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Gardiners Island: A Nearly 400 Year Family History Of Pirates, Treasure And Triumph

Originally Posted: February 17, 2011

Nicole A. Flotteron

  |   36 Comments · Print Article

An aerial view of Gardiners Island in 2007. (dsearls via Flickr.com)

Gardiner's Island - Approximately five square miles in size, Gardiner's Island, a part of the town of East Hampton, has a rich, tumultuous history that spans nearly 400 years of ownership by the same family. It is the only real estate intact in the United States that is part of an original royal grant from the English Crown. The Island has survived Indian wars, pirates, invasion by British forces, war, and family issues. It is home to more than 1,000 acres of old growth forest, the largest stand of white oak trees in the Northeast, 1,000 acres of meadows, rare birds, Indian artifacts, and structures that date back to the 17th century.

A portrait of Captain William Kidd who buried his treasure on Gardiners Island. (Howard Pyle)

Robert David Lion Gardiner, the last heir to bear the name Gardiner, said of his founding ancestors survey of the Island, "When he walked over it he found it had magnificent forests, saltwater ponds and fresh streams that he could dam and use for his lifestock." The island was settled in 1639 by a man named Lion Gardiner after he retained a grant from King Charles I of England.

Gardiner purchased the island from the Montaukett Indians after his support of the tribe during the Pequot War, in exchange for a large black dog, a few Dutch blankets, and some powder and shot. Originally called the 'Isle of Wight' after the Isle of Wight in England, the royal patent issued to Gardiner gave him the "right to possess the land forever," as well as the title "Lord of the Manor."

In 1641, Gardiner's wife gave birth to a daughter named Elizabeth, who was the first English child born in New York, and would be responsible for initiating the first witch hunt and witch trial in the American colony. In February 1657, 15-year-old Elizabeth lay deliriously ill in East Hampton. She screamed out from her deathbed, "A witch! A witch! Now you are come to torture me because I spoke two or three words against you!" Lion rushed to his daughter's side and asked her what she saw, to which she replied, "A black thing at the bed's feet." Moments later, she died, spawning a witch hunt which would lead to the arrest of 50-year-old Goody Garlick whose husband worked on Gardiner's Island as a farmer. Lion himself passed away in 1663 at the age of 64. He is buried at the Old South Cemetery in East Hampton.

First Lady Julia Gardiner. (Brittanica.com)

In June 1699, Gardiner's Island received a legendary visitor, Captain William Kidd, privateer and pirate. He sailed his ship Adventure Prize into one of the harbors on the Island on his way to Boston where he would attempt to clear his name. With Lion Gardiner's grandson Jonathan's permission, he buried $30,000 worth of treasure in a ravine between Bostwick's Point and the Manor House. Kidd gave Mrs. Gardiner a piece of gold cloth (it can be found on display at the East Hampton Library) which he captured from a Moorish ship off of Madagascar, as well as a bag of sugar - a rarity at the time. He warned the Gardiner's that if the treasure was not there when he returned he would kill them, and he headed off to Boston.

While in Boston, Kidd was captured, put on trial and later executed. Governor of New York and Massachusetts, Richard Earl of Bellomont ordered the Gardiners to deliver the treasure to the court as evidence. The treasure included gold dust, silver bars, gold Spanish coins, rubies, diamonds, candlesticks and porringers. One diamond remained in Gardiner's hands. Some argue that he took it; others argue that it was accidently left in his travel bag. The diamond was given to his daughter Elizabeth who married the Island chaplain, Mr. Green.

Gardiner's Island played a significant role in many great American wars. During the American Revolution, the Gardiner's sided with the colonists. Thirteen ships sailed into Cherry Harbor and foraged the Island and the Manor House. Guests at the Manor during the time included Henry Clinton and John Andre, who would at one point exchange toasts with Gardiner's son Nathaniel, a surgeon in the New Hampshire Continental Infantry. Later in the war, Nathaniel would attend to Andre after he was caught spying with Benedict Arnold and executed.

Robert David Lion Gardiner with his wife Eunice. (historicallyvintage.com)

During the War of 1812, seven British ships and small frigates anchored in Cherry Harbor where they proceeded to conduct raids on American shipping. Crews would go ashore on the island for provisions, and several British military personnel who were killed were buried on the island.

On May 4, 1820, Julia Gardiner was born on the Island. Her mother, Juliana McLachlan, was an heiress to a large fortune, and as a result, Julia grew up in a world of opulence. In 1842, she was introduced to President John Tyler at a White House reception. Julia and the President, 30 years her senior, began a relationship after the death of Tyler's first wife. Julia, her sister, and her father, David Gardiner joined the President on the steam frigate, Princeton, where David would lose his life in an explosion.

After the tragic death of her father, Julia agreed to marry Tyler in a small, private ceremony in New York in June 1844. She only served as First Lady for eight months, but during that time she threw many lavish parties and dressed in flamboyant, trendy fashions. She retired with Tyler at their estate, Sherwood Forest in Virginia. During the Civil War however, Julia openly defended slavery, and was forced to return to an anti-slavery New York after her home in Virginia was seized by Union soldiers. She died in Richmond, Virginia on July 10, 1889 at the age of 69.

In the late 19th century, famed Long Island poet Walt Whitman wrote of Gardiners Island, "Imagination loves to trace (mine does, any how,) the settlement and patriarchal happiness of this fine old English gentleman on his island there all by himself, with his large farm-house, his servants and family, his crops on a great scale, his sheep, horses, and cows. His wife was a Dutch woman - for thus it is written by his own hand in the old family Bible, which the Gardiners yet possess."

The original Manor House on the island was built by David Gardiner in 1774, however in 1947, the house, along with its contents were burned in a fire after a guest fell asleep while smoking. The current Manor House, a 28 room Georgian estate, was built in 1947 by Sarah Diodati Gardiner. Diodati died at the age of 90 and left the Island to her nephew Robert David Lion Gardiner, and his sister Alexandra Gardiner Creel. Robert served as the 16th Lord of the Manor until his death in August 2004. He had no heir. The island is run today by Creel's daughter Alexandra Goelet, the last remaining heir in the Gardiners family.

The Gardiners Island Manor House built in 1947. (rootsweb.ancestry.com)






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Guest (Gerard Lambert) from long island says::
had the privelidge of working on the manor house on a few occasions.most times spending a few days at a time.From the boat ride over from east hampton you could start to feel the history of the island.i was given a tour of the island by the caretaker & also given a choice of a vehicle to do are own exploring or to take a swim after working all day.waking up to the sound of wild turkeys outside the window is pretty cool.i hope it stays this pristine forever
Mar 28, 2014 12:08 pm

Guest (Jim LaColla) from Newburgh,NY says::
I spent some time on the island in the mid fifties when I was quite young. I have some vivid memories, but I'm afraid most come from photos and home movies. My mother's uncle ( Ed Keto) lived on the island and was a caretaker/gamekeeper of sorts. I also remember another man named Gus working there. It was paradise and we speak of it fondly and often wishing we could go back.
Feb 27, 2014 2:17 pm

Guest (Jerry Dierman) from Manchester Connecticut says::
Great article. I have often fished just off the beach and cliffs of the Island. Great fishing except when the seals come around. If the fish don't bite it is a lovely place to just sit and enjoy the island. Thanks...
Oct 22, 2013 9:58 am

Guest (Leslie) from Colorado Springs says::
Great article - my grandfather was John Houston Gardiner, a descendent of Lion Gardiner and his son who married a native American. We researched the family histories about 15 years ago - and then I understood why my Mom wasn't a DAR!
Mar 29, 2013 9:13 pm

Guest (Leslie) from Colorado Springs says::
Great article - we researched our family 15 years ago for my daughter's school project and we too are descendants. No wonder my Mom wasn't a DAR
Mar 29, 2013 9:05 pm

Guest (Dorothy Golden) from Great Falls, VA. says::
Wonderful article. I just found that I am a descendant of Lion Gardiner, the original settler , thru his daughter , Mary. It is fascinating to read about the island. Is there any way to visit it?
Feb 10, 2013 5:07 pm

Guest (Kat GARDNER - Brown) from Amelia Island , Fla. USA says::
When I was living on Long Island some 12 yrs. Back I called Mr. Robert Gardiner. He was delightful to converse with. I was invited to go to the island but sorry to say. I never made it. I did however get a chance to fish near the island. I felt a very very cold feeling as I looked at it. Like it was sad the family that lived there for so long was gone. I also have the Indian and Scottish line as well.Mine when came to America Changed the spelling half spelled it Gardiner and the other Gardner.
Feb 4, 2013 9:18 pm

Guest (L) from IL says::
I had no idea until recently that I am a direct descendant of the Gardiner family!
Jan 14, 2013 11:13 am

Guest (Alan Vail) from Cape Vincent, NY says::
Oops. My earlier submission needs correcting. I am a direct descendent of Jeremiah Vail.
Oct 28, 2012 3:52 pm

Guest (Alan Vail) from Cape Vincent, NY says::
My descendent, Jeremiah Vail(sometime spelled Veale)moved from Salem, Mass to Gardiner Island as a blacksmith to help manage the farm. From 1653 to 1655 he then became superintendent of the farm when he was ordered by the Town of Easthampton to inhabit a lot adjoining to Joshua Garlick until 1659. He then moved to Southold, NY.
Oct 28, 2012 2:34 pm

Guest (Alan Vail) from Cape Vincent, NY says::
My descendent, Jeremiah Vail(sometime spelled Veale)from Salem, Mass to Gardiner Island as a blacksmith to help manage the farm. From 1653 to 1655 he then became superintendent of the farm when he was ordered by the Town of Easthampton to inhabit a lot adjoining to Joshua Garlick until 1659. He then moved to Southold, NY.
Oct 28, 2012 2:33 pm

Guest (John Gardner) from Genoa IL. says::
I've researched and found myself to be a 14 generation descendant of Lion Gardiner,first Lord of Gardiners Island.Thomas Gardner [1565- 1635], son of George Gardiner [1535-1589] changed the spelling which remains to this day.
Oct 25, 2012 3:40 pm

Guest (Carol J. Gariner) from Westbury, NY says::
I enjoyed reading about Gardiner's island and the Gardiner family. I am a Gardiner due to my grandfather being one of the Native American tenants on the island. When he entered the Civil War he chose the name of the island as his last name! I would love to visit and see where he lived as a child. Who can I contact to make my dream come true?
Oct 9, 2012 12:06 am

Guest (Johnny Rock) from Hampton Bays says::
Looks like another beautiful and enchanting place which holds a lot of history and wonderful scenery wasted on selfish rich people who keep it all to themselves. Typical Long Island.
Sep 15, 2012 8:05 am

Guest (Chrys) from PA says::
Elizabeth was the first ENGLISH child born in New York. I'm also a descendant of Lion Gardiner through his son, David.
Aug 26, 2012 10:53 pm

Guest (Bennett) from NY, NY says::
I seem to remember vaguely that back around 1967 or 1968 ther was an ad or announcement in the NY Times that ther would be a tour / picnic one the island that one could sign up for. I waso interested but busy that weekend and never followed up on it. What a mistake.
Aug 10, 2012 10:21 pm

Guest (Phillip Gardiner) from Uk says::
Am visiting the Hamptons tomorrow,how do I discover if there is any family link?
Jul 19, 2012 7:47 pm

Guest (Anaru Ruka) from New Zealand says::
i am a decendant of the Gardiner blood line through my great, great grandfather Frederick Gardiner whos father came from scotland and settled in New Zealand. i'm searching for my links and its interesting what you find. its good to hear that the gardiner family did well and have their own island. i hope i get to visit it one day because i am sure we are related. if not then God bless you all and i hope the island stays in the gardiner name.
Jul 6, 2012 9:20 pm

Guest (Charles Talmadge) from NY says::
Great Article. I enjoyed reading this as I also have roots in the Hamptons. Charlie.Talmadge@gmail.com
Jul 6, 2012 12:22 am

Guest (Tim Shepard) from Noank conn says::
What is the history of tobacco lot bay? Was tobacco grown there, and if so, what part did it play in the finances of the family?
May 28, 2012 8:19 pm

Guest (Denise) from Montana says::
Julia Gardiner was my 10th great grandmother. The family is prolific. One line dies out and others are " found".
May 15, 2012 11:27 pm

Guest (Shane Gardiner) from North Carolina says::
I am a direct descendent of the Gardiner bloodline. I'm also one of the Sons of the Cincinnati. I knew I came from French royalty but never about all of this! I'm currently a Marine, serving with pride like those before me. May have to take some leave to visit the island!
May 2, 2012 12:51 am

Guest (David) from Las Vegas says::
Lion Gardiner was my 9th great grandfather. I know he has other living descendants as well. The Gardiner line continues intact.
Apr 6, 2012 6:23 am

Guest (merle dietrich) from minneapolis says::
I've heard that my 11th great grandfather William Backus, a founder of Norwich CT was married to Sarah Gardiner Lyon Gardiner's sister. Their daughter Lydia Backus was my 10th great grandmother.
Mar 22, 2012 1:52 pm

Guest (David) from Alabama says::
As a Gardiner descendant, always read the history of the island with fascination. Robert always shared more information than one could every digest in a single conversation. Someday I'd love to visit with my family.
Dec 13, 2011 3:20 pm

Guest (Peter K. Connolly) from New Haven MO says::
Do you know how the Hurricane of 1938 affected Gardiner's Island? Was the Manor House damaged? Any lives lost etc.? Thank you.
Dec 8, 2011 12:10 pm

Guest (Tom) from Savannah, Ga. says::
I aiso grew up on Long Island and Gardiner's Island was alway's a curiosity with pirate tresure and all. This was great reading,do you know what happened to the diamond? And do you know if Julia's fortune ever made it's way back to Gardiner's Island?
Nov 10, 2011 9:13 am

Guest (Robert Winston Gardiner) from Rhyl, N. Wales UK says::
Fascinating story thanks for sharing it with us. I can only dream. Cheers from sunny Rhyl
Nov 3, 2011 10:30 am

Guest (Katia) from Freeport, NY says::
I FIND THIS FASCINATING. JUST TO KNOW THAT THIS ISLAND EXISTS SO NEAR, WITH SO MUCH HISTORY. I'VE DREAMT ABOUT THE ROCKY COAST LINE, BRINGING THOUGHTS OF THE BRITISH COAST OF CORNWALL... HOPEFULLY SOMEDAY MY HUSBAND AND I MIGHT JUST BE ABLE TO PAY A VISIT.
Oct 6, 2011 2:01 am

Guest (ROBERT) from STUART, FLORIDA says::
MY GREAT GRANDMOTHER WAS BORN A GARDINER, WE HAVE PICTURES OF HER AS A SMALL CHILD ON THE PRORCH OF THE ORIGINAL HOUSE. SHE MARRIED MY GREAT GRANDFATHER, SAM HILLYARD. THEY HAD MY GRAND MOTHER, NORMA. SHE MARRIED MY GRANDFATHER, TED WALTZ. I GUESS THAT MAKES ME TWICE REMOVED. NEAT TO KNOW THE HISTORY FROM THE INSIDE. MY UNCLE AND COUSIN HAVE GARNINER AS THEIR MIDDLE NAMES..
Sep 22, 2011 12:39 pm

Guest (gary) from hendersonville tn says::
i just wanted to write you and tell you that i did some research and i am a descendant of the gatrdiners my last name is gardiner and my fsthers family is from conn
Jun 4, 2011 6:10 pm

Guest (Charles) from Florida says::
I loved your article on Gardeners Island. I grew up in East Hampton in Barns Landing on cliffs edge, as a young boy my friends and I used to take our small outboard boat over to Gardeners Island, fished in cherry harbor, climbed the cement walls on the old Spanish fort. Although we often herd that the caretaker of the island would shoot us with rock salt if caught our sense of adventure, curiosity and youth propelled us to explore the Island. It is one of my fondest memories as a boy growing up on Gardeners Bay. We fantasized about finding the buried treasured as mentioned in your article. The wildlife was abundant; the landscape breathtaking, I have been to a lot of places in my life, but I donít think there is a more beautiful place on earth. I hope that it is always preserved just how it is today and has been for hundreds of years. Thanks again for the article and the trip down memory lane.
Feb 25, 2011 3:11 pm


Nicole A. ...

Nicole A. Flotteron says::
Melinda- Thanks for your kind words. The island is private and family run, not a visitors or resort area. It has remained mostly unchanged for more than 350 years. It costs about $2 million a year in upkeep to maintain the island so from what I understand Alexandra is responsible for that maintenance and upkeep. I hope this answers your question.
Feb 20, 2011 1:21 pm

Guest (Mel) from Keller, TX says::
Nichole, You mentioned that the island is run today by Creels daughter, Alexandra. Excuse my ignorance, but, how do you "run" an island? Is it a visitors resort area? Thanks. And, I love reading the history of the east end, having never traveled to that area of the country. Wishing you spring, Melinda P., Keller, TX
Feb 19, 2011 1:24 pm


Nicole A. ...

Nicole A. Flotteron says::
My apologies Bill, she was the first English child born in New York.
Feb 17, 2011 3:51 pm

Guest (Bill) from North Haven says::
I'm afraid that Elizabeth's birth in 1641 was not the first in New York. Even discounting the thousands of Native Americans that were born before this area was colonized by Europeans she was not the first. That honor goes to Sarah Rapelje, born June 6, 1625 in New Amsterdam.
Feb 17, 2011 2:07 pm

 

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