The Floyd Estate and slavery

A microcosm of Brookhaven Town in the 17th and 18th centuries


Their names were Jack, Harry, Elijah, Rachel, Abby, Gin, Ebo and Phillip.  There are bills for their shoes, the fabric for their clothing, and medicine when required.  They were the property of William Floyd, owner of a 4,400-acre plantation in Brookhaven Town and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.  Their story, and his, are inexorably intertwined, as a 2011 report prepared for the National Park Service by Janice Hodson of the Northeast Museum Services Center shows.

In 1776, when he set out for Philadelphia, Floyd was a wealthy and influential man. He had inherited the estate from his father, Nicholl, in 1755.  He was practical, with a good head for business. And, practically speaking, colonial Long Island’s economy mirrored much of the American colonies at the time: it depended heavily on slave labor.

In “Slavery in Suffolk County New York,” Christopher Verga notes that during most of the period between the 18th and early 19th centuries, Suffolk County had the highest population of slaves of any urban or rural area in the north; “Slavery on Long Island,” part of the Hofstra University Library’s Special Collections, puts the number of enslaved at 20,000.  There were more slaves in New York than all the Northeast colonies combined, with the federal census of 1800 recording 18 percent of households owning an average of two to four slaves; many prominent farmers owned between six and 20 human beings.  With the exception of the very poor, slave ownership was part of life for farmers, ministers, and villagers.

When Richard Floyd arrived in Setauket from Wales in the mid-17th century, he became one of the five original landowners in Brookhaven Town.  He started a family, prospered as a farmer, and began a tradition of civic engagement that continues today.

And, perhaps not coincidentally, he was the first slaveowner in Brookhaven Town, buying a man name Antony, in 1672.  By the mid-18th century, when William inherited the Mastic estate built by his father Nicholl, the average Suffolk County farmer owned 100 to 150 acres.

Under William, the estate prospered.  The 1790 federal census shows that William Floyd was the largest slaveholder in Brookhaven Town with 14; town records show there were 17 slave births on the estate between 1799 and 1818.  According to the laws of the time, a child born to an enslaved mother was also a slave.

Ownership of another human being was legalized under English law and introduced into New York by the Dutch.  Nathaniel Sylvester, who owned a Shelter Island plantation, introduced slavery into Suffolk County in the 17th century; other English settlers, including William’s grandfather, Richard II (1665-1718), continued the practice. 

When Richard purchased the land in Mastic from Maj. William Smith, he not only served as a Suffolk County court judge and early militia colonel; he set about to farm his land.

Farms of the time had to be self-sufficient.  If you needed timber for building or heating, trees had to be felled. Water had to be hauled from clean sources in barrels made on-site. Iron fastenings, hinges, nails had to be made in a forge. Livestock had to be grazed, secured in pens and fields, slaughtered, and the meat preserved for later use.  In short, whatever was needed to sustain a household had to be made and secured by the farm. 

Janice Hodson details life on the Floyd estate in her 2011 report “William Floyd Estate Historic Furnishings Report Historical Data, FINS, Mastic New York” for the National Park Service in the section “Daily Life, Slaves and Laborers.”

Under Richard, the farm raised cattle, sheep, hogs, and crops typical of his time: corn; wheat; rye; barley; oats as well as flax to make linen and grass for hay.

At Richard’s death, the estate passed to his son, Nicholl, and then to William.  As his father’s heir William would have inherited the house and land, as well as an inventory of his father’s possessions: farm equipment, livestock, silver and slaves.

After supplying its own needs, the plantation’s surplus was shipped to markets for sale in NYC.

William also continued the family’s civic engagement.

He served as a trustee of Brookhaven Town, supported local churches and, in 1775, as colonel of the Suffolk County Militia, with 1,030 men and officers under his command.  No wonder, then, that he would represent our county’s interests at the signing of a declaration that would initiate our separation from England and start the war for independence.  Later, he would serve as a representative to the first Congress under a newly created Constitution.

But such extensive civic service takes time and required travel, often far from home and for extended periods of time, leaving little time for large-scale farming. It would fall to the slaves and hired Native American workers to keep things going.  When the house was occupied and items plundered by British troops, who stabled their horses in the downstairs rooms during the war, the family retreated to Middletown, Conn., until it was safe to return. 

Family papers show that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison visited Floyd’s estate in June of 1791; Gen. Lafayette visited Nicholl Floyd II in 1824.  But the slaves remained anonymous, identified by first name only on receipts for shoes or medicine, or on scraps of paper.  Their living quarters were a mile from the main house, commensurate with their place in the farm hierarchy.

In 1799, New York State introduced a series of laws called Emancipation Acts.  The first freed all slaves born on or after July 4, 1799, but only after they had fulfilled a mandated period of servitude—28 years for men, 25 years for women.  Considering that slavery began at birth, one would be nearly 30 before emancipation.  By 1800, Floyd’s slave holdings had declined to 10 individuals.  But, according to town records, slave births exceeded manumissions (emancipations) in Brookhaven Town during the War of 1812.  Emancipation was not easily won. It required applications made by owners and review by a panel of white officials. Patchogue-Medford Library’s history collection includes many entries documenting Floyd family activity related to slave holdings in “Brookhaven Town’s 350th Anniversary.”

Nearly 20 years later, a new 1817 law freed all slaves in New York State born before 1799; it would be ten more years before slavery was outlawed in the state in 1827. Nevertheless, slaves continued to be smuggled into New York until 1861 and the start of the Civil War. In “Slavery in Suffolk County,’’ Christopher Verga notes that effort had to be made to conceal the real nature of smugglers’ cargo; slave ships, disguised as whalers and sailing from the West Indies, headed for ports in Sag Harbor and Shelter Island.

According to Hodson’s report for the NPS, extensive access to the family’s personal diaries, letters, and business records revealed later generations tried to justify their forbearers’ reliance on slave labor with “condescending and paternalistic interpretations of their gay laughter and carefree singing and whistling that would echo through the woods,” further portraying them in stereotypes typical of the late 19th and early  20th centuries that “included references to laziness and an inability to be self-reliant, thereby promoting the need for overseers.”

More recently, at the other extreme, backlash has occurred following the Black Lives Matter movement, with calls for removal of statues and monuments to those who engaged in slave ownership, including William Floyd, whose statue graces the corner at the intersection of Montauk Highway and William Floyd Parkway, in Mastic.

A more enlightened society, we are horrified over the practice of enslaving another human being. And we are right to do so. Yet, who would condemn a man or woman today for owning a car in our suburban environment?  Then, consider how, in 250 years, as the effects of climate change advance, our descendants may well regard our dependence on fossil fuels and the vehicles they power as evidence of our depravity.

Floyd and his peers were men of their time, dedicated to pursuits that both benefitted and cost our current society.  Willian Floyd Weld, former governor of Massachusetts and a Floyd descendent on his mother’s side, has continued the family’s long tradition of service to our country. They were, and are, complex individuals, like the rest of humanity.  And history is more nuanced than a simple list of names, facts, and dates.

Our failure, and theirs, is in a lack of recognition of the extensive contributions made by those who labored on the lands of their owners, whose toil made their fortunes grow, who took up the day-to-day tasks that freed others to pursue greater things like fashioning a new nation, or, in the case of Jefferson, promoting developments in agriculture and science through his experiments.

We owe the enslaved our gratitude and our respect, and our community owes them its recognition.

So, as we approach the 250th anniversary of the signing of The Declaration of Independence, let us hope the National Park Service includes in its celebration a commemoration of the many enslaved men, women and children who were deprived of their freedom, yet contributed anonymously to this country’s quest for growth and independence.  And, let us hope that instead of tearing down its existing statue to a local hero, the people of Mastic erect another to the men and women who labored to support William Floyd and help him prosper.

They also served. 


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