top of page
  • Writer's pictureTVHS

Silas Brewster, African American Farm Hand

By Beverly Tyler

Walter Smith’s “Help’s Book”

A small leather-bound journal, kept by a Setauket farmer reveals details in the life of an African American laborer. Silas Brewster worked for Walter Smith, an Old Field farmer and merchant, who kept a daily record of Silas’ work. According to census records Silas lived next to Smith, in a house on Smith’s property. Before the discovery of the journal and its purchase at auction by the Three Village Historical Society we knew very little about a man named Silas Brewster - but which Silas Brewster?

My interest in the journal first came from my research into the lives of the shipyard workers along Shore Road in East Setauket. In the 1860 census Silas Brewster is listed as a boatman, but where exactly he lived, what he did and the details of his life were missing. Discovering a journal that gave information about his life would help me tell the story of one Setauket African American seaman. Unfortunately this was not the right Silas Brewster. In fact I cannot even establish a relationship between Silas Brewster, boatman and Silas Brewster, laborer.

NYS 1865 Census - Alphabetical

Research into seven decennial censuses, gravestones and burial records, historic newspapers, maps, genealogical and archival records have helped identify which Silas Brewster was which; there were three in the Setauket area. Silas Brewster, boatman, lived in the Dyer’s Neck shipbuilding area of East Setauket. He was born between 1823 and 1825 and about 1850 he married Laura, last name unknown, who was born in 1828 or 1829. Between 1856 and 1858, Silas and Laura had a son Cyrus who, in 1870, age 12, was working and living in the Miller Place household of Erastus Brown. Cyrus disappears from known records by 1880. This Silas Brewster, listed as a seaman in 1870 and a laborer in 1880 at the age of 51, died on 22 December 1897 and is buried in the Laurel Hill Cemetery in Setauket.

1896 Hyde & Co. map-Old Field

Silas Brewster, the African American laborer of the leather-bound journal, who worked for Walter Smith, was born between 1806 and 1810. By the time of the journal, which covered the period from January 1865 to October 1869, Silas had a wife Phebe whose maiden name was probably Tobias. The couple had one child and possibly two. Silas Junior, born about 1842 and Aner born between 1857 and 1859. The family lived in a cottage on Smith’s land, along the shore of Conscience Bay as a structure on the 1896 Hyde & Company map labeled “W. Smith Est.” was probably, according to Smith’s descendants, the same cottage that exists there today.

By 1860 Silas Jr. was living and working in the household of Charles Conklin and the census lists seven people living in Silas Brewster’s home. Silas 45, his wife Phebe, 45, another Phebe 24, Charles 31, Aner 5, Frances 3, and William T. 3/12. In 1865, the first year of the journal, the New York State Census lists only Silas 59 , Phebe 50, and Aner 8.

Aside from the error in Silas’ age, was Aner their child or the child of Charles Brewster? Were the other two also children of Charles and the other Phebe? Was Charles Silas’ brother? Since Charles and his family don’t appear in any other local census records from 1850 through 1900 why is Aner listed with Silas and Phebe in 1865 and also mentioned in the journal a number of times?

The journal, labeled “Help’s Book” details Silas’ work and pay, listed as credit, on the left side and what he owes to Smith, his debit, on the right side of each page. Every day is accounted for including Sundays when Silas is most often listed as “home all day” or “no work.” Silas’ day included a wide variety of farming activities including plowing, mowing, splitting wood, planting as well as seasonal activities such as killing, salting and cutting up hogs. It appears that Silas also did considerable work carting items to and from the farm and transporting Smith’s family, friends and neighbors to and from the Stony Brook railroad station, out to the Old Field lighthouse, to weddings and funerals, as well as on sleigh rides. Silas was paid (credited) with 25, 50 or 75 cents a day, most days. On the debit side, entries show that Silas bought all kinds of items from Smith’s general store and paid house rent of $25 every May 15th.. Debit entries also including Aner’s school bill, clothing and shoes, a Christmas shawl for Phebe and a bill from Dr. Bates.

The journal notes on June 23, 1869 that Aner was sent to Riverhead, the county seat, for “stealing Brows watch.” On July 12, Smith gave Silas $7 cash to go to Riverhead. We don’t know the outcome for Silas and Aner but court records in Riverhead may tell us more of the story. We do know that Aner is not listed in the 1870 Federal census and that she died 5 May 1873 according to Setauket Presbyterian Church records as unmarried, but mother of two.

Some of the most interesting journal entries are for deaths in the community, both white and African American. In most cases, the entries include the last name for white folk but only the first name for black folk making it more difficult to identify many of the African Americans listed. The entry for Monday, 25 October 1869, for example, says simply, “old Sam died.” On 18 September 1868, “S.A. [Shepard Alonzo] Mount died” and 19 November 1868, only two months later, “W.S. [William Sidney] Mount died. There is no entry for a funeral for Shepard Mount but there are many for transporting Smith family members to funerals. It appears that Silas was trusted with transporting Smith family and friends despite a number of entries where Silas is noted as “got drunk” or “tight.”

There is a great deal more research that can be done to bring more of the story of the Help’s Book to light. We need to learn more about Silas Brewster and his family, more about Walter Smith and his family, about his general store and his business running a stagecoach carrying passengers from the Setauket Railroad Station to Old Field. Acquiring this wonderful journal was just the first step. So far there is very little here that tells us about their lives; these men and women are still shadows, still one-dimensional beings who should have more interesting stories to tell.

1865 New York State Census page featuring Walter Smith family and Silas Brewster Family in Old Field (top right)

326 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page