North Fork History Project: Slavery, an ignored part of our history

03/08/2018 6:00 AM |

They were here, nearly from the founding of Southold Town in the mid-17th century. Their presence has not been widely discussed or been part of the conversation in either Southold or Riverhead towns, where the stories of the founding English families have dominated the narrative for generations as if theirs were the only stories worth telling.

But there were African slaves here. They are part of the history. They were African-born and bought at slave markets in New York City, and they were locally born and traded between local farmers. Their numbers were small, but that doesn’t change the reality of their presence.

Some of their names are known. Most are not. You won’t find a plaque or monument to them that acknowledges their presence.

There is a slave cemetery in Orient, which may not be a slave cemetery at all, as there is no record of the names of the slaves buried there by a branch of the Tuthill family. That well-marked slave cemetery may be more folklore than fact grounded in history and primary sources. But even as folklore, it is an important part of the puzzle pieces that make up Southold history.

There is a wealth of information about slave history, African and Indian, at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island, which was a large northern plantation and will be the subject of the next story in the North Fork History Project on March 22.

This story addresses slavery in Southold Town, which in the early days encompassed what is now the Town of Riverhead. Until recently, local historians have not focused on the story of slavery in Southold. Amy Folk, the Southold historian appointed in 2017, has made one focus of her work an accounting of slavery in the town.

“I have always had historical questions I wanted answered about the town and this is the perfect opportunity for me to dig deep,” she said. “The first thing I wanted to do is create fact sheets, little essays that were Southold specific … I tackled slavery early on.

“I have come across about 160 names of Southold slaves over the span of slavery in the town,” she said. “These are from church records, manumissions records, other sources. It was the 1680s to 1820s. Most owners had one or two slaves; the most was six.

“In 1686 there were 27 slaves held by 12 owners,” she continued. “By 1698 there are 41 slaves. At the end of slavery in New York State, in 1827, there were 11 left and 28 freemen in Southold.

I would like to get that information in our schools. I would like the town to understand its history, and slavery is part of the story.”

Along with Ms. Folk, some local researchers like Bob Stanonis, a retired social worker, Dan McCarthy, an archivist at Southold Free Library, and Richard Wines in Riverhead have dug into records and made their own important discoveries. Perhaps their most significant contribution is the addition of slaves’ names to the narrative. Names such as Kedar and Cloe, owned by a William Albertson in Hashamomack; Pomp, a slave owned by Ben Sawyer; Dorcas, who was the property of James Reeve; Cuff, who was owned by John Gardiner; and Jack, who was born in Africa in the early 1700s and freed at the end of his long life when he became too old to work.

The Wickhams of Cutchogue — Joseph Wickham bought what is now the Old House and hundreds of acres around it in 1699 — were slave owners for several generations. The names of three of the family’s slaves are known from records: James, York and Osbons. Where did these three come from? Perhaps they were bought at the slave market in New York, or, more likely, from other North Fork owners.

A granddaughter of Joseph Wickham, Elizabeth, married a man named James Reeve. She seems to have taken some of the Wickham slaves into her marriage and four of them — York, Osbons, Catury and a child named Joseph — drowned on June 6, 1781, research shows. There is no record of where the accident occurred or whether the bodies were recovered and where they were buried. The shimmering mirror of history often reflects back very little.

It is through this line that we find the remarkable story of Lymas Reeve, a Southold-born slave owned by Elizabeth Reeve. In the early 1800s, Elizabeth Reeve owned a broad swath of land on what is today the Wickham Fruit Farm. A document shows that on June 25, 1812, Elizabeth — who was called Aunt Betty Reeve — freed Lymas and a slave named Jenny and gave them an acre of land on a part of the farm called Shell Bank that ran alongside what is today called Wickham Creek.

A photograph of Lymas Reeve, who was born into slavey in Southold and freed in 1813.

Elizabeth wrote: “I gave my two Negroes Limas and Jenny liberty and freedom.” She also provided them with beds and a dining table. The town website includes a remarkable photograph of Mr. Reeve — also called Elymas Reeve — with an essay written by Ms. Folk. Mr. Reeve later lived on Main Road in Mattituck near Marratooka Lake.

In the footnotes to her essay, Ms. Folk notes that Lymas, his wife, Hagar, and their daughter Parthenia are buried in the Old Cutchogue Burying Ground. Lymas Reeve’s youngest son, John B. Reeve, graduated from Columbia University and from the Union Theological Seminary and taught at Howard University. He earned a doctorate in divinity and was named pastor of a Presbyterian church in Philadelphia.

Mr. Wines’ and his wife Nancy’s research shows that, while the numbers of slaves in Riverhead was low, the institution was pervasive. Prominent farmers owned slaves, even a prominent minister.

The gravestone for Lymus or Elymus Reeve — his first name has many spellings in town records. Mr. Reeve lived in Cutchogue and Mattituck and was buried in the Old Burying Ground in Cutchogue. (Credit: Rachel Siford)

“Most of us who have families who were here 200 years ago have ancestors who were slave owners,” the Wines’ have written. “Yes, our God-fearing, church-going Puritan forbearers owned slaves, and there is little evidence that they thought of slaves as anything other than a normal part of their lives.

“There are no surviving slave cemeteries or even known slave gravestones in Riverhead. There are no slave homes to be declared town landmarks. Histories of the town almost never mention the subject. Documentary evidence is scarce. We only know a few of their names and almost nothing about their lives under servitude.”

Mr. Wines, a trained historian, agreed that slave history has never been part of the local narrative. He said research he and his wife have published on the subject was met with “absolute silence.”

“People don’t want to know about it,” he said. “When I look at the history of Hallockville [Museum Farm on Sound Avenue], for example, they leave the slave story out. History should not be about sweeping stories under the rug. I want to talk about things no one wants to talk about.”

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Part I: Before anything else, there was ice

Part II: Long before the ‘first families’

Part III: When English arrive, Indians disperse?

Part IV: So, who was really here first?

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