Hofstra Horizons Research

The Archaeology of Captivity and Freedom in Early New York

Christopher Matthews
Associate Professor of Anthropology

Jenna Coplin
Adjunct Instructor of Anthropology

Archaeology students

The lives of Long Island’s captive Africans were rarely recorded. Firsthand accounts are few, as barriers to literacy were many. As a result, what we learn from documents is secondhand and often produced by the very people who dehumanized Africans as property in the first place. In contrast, archaeology provides a primary resource consisting in part of the incidental byproducts of human activity. For example, the animal bones left behind after a meal, broken dish fragments that result from regular use, or a house builder’s lost nails represent routines that shaped contours of daily life. All people contributed to this record, and they did so in ways that allow archaeologists to identify what people in the past considered normal, unremarkable, intimate or mundane. We can also see how these patterns of culture vary between groups.

In 2004 we offered our students unique opportunities to learn firsthand what archaeology is all about. Directed by Professor Matthews, Hofstra’s ongoing Archaeological Field School program focuses on local sites associated with captive Africans and their descendents, the cultures they constructed and the constraints they challenged in their everyday activities. Our work is about the materiality of enslavement and the many ways freedom was constructed by all those who, together on Long Island, became Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In the case of captive Africans, archaeology identifies their presence on the landscape in ways that documents cannot, and it tells us more about how they built lives, families and communities in the extreme circumstances slavery presented. An important part of our work is a search for material evidence of shared religious beliefs such as purposely buried objects that were part of a hidden ritual system frequently found in association with captive African living spaces. Common materials used in specific contexts such as shells, beads, nails, or window glass created and sustained multivalent attributes that captive Africans employed to create spaces of their own within slavery. Recovering this record is the basis of the detailed work we perform with our students during the Archaeological Field School. Our purpose is to collect data that illustrates not only these past communities’ resistance to enslavement, but also the rich and dynamic aspects of their daily lives.

Through partnerships with local organizations, we are researching communities of early New York at two sites. Both King Manor and Joseph Lloyd Manor were large agricultural enterprises in the 18th century. Each site relied on a relatively large captive African labor force, employed in tasks ranging from field work to domestic chores. Our work has recovered important data that brings to light new stories about Long Island’s captive African and descendent communities that are relevant to understanding the creation of an early American identity in New York.

Rufus King Manor

The Hofstra Archaeology Program has undertaken intensive hands-on research at King Manor Museum in Jamaica, Queens, over two summer sessions and one fall semester as part of a New College block course. Students and volunteers have collected information from more than 30 excavation units. This research is ongoing and will continue at the site in fall 2008. According to documents, the original sections of the King Manor house were constructed around 1765 by the Colgan family. By 1790 Mary Colgan’s daughter had wed Christopher Smith, who became the head of household. The Colgan-Smith household was recorded in the 1790 and 1800 federal censuses as owning nine and 10 slaves, respectively. Other than this census account, we know nothing about these men and women.

In 1805 the property was acquired by Rufus King, a well-known early statesman. By the time he moved to Jamaica, King had played an instrumental role in drafting the U.S. Constitution, served in the U.S. Senate, and had been the American minister to England. Like Colgan and Smith, King chose the property because of its agricultural potential, and he proceeded to refine the site and intensify its productivity. Unlike many others, he did this without the service of captive African laborers. In fact, King was an important voice in the antislavery movement. He believed slave ownership was antithetical to the success of the young republic, and he argued that the nation would be best served by free workers, preferably land-owning families, whose livelihood was tied to the security of the nation. Our documentation of his effort to rebuild King Manor reflects this desire, and we suspect that he envisioned himself a model for other free property-holders in the nation.

Parallel to the side of the manor house near the original kitchen once stood a service building with many likely functional uses. Excavations in a yard north of this structure indicate an area where common domestic activities such as chopping wood, food preparation and trash disposal likely occurred. This area of the kitchen yard would have been shielded from both the main road and the owner’s section of the manor house by the service building, keeping the laborers and their work out of sight. Archaeological materials recovered from the kitchen yard, such as broken dishes, nails, animal bones and bottle fragments, date to the 18th century, or the period before King. The absence of King-era materials suggests that he moved work away from this area. We know King built barns elsewhere on the site; thus, this work area was likely relocated, but in the process he eliminated in the spaces closest to the house any areas devoted to work.

One pattern evident in the recovered materials may suggest a reason for this relocation. Excavations immediately behind the service structure recovered a concentration of large wine bottle fragments. These bottles may represent illicit activities, both drinking and the possible theft of the master’s liquor, undertaken by the laborers at the site. Knowing that these bottles date to the 18th century suggests that these laborers were captive Africans. This illicit activity may represent one way enslaved laborers resisted their masters. Drinking together, captive Africans created a community reflecting their shared interests and their humanity despite the dehumanized conditions slavery presented.

If this is accurate, Matthews suggests that King’s relocation of laborers away from the home may have been directed by an interest in separating this sort of behavior, likely practiced by the free laborers he employed as well, from the purity represented by the freeholder’s family and home. The notion of separating workspaces from the home was novel in the early 1800s. Moreover, as workspaces were inherently unequal, this practice may have had political implications as well. For the American democracy to succeed, it required a way for the population to experience the new nation’s professed equality. Separating his home from the spaces at the site devoted to work, King showed his laborers and neighbors how to do this. Since everybody must live somewhere, following the model embodied by the Kings, America offered citizens the chance to realize this space as a home of their own, a process that established their equivalence to other citizens. Notably, this separation made room for and essentially justified the continued inequality of persons in the market and in their productive lives.

Joseph Lloyd Manor

Beginning in 2007, the Archaeology Program has had the great pleasure of beginning a new, multi-year field project at the Joseph Lloyd Manor site in Lloyd Harbor, New York. Owned and maintained as a house museum by the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, Lloyd Manor is a high-style Georgian house built in 1767. Lloyd Manor was also home to Jupiter Hammon, one of the first captive Africans to be published in what is now the United States. Archaeological research at Lloyd Manor is focused on a historic outbuilding illustrated with a chimney on an 1814 map of the area. This outbuilding stood away from the manor house and was likely home to several captive Africans known to have lived at the site. Our excavations aim to verify this and use the materials we recover along with the site’s plethora of associated historical resources to better understand the larger community of captive Africans on Long Island.

Hofstra students, again through the Archaeological Field School program, were guided through the reasoning, planning and excavation of several areas of the site. As in every Hofstra field school, students were engaged in an interdisciplinary study. All students read studies in historical archaeology and the known works of Jupiter Hammon, and they were required to speak to visitors about their work, their readings and their experiences as well as contribute writings, short videos and photos to the Archaeology Program’s permanent archives. Students became community members as they learned the tools for research, critical thinking and public speaking, and the importance of respectful interaction in any community engagement.

Contained within Lloyd Manor are the connected histories of Joseph Lloyd, son of a wealthy merchant and one himself, and Jupiter Hammon, a captive African owned by the Lloyd family his entire life and one who wrote and published poetry and prose on the injustices of slavery. These men were raised together on Lloyd Neck, likely went to the same school house, and read from the library of Henry Lloyd, Joseph’s father. The relationship between captivity and freedom lies at the center of this relationship and guides our research at the site.

Importantly, when we speak of the captive African community on Lloyd Neck, the only voice we currently have to consider is that of Jupiter Hammon. We believe archaeology at Joseph Lloyd Manor can change that. We seek the signs of everyday freedoms that would have been created by captive Africans who collected and produced their own food and tools. We also expect to see evidence related to the distinctly local community that cuts across the boundaries created by the natural and legal barriers imposed on captive Africans on Long Island. Also, African religious practices, well documented as sustained across generations of captivity, are carefully considered in our research design.

Our initial work at Lloyd Manor has involved the excavation of seven test units. The site was also mapped with the gracious assistance of Dr. James Moore from the Department of Anthropology at Queens College. These initial tests identified important sections of a small outbuilding dating to the 18th century that once stood at the manor. Three well-preserved dry-laid foundation walls made of local stone were identified. Associated layers of foundation stones suggest the structure collapsed after it was abandoned. With this information, we may investigate when the structure was built, how it was used, when it was occupied, and when it was abandoned. We are very interested to know if this structure was home both to captive Africans and their later emancipated descendents who may have continued to serve the Lloyds at the site.

Adjacent to the remains of the structure, several deposits produced interesting finds. An 1828 half-cent coin was found in a layer near the east wall. Coins are important finds for archaeologists because they often bear a date. This is one of the many reasons archaeologists discourage metal detecting, as it removes these informative items from the record and destroys the contexts of related finds. The date of this coin falls squarely within the time period we think this structure would have been occupied, allowing us to deduce that the deposits we have recovered are intact and relate to the past occupants about whom we wish to learn more. Another finding that helps us to understand the site is a relatively deep trench that ran in the front of the house. The fill within this trench included artifacts of all sorts, including large fragments of a finely molded, white, salt-glazed stoneware plate and the base of a wine bottle. The relatively large size of these artifacts suggests that this deposit has been undisturbed since the time of its original creation. We believe the trench was for drainage, helping to displace rainwater away from the house, and the large artifacts within it helped to preserve this function. The artifacts we found date the feature to the mid-18th century, helping us to understand the development of the larger Lloyd Manor site, including confirming the occupation of this structure to the time when captive Africans made up the majority of the household’s members.

The process of recovery in archaeology can prove difficult, and students play a major role in this endeavor. A diligent Hofstra student, Kelly Goldberg, asked if she could excavate an additional few centimeters in the drainage trench to make sure that we had reached its base. She proved that we had not yet completely removed the feature by discovering an entire turtle plastron, the underside of its shell. Once this identification is confirmed, this turtle plastron may tell us more about the structure’s occupants and their food choices and cultural practices. Moreover, this find may constitute the earliest deposit we have identified at the site. Thanks, Kelly!

In both our projects, the work continues long after students complete the summer course. Many come back to the archaeology lab in Davison Hall to help with the most time-consuming and beneficial part of the process: analysis. All the materials excavated from these and all sites are examined and slowly put back together with the deposits from which they came to produce an interpretation that expands our understanding of the site as a whole. We welcome visitors and volunteers in the lab year-round. Call (516) 463-7625 for details.


You can visit these sites.

King Manor
Today the centerpiece of an 11-acre New York City park in Jamaica, Queens, King Manor Museum was the home and farm of Founding Father Rufus King from 1805 to 1827. Rufus King was an author of the U.S. Constitution, as well as one of New York’s first U.S. senators, ambassador to Great Britain, and an early, and outspoken, opponent of slavery. King Manor later became the estate of King’s son, John Alsop King, who served as New York’s governor. King Manor has been a museum since 1900.

King Manor is owned by the city of New York, operated by the King Manor Association of Long Island, Inc., and is a member of the Historic House Trust of New York City (www.historichousetrust.org).

King Manor is proud to be an established site on the Heritage New York Underground Railroad Heritage Trail. For more information about the trail and Heritage New York, please visit www.heritageny.gov/Railroad/railrd.cfm. For hours, information and directions to King Manor Museum, visit www.kingmanor.org.

Joseph Lloyd Manor
Lloyd Manor, built in 1766, is a handsome structure with fine interior woodwork by Connecticut craftsmen. Located in a spectacular setting overlooking Lloyd Harbor, the grounds include a formal garden. The house is furnished to the 1793 inventory of John Lloyd II. Lloyd Manor was the home of Jupiter Hammon, a slave who is among the first published African-American writers. Interpretive exhibits provide the history and documentation for the installation. Joseph Lloyd Manor is owned and maintained by the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities and is located in Lloyd Harbor, Long Island, New York. For information, visit www.splia.org.


Professors Matthews and Coplin began a collaboration in 2004. Under the direction of Professor Matthews, current research includes the excavation and analysis of sites on Long Island, New York, associated with both slave-based and free labor systems. This research is currently focused on the two sites mentioned in this Hofstra Horizons article: the Rufus King Manor in Jamaica, Queens, New York, and the Joseph Lloyd Manor in Lloyd Harbor, New York. The latter project includes one of the first-ever excavations of a slave quarter structure in the region.


Suggested Further Reading

Deetz, James. (1996). In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life. New York: Anchor Press.

Ferguson, Leland. (1992). Uncommon Ground: Archaeology and Early African America 1650-1800. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

O’Neal, Sondra A. (1993). Jupiter Hammon and the Biblical Beginnings of African-American Literature. New Jersey: Scarecrow Press.

Ransom, Stanley A., Jr. (1983). America’s First Negro Poet: The Complete Works of Jupiter Hammon of Long Island. New York: Kennikat Press.

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