Ten Letters 1702 – 1720 by Hannah Sylvester a Shelter Island Heiress


Ten Letters 1702 – 1720 of Hannah Sylvester, a Shelter Island heiress, who maintained her second husband’s affairs (Giles Sylvester 1657-1707)  while he was alive and later fought for her rightful share of her husband’s estate with the executor, William Nicoll, after Giles Sylvester’s death. Included in this correspondence is a receipt for the sale of a male slave originally bought from Benjamin Faneuil for twenty pounds sterling.

William Nicoll (1657-1723) was a royal patent holder to 50,000 acres   on the South Side of Long Island, with his home at “Islip Grange.” At the time of this correspondence, he was the Speaker of the Assembly.



Ten Letters 1702 – 1720 of Hannah Sylvester, a Shelter Island heiress, who maintained her second husband’s affairs (Giles Sylvester 1657-1707)  while he was alive and later fought for her rightful share of her husband’s estate with the executor, William Nicoll (1657-1723), after Giles Sylvester’s death. Included in this correspondence is a receipt for the sale of a male slave originally bought from Benjamin Faneuil for twenty pounds sterling.

Hannah (Savage) Gilliam Sylvester (1643 – 1722) was married twice: first to Benjamin Gilliam in 1660, then to Giles Sylvester in 1685. She had one child, a daughter by Gilliam, Hannah M. (Gilliam) Phillips. See: “Vindication of New England,” presumed author Increase Mather, reprinted in “Andros Tracts,” Vol. II. Boston Births, Baptisms, Marriages and Deaths, 1630 – 1699, p. 15.

William Nicoll (1657-1723) was a royal patent holder to 50,000 acres   on the South Side of Long Island, with his home at “Islip Grange.” At the time of this correspondence, he was the Speaker of the General Assembly. By 1695, Giles Sylvester the eldest son of Nathaniel Sylvester, had inherited four-fifths of Shelter Island after three of his brothers died. He then sold one-quarter of Shelter Island to William Nicoll (in 1695?), with whom Giles Sylvester’s widow, Hannah Sylvester subsequently engaged in this correspondence.

(Note: Hannah Sylvester addressed her letters variously, to “Nichols,” “Nickols,” “Nickhols,”and “Nichol.” They were sent to William Nicoll, who signed his name as “WNicoll.”)

Hannah Sylvester, ALS, February 23, 1702/3, written to William Nichols [sic] in New York, 1 page, 32 cm,  ink on paper. Very damp-stained. Mrs. Sylvester is writing for payment of an overdue debt owed her husband, insisting graciously but firmly that Mr. Sylvester owes some 200 pounds and his creditors have grown impatient, so she is seeking payment from Mr. Nichols.[sic] Her husband was in Rhode Island at the time of writing.

Hannah Sylvester, ALS, April 14, 1707, written to William Nichols [sic], 1 page, 32 cm, ink on paper. Mrs. Sylvester acknowledges Mr. Nichol’s news of her husband’s death in his letter of February and about the settlement of his estate.  Mr. Nichols was the executor, but Mrs. Sylvester writes not much is left, as her husband was not a good manager. She demonstrates familiarity with legal procedure.

Hannah Sylvester, ALS, July 7, 1707, written to William Nichols [sic] 1 page, 31 cm, plus a note of the verso, ink on paper. In reply to his letter of May 31, with his kind promise of assistance. She plans to sell all her interest in the Island (Shelter). She says her husband concealed his circumstances from Nicoll out of shame not “lack of friendship.” “… excuse my prolixity writing I fear not legible and a trembling which of late has seized me…”. She answers his letter about her late husband’s habits and reduced circumstances. Her familiarity with legal procedure is evident.

[Hannah Sylvester] William Nicoll, ALS, March 6, 1709, written to Hannah Sylvester from New York, as the executor of her husband’s estate, 1 sheet, 2 pages, with marginal writing, fold separations, some text loss, very faint writing.

Hannah Sylvester, ALS, October 27, 1708, written to William Nicoll, severely damp-stained, 2 pages. She thanks him for his payment. Detailed discussion of her family legal history “… about seven or eight years since Mr. Sylvester [her late husband] took out letters of administration one what part of Mr. Middleton’s estate … and the judge of probate to sue Mr. Sylvester the bonds being for 200 giuan (guineas?) by my brother Capt. Ephraim Savage …”.

Hannah Sylvester, ALS, November 1, 1709, written to  William Nicoll, 1 page. A blunt letter begins: “Having long awaited for the performance of your promise to send me what is my due from Shelter Island but find a failure: I am forced to do as the — Judge. Consider Sir if eat [it] may long be the case of some of yr use our Saviour’s rule do to all as you would be done unto, you are a mortall and must dye how soon you know not, do — — [paper and text loss]  the widdow  are precept given by our Commander and ought to be practiced —, were not my necessities urgent, & would not give you (nor my self), this trouble but though as necessity has no law I find it ought to have hands and a tongue, so many scores of pounds — as you have from S I and not afford the widdow  of yr doner a Living is inhumane my title to it is as good as yours, though you may out with me the wise Judg of all the Earth not be blind, to him I appeal, I find you turn away yr ear from the laws of the widdow, please to excuse my freedom I had better eye my mind then that any evil potion remain favor me with an answer, I am, Sir, yr servant, Han. Sylvester.” A remarkable letter of an astute and determined colonial woman in early eighteenth century America, recently widowed  demanding her just due.

Hannah Sylvester, ALS, May 22, 1710, to William Nicoll, ½ page, with insect damage, paper loss and text loss. “though you have long stopt your ears against my complaint I hope you will at Last consider my neces[s]ity and send me my due of Mr Sylvester’s estate, I am in great ward of it, I have a daughter Coom or Cooming to York in the Constant man of war, her husband commanded one of the Queen’s vessels, but dyed before he had been long in that post, so know not how her circumstances — would — — — she is in a strange place Let cho— — — — to take care of her as such a — — wish always be grateful Sir if you have any friendship left for me Mr Sylvester let her not want any thing, my trembling hand forbids my inlargement, I only beg ye performance of many years promises to send me my due I am Sir your servant Han[nah] Sylvester may 22 1710.”

Hannah Sylvester, ALS, June 19, 1711, 1 page. Written to William Nicoll about her inheritance which she testily refers to: “… part you in mind of my interest which I fear is forgot and wo[u]ld not urge a thing which is your assertion, could I wish friendly to find out another way, so was due, as for what reports pas[s] of my having some estate of Mr. Sylvester’s in my hand his tal[l]ey I have written at long about it by Coll Rodney, and if can speak with this bearer shal[l] inform him all I know as to the hous[e]hold stuff all his father left was prised [priced] at but one hundred pounds which you may find by looking over his papers, and how it was discovered & have in my Last given yo[u] an acct, six years to consider my condition and send me what I have so long waited for, I have rec’d five years pd Mr. Sylvester’s and have ear Lang to find your hart so tender as to pitty the widdow, and send me a far greater — — — — — [paper loss] withdraw down a pleasing one yrslf and posterity, and wil[l] oblige Sir yr servant Han[nah] Sylvester June 19 1711”.

Hannah Sylvester, LS, June 15, 1715, written from Boston to William Nichol. 1 page, damp-stained, ink on paper; regarding her share of her late husband’s estate;  rent on land due, and money due from “a negro male, he was sold and delivered and a bill of sale given the third day of September 1697 … I have sent my oath yet I did not know him to Mr Benjamin Fannuel [sic] to be worth twenty Pound in this Colony …”.  With a draft signed by William Nicoll (1657-1723) dated 28 June 1715 “to pay Capt. Wm Owin the sum of twenty pounds in current New York money and his receipt shall be your discharge…”. This letter was written in someone else’s hand and signed by Hannah Sylvester. She remarked on “my trembling hand” in the letter dated May 22, 1710.

Hannah Sylvester, ALS, November 13, 1720, 1 1/3 pages on 1 sheet. Written to William Nichols on Long Island from Hannah Sylvester in Boston:  “Mr Nichol/ Boston Nobr ye 13

Sir I rec:d yours of ye fifth of September, I very much wonder if you should insist upon my giving you an acct of a Personal Estate I have in my hands of Mr. Sylvester’s, w[he]n I had some years sent an account under oath yt I did not know Mr. Sylvester to be worth Twenty Pound in ye Colony, when he died an oath was deposited in the hands of Mr Benj. Faneuil, is there some disaffected person who had made it their business to persuad you I brought away a great deal from The Island, as a great many Brass pans, used to cool their milk, in a ch I do protest, I niver saw or knew anything of ym yt as a Proviso yt I had been invested, with things of so much value as you do believe me to Be; I think my thirds of the income would come to a great deal more; you say you have niver Seen me since your Friends death is very true: but you must give me leave to remind you: of a letter back you wrote me some time since wherein you promist me yt so soon as the Island brought it in you would remit my Part. & if you pay my part // Part of the income to Cap Jno Braddock yearly. Pray dont faile for I am disappointed of almost Every other support you are sensible that Deed of Gift would Mr Brinley shew and you in— & a greater part of ye estate & yet I ever made, the Ste keept it from me after a Clandestine manner, so long as life would let him, I heartylie condole you on so great a misfortune; as losing the use of your hands so wishing you all — & begging you not be unmindfull of my condition I rest your servant Han[nah] Sylvester”.

Sold with: 

Nathaniel Sylvester II, Copy of Agreement Between Giles and Nathaniel Sylvester II, March 21, 1699. A hand-written, partial copy, probably made in the 18th Century. 1 sheet, 2 1/8 pages. In the handwriting of William Nicoll (1657-1723), executor of Nathaniel Sylvester’s estate. Likely a copy made for Hannah Sylvester (Giles Sylvester’s widow).

Text: “I copy some of this agreement as relating to inheritance & date respectively the first proprietors of Shelter Island – and of Agreement By these [?] notaries [?] Giles Sylvester of Shelter Island in the province of N. Y. “an American gentlem[an] & Nath’el Sylvester of the said Is[land] & province Gent’man on the other part witnesseth

(1st) Whereas Constant Sylvester of S.I. above mentioned did by his last will & testament give unto Brinley Sylvester Son of Nathl on half of his land on said Shelter I[sland] bequeathed unto him said Constant by his Honored [?] father deceased by the said Will of Constant Syl[ves]t[er] relation there unto being had may appear the said Giles S[ylvester] shall give unto the said Nath[anie]l Sylvester a full release (for the use of this) Brinley Sylvester of all his s[ai]d right title and interest in & unto the same or such part of the S. I. as shall be given in exchange for the same as shall be hereafter agree’d upon btw’n sd Giles & Nathl his brother — The half of said land given by the above s[aid] Constant Sylvester’s son Brinley Syl[veste]r shall be accounted five hundred acres.

2) Whereas by the last will and testament of Cap[tai]n Nath[anie]l Sylvester above said one fourth part given in s[ai]d will unto Benj[ami]n Sylvester is by decease of said Benj[ami]n deceased unto said Nathan[ie]l Sylvester the said Giles Sylvester shall release all his titles and interest in and unto said the same of such a  Part of said Island shall be given in exchange, for the same, as shall be agreed upon betwn said Giles & Nathan[ie]l Sylvester that part of Benj[ami]n Sylvesters lands — Nath[aniel] B Syl[vester] shall be accounted five hundred and fifty acres

3) Whereas the giving of one half of Constant Sylvester his land with said Brinley Syl[vester] will occasion such damage to the whole fewer by the division thereof its accorded and agreed by —- said Giles Sy[lvester] by Nath[anie]l Syl[vester], that Giles shall have the said farm with the lands and appurtenances that was Constant Syl[vester’s] to himself & to his heirs forever & in lie thereof be the said Giles shall give unto the said Brinley Syl[veste]r as much land with like quality on any other part of S[helter] I[sland] as shall be agreed upon between said Giles and Nath[anie]l and his Brother

4) That Giles S[ylvester] shall in consideration of his love and affection of his Bro[ther] Nath[anie]l give unto him, said Nath[anie]l his heirs forever five hundred and fifty acres of land upon said I[sland] in such place as shall be hereafter agreed upon betw[ee]n them

5) That Whereas the last Will & Testament of Capt Nath[anie]l Syl[vester] may seem to admit of ambiguous interpretation as though the lands by him bequeathed were intailed as also as one half of ye said I[slan]d is in the possessing of the said Giles and become his estate in deed as well as by his being heir unto the same as by a release to him the said Giles Syl[vester] from his Uncle Joshua Sylvester to whom it was given for his life-time by the last will and testament of his Brother Constant Sylvester formerly of the Islands of Barbados, the said N[athanie]l Sylvester shall for himself and his heirs fully release unto said Giles and his heirs forever at the above said half part of Shelter I[sland] and all other lands on said I[sland] whatsoever together with all his right title and interest claimed and  demands incurred unto the same only — out of the same his the said Nath[aniel] Sylvester’s (Constant’s) tenth part of the said Island that was bequeathed to him by the last Will & Testament of Syl[vester] honored father of Capt Nat[haniel] Sylvester and also the lands in the present articles above mentioned and agreed upon by the said Giles Sylvester to the and as remain to him the said Nat[haniel] Sylvester & Brinley Sylvester their heirs and assigns forever

6) [Not completed. This is where this copy ends.]


Additional information


Hannah (Savage) Gilliam Sylvester (1643 – 1722)


Ten Letters 1702 – 1720 by Hannah Sylvester a Shelter Island Heiress