenous population as citizens of the new Republic; not out of altruism, but because land belonging to a citizen could more easily be sold to settlers than land belonging to a sovereign nation.

The realm of monetary valuation is a topic I will return to repeatedly in my writing, for the relentless commodification of the natural and human cultural spheres is a critical factor in creating the Crisis of Now. Yet Sylvester Manor offers a unique perspective from which to consider how Anglo-Dutch speculation and investment in the 1600s created the monetary system me know today, and how such an economic model marginalized the lives and power of indigenous Americans. From its inception, the colonial project in North America was an economic endeavor aimed at extracting pecuniary worth in terms of raw materials that were growing scarce in Europe. Even the Puritans, those righteous “First Americans,” could not have established Plymouth Colony without the backing of the London Virginia Company and the Merchant Adventurers. It therefore follows that, where one year Nathaniel Sylvester is overseeing Manhanset laborers turn shells into currency, another year Ezra L’Hommedieu is paving the way for white Americans to establish homesteads in what used to be Haudenosaunee country. Since capital for such monetary claims of ownership flowed exclusively from Europe and America’s settled coast, it was almost inevitable that indigenous landholdings in the American Republic would be decimated by the market demands of a new transoceanic Western society.

The Akwesasne Mohawk, with whom I worked this past spring as part of this project, are engaged in a decades-long, incremental mission to regain historically Mohawk land that was sold to non-native settlers under questionable legal maneuverings, and the Mohawks are not alone in this goal. The Schaghticoke Tribal Nation in Connecticut has been trying to defend its land claims in the northwestern part of the state since the 1980s, while, here in the neighborhood of Sylvester Manor, the Shinnecock nation still disputes the legitimacy of the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. If the indigenous peoples of the world were among the first to feel the shock of global investment capitalism, then, by reclaiming their lands and removing them from the market, it is appropriate that they should be at vanguard of transitioning away from the economic system that has landed us amidst so many converging global crises. Yet they are joined by many allies, including Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, whose focus on reviving local cultural traditions; reconnecting island residents with the rhythms of the growing seasons; and shedding light on the American landscape’s true past surely constitutes a movement away from the dominant mindsets of the past 500 years or so. If the the repatriation of a revered piece of Mohawk beadwork is a part of this new movement as well, then all the better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Amsterdam Connection

When the Manor house was refurbished in 1908, Cornelia Conway Felton Horsford, the Manor’s mistress at the time, chose to embellish the front parlor’s fireplace with delftware tiles – an apparent nod to Nathaniel Sylvester’s upbringing in seventeenth century Amsterdam’s community of exiled English Separatists. The parlor delftware constitutes one of the more visible attestations to the Sylvester family’s time in the Dutch Republic. When a team of historical archaeologists from UMass-Boston began excavating the Manor grounds in the 1990s, they unearthed a surfeit of Dutch-made tobacco pipes and yellow bricks that resembled the bricks fired in Gouda kilns which were used as ballast in vessels sailing out of Amsterdam.

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Delftware trim, front parlor.

I am interested in the Netherlands of the 1600s. One could argue that the global order of things as we know them today – our world of intercontinental commerce, service-oriented economies, and staggering material wealth, all powered by growth-based economics and investment capital – was first realized in the damp, peaty lowlands of the Rhine delta at the turn of the seventeenth century. Intriguingly, Yale anthropologist James C. Scott also speculates that the year 1600 marks the point in world history when the concept of ‘the state’ came to predominate human social organization. It just so happens that no state at that time had a wealthier population than the Dutch Republic.

Nathaniel Sylvester’s parents, Mary and Giles, migrated with their Separatist families across the English channel to the relative safety of Amsterdam in the first decade of the 1600s. By Nathaniel’s birth in 1620, Giles was a well-regarded member of the Ancient Church (Englelse Kerk) and an up-and-coming merchant in a country that was willing to tolerate foreigners and religious iconoclasts rejected by the rest of Europe for the potential economic and entrepreneurial benefits such outcasts might bring. As such, the Amsterdam Nathaniel grew up in was one of satin-clad housewives and colorful row houses fronted by spotless stoeps which resounded with the raucous footsteps of children engrossed in neighborhood play. It was a port city from which more than 100 merchant vessels might disembark and set sail across the IJsselmeer in a single day. Such an ’embarrassment of riches,’ as Simon Schama puts it, was made possible by the Dutch Republic’s subordination of Spain and Portugal in the realm of Atlantic shipping. Absent the mercantilist royal bureaucracies which helped contribute to the demise of Iberian transoceanic hegemony, Dutch exploits in the New World and Asia were financed primarily by private investors via joint-stock companies – the forebears of today’s transnationals. Raised amidst so much commercial ferment, it is unsurprising that Nathaniel and his four brothers followed their father into the merchant trade.

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Profile of Amsterdam Seen from the IJ by Pieter van der Keere (1618)

All of the Sylvester sons returned to the English fold, either settling in Britain or one of its colonies just as the English began challenging Dutch turf. Yet part of the Dutch Republic’s inheritance in wealth came with an unquantifiable human cost, a cost that the Sylvesters were also complicit in exacting in their drive for personal fortune; by the 1600s, the Dutch were the most active European slave traders. Northern Europe’s growing taste for sugar shifted the flow of African slaves northward from South America to the French and English-dominated Caribbean, where Constant Sylvester, Nathaniel’s older brother, established a Barbadian sugar plantation. And, as all who are familiar with Sylvester Manor’s history knows, Nathaniel acquired the 8,000 acres of Shelter Island in order to establish a plantation of his own for the purpose of provisioning his brother’s operation with horses, salted beef, and any other goods that could not be produced in a tropical colony whose entire bonded work force of several thousand was engaged solely in the production of a confectionary.

This is to say nothing yet of the presence of slaves at the Manor (upon his death, Nathaniel Sylvester bequeathed 23 enslaved Africans to his wife, Grizzell, and their children); the marginalization of Indians on Long Island’s East End (the system of debt bondage and impressed Manhansett/Montaukett labor under the Sylvesters was slavery in all but name); or the wealth inequality among Europeans themselves as a new economic order took shape (1600s Amsterdam had its districts of grinding urban poverty, while Sylvester Manor possessed its share of indentured servants from the British Isles). But it is not my purpose here to recount every human injustice associated with Sylvester Manor’s past – as I have already noted, the human toll of the patterns of commerce and statecraft born in the 1600s is beyond quantifying.

Instead, I wish to reflect on how Sylvester Manor serves as a relatively intact index of the social trends and revolutions of the past 400 years whose cumulative effects are manifesting in what I like to refer to as the Crisis of Now – the interlocking environmental, economic, and spiritual emergencies that define the 21st century (see my “About” page). Despite the Manor’s bucolic rural character, situated as it is in Long Island’s tranquil Peconic Bay, it took the labor and wealth extraction on the margins of three different continents (four, if South America is included) to make its existence possible. Now, in 2018, the infamous Triangle Trade of the Atlantic has evolved into the globally-connected society in which we all are enmeshed, and Sylvester Manor is one of many regional nerve centers that were vital in catalyzing that transformation.

So it is that when I look across the north lawn towards the white wooden gate and Gardiners Creek, I find it impossible to ignore the global reach of these 240 acres on the edge of North America. The white gate, which now opens onto a land bridge, marks the landing where barges and longboats unloaded wares from Europe for Nathaniel Sylvester’s provisioning operation before loading Barbados-bound cargo. In the wake of those ships of yore, I try to discern the skeins of connective historical tissue that link this place with the slave castles of the Guinea Coast and the tribal councils of Eastern Algonquian Indians just as much as with the windmills of Holland or the sheep pastures of Somerset, England, where the Sylvester family originated. Here multiple human trajectories and the fates of nations collide, and today our lives are thoroughly etched by that collision.

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Gardiners Creek Landing

This is intellectual rumination, an attempt to make sense of the entanglements of the injustices of the past with the lives of the 7.5 billion humans living right now. These are not jolly thoughts to be preoccupied with, but I believe that parsing and understanding the knotted interface of past and present are necessary if we are to see through our converging global crises. And from deposits of yellow Dutch bricks to a burial ground for the enslaved, from archived documents bearing the signatures of Long Island sachems to parlors decked out in cosmopolitan colonial opulence, Sylvester Manor offers a unique vantage point from which to begin that work of belated comprehension.

 

 

 

Manor Ghosts

In the Spanish film El Bosque Animado (The Enchanted Forest), a spirit instructs the protagonist that “Every forest has a right to its ghost.” As a student of environmental and ecological thought in college, that is a lesson I have learned first-hand; I have lain on my back, as if invited, and stared up at a grove of Adirondack white pines taller than the Statue of Liberty that somehow escaped the whims of nineteenth century lumber barons. Yet I have also stumbled through a vine-tangled oak savanna not far from where I grew up in Connecticut. The latter forests’s ghost did not seem keen on my intrusion.

Two weeks into my stay on Shelter Island, I think it is more than appropriate to say that every landscape has a right to its ghosts, and one would be hard-pressed to locate a tract of American land whose ghosts are as multitudinous as those that inhabit Sylvester Manor. There are the obvious resident specters – those of Nathaniel Sylvester and his 10+ generations of descendants. There are also the notables of American history – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Mary Dyer, Asa Gray – who have left imprints on the property in the course of pursuing their own grand projects. Yet, like the family historian motivated solely by a desire to trace his lineage back to Henry VIII (or Marie Antoinette, or Genghis Khan, or whoever you fancy), enumerating all of the past luminaries associated with Sylvester Manor misses the point. Human history is an ecology of stories, and we can only do justice to that ecology by understanding the multiplicity of lives, big and small, that have crafted the world of today simply by virtue of having once walked this earth.

So, as a start, it helps to remember Isaac Pharaoh, a Montaukett man who was indentured to the Gardiner family in 1829 at the age of five and ended up spending the rest of his seven decades at Sylvester Manor. There is also Julia Dyd Havens Johnson, born circa 1810, whose step-father, Comus Fanning, was a manumitted Long Island slave; Julia served as Manor housekeeper for three generations of Gardiners and Horsfords. There is also the Colored Burial Ground, a fenced off parcel of woodland where multiple generations of  enslaved Africans and impressed Manhansett laborers are interred. Such are the beginnings of Sylvester Manor’s historical ecology.

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Burying Ground of the Colored People of the Manor

But what to make of these lives, these Manor ghosts whose stories are integral to the landscape? Sometimes at nightfall, after a long day of work in the Windmill Field, I may be walking among the garden’s ancient boxwoods or by the north lawn’s copper beech, and feel compelled to stop and contemplate. When I do halt in my path, I become aware of a presence, a collective calling to attention that says “We were here.” I suppose the presence I’ve become familiar with at Sylvester Manor is a spirit of sorts, born of this parcel of land’s particular ghosts. They are ghosts of loss, injustice, and sorrow. Yet they are also ghosts of contentment, joy, and the mundane experiences of human life lived on a day-to-day basis. They have a different story to tell of American history than the occluded, amnesia-ridden tale most of us were brought up with. And, like every history grounded in a cultural landscape, they can tell us something about the human condition. Regardless of what stories we unearth, though, the ghosts of Sylvester Manor implore us the living to pay attention and listen close.

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