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Gardiners Island - Ruled By A Family Of Lions

Originally Posted: September 26, 2006

Mary Cummings

It is no stretch to claim that the story of eastern Long Island's hamlets and villages reflects our national history in all of its phases - from the first encounters between Native Americans and European settlers in the 17th century right up to the present. In this series, each installment will be devoted to one East End community, to the people and institutions that contributed to its development over the past 300-odd years, and to the role each has played in creating this unique region known today as the Hamptons. To launch our series, we train our spotlight on Lion Gardiner (1599-1663), New York State's first permanent English settler [Barons] on Gardiners Island, that 3,700-acre finger of land off the coast of East Hampton, that he acquired in 1639 and which has remained in the hands of Gardiner descendants ever since.

"Imagination loves to trace (mine does, anyway) the settlement and patriarchal happiness of this fine old English gentleman on his island - there all by himself, with his large farmhouse, 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." Walt Whitman, after sailing around Gardiners Island

Had Walt Whitman ever actually met Lion Gardiner, the "fine old English gentleman" he imagined in such perfect harmony with his idyllic island surroundings, he might have offered a less gentle appraisal of a man more often described as an ambitious adventurer, as shrewd as he was strong at a towering six-foot-two, a man canny and confident enough to take a chance on the New World rather than live quietly in the old one. The rest - the wife, the servants, the animals - conforms more closely to what we know of this original and archetypal pioneer who arrived in 1639 on the island the Indians had called Manchonake. The name, roughly translated as "place where many have died," apparently refers to a deadly epidemic that once struck the island. On early English maps it is called the Isle of Wight and much later, when Gardiner descendants were locked in a bitter and seemingly endless feud over ownership, someone dubbed it "the sandbar of sorrow." But the name that has stuck is Gardiners Island.

Lion Gardiner was 40-years-old in 1639 and his exploits were already legion. As a young man he had served as a military engineer in an English regiment posted to the Netherlands where he saw combat in the region's war of national liberation from the Spanish empire. While there, he also found time to court and marry Mary Duercant of Woerden, daughter of an upper-class Dutch magistrate. In 1635 he returned to England with Mary, but not for long. Hired by two English aristocrats who championed the Puritan cause and who had received a grant of land in Connecticut, he left England with Mary that July - off to build a palisaded fort at the settlement the men envisioned at the mouth of the Connecticut River, where the intractable Pequot Indians posed a constant threat to newcomers.

The assumption that Gardiner sympathized with his rebel employers is a natural one. It was bolstered when his descendant, Curtiss C. Gardiner, writing at the end of the 19th century, asserted that his famous ancestor "adhered to the Parliamentary party, and was a Dissenter and a friend of the Puritans." On the other hand, historian Roger Wunderlich has speculated that it could easily have been "the hundred pounds a year it paid, and the chance to begin married life as the leader of a bold and prestigious venture" that prompted Gardiner to hire himself out to such attractive bidders.

As far as it is known, the 100 pounds were forthcoming but there was precious little prestige attached to the task. Instead of the crew of several hundred men he had been promised, Gardiner found barely a dozen workers and their families awaiting him at the site. The beleaguered band spent a bitter winter of hardship and anxiety, but the protective fort was somehow completed just in time for a series of attacks in 1637, part of the bloody Pequot Wars. The fort held fast and in 1637 the Pequots were defeated by a large force of colonists and Indian allies.

Lion Gardiner later wrote his own account of the conflict (in which he took a Pequot arrow in the thigh). In this autobiographical narrative, "Pequot Warres," he both laments the excessive carnage and praises the outcome of the battle. "Victory to the glory of God, and honor of our nation," he wrote, "having slain three hundred, burnt their fort, and taken many prisoners." All well and good, but he also was determined "that all men and posterity might know how and why so many honest men had their blood shed, yea, and some flayed alive, others cut in pieces and some roasted alive, only because a Bay Indian killed on Pequit."

So this is the man, the founding settler of eastern Long Island, a warrior capable of battlefield bravery yet also ready to acknowledge his enemy's humanity. A self-promoter, no doubt, and not above exploiting his friends, as it turned out, but a man who did not share the prevalent European view that Native Americans were primitive simpletons or savages.

The tomb of Lion Gardiner.

The Pequots' defeat led to Lion Gardiner's meeting with Wyandanch, the leader of the Montaukett Indians. Wyandanch apparently saw an advantage in making an alliance with the winners, who could provide protection from his enemies (not excluding white men less sympathetic than Gardiner). For his part, Gardiner, as eager as any colonist to acquire real estate, would not have failed to sniff opportunity. Thus, when Wyandanch visited the Connecticut fort three days after the decisive battle that defeated the Pequots, the outcome was not just a trade agreement between the powerful Englishman and the East End native people, but a pact of friendship and mutual respect. So tight was the bond between the two that when Wyandanch's daughter was kidnapped by a rival tribe on her wedding day, Gardiner is said to have put up some of his own money for her ransom.

In 1639, the Native Americans repaid Gardiner for his honorable dealings with them by offering to let him purchase Manchonake - not in exchange for a dog, a gun, rum, blankets and some powder and shot, as was widely reported, but rather, according to Curtiss G. Gardiner, for "ten coates of trading cloath" a pittance either way. Ten months later, in consideration of five pounds a year, Gardiner obtained a confirming grant from the agent of the Earl of Stirling, then the king's grantee for Long island and its adjacent islands.

A sliver of paradise then, as it is now, a place of rich soil, tall trees, abundant wildlife and fish-filled brooks, streams and ponds, it lacked nothing necessary for the good life, which the Gardiner family enjoyed in feudal splendor. Indeed, in his book, "Imagining the Past," historian T.H. Breen suggests that Gardiner was living out a feudal fantasy on his island, surrounded by "his servants, slaves, and tenants, dependents of three races working together in an isolated society that looked very little like the textbook Puritan villages of New England."

After the settlement of East Hampton on the mainland in 1648, Gardiner bought property there and built a house but the move did nothing to loosen his grip on the family's island plantation, which has been passed down from generation to generation, never owned outside the family, though often in the cross-hairs of the envious.

Lion Gardiner died in 1663 in East Hampton, where he is buried under an ornate Gothic tomb designed some 200 years later by James Renwick, the architect of Saint Patrick's Cathedral and Grace Church. While his gamble on the New World had been a stunning success, Lion Gardiner's happiness had been marred by the death of his daughter Elizabeth (whose birth in 1641 made her the first child of English parents in what is now New York State) and the profligacy of his son David, whom he dispossessed for fear that he would ruin the island as he had already squandered his own fortune. Two years later, however, Mary died and bequeathed the island to David, ignoring her late husband's warnings.

Julia Gardiner Tyler

David appears rather colorless in contrast to his son, John, who took four wives, fathered innumerable illegitimate children, and boasted the same red beard and natural affinity for the Montauks that his grandfather had displayed (he, too, learned their language). He is perhaps best known in local lore, however, for his encounter with the legendary pirate Captain Kidd, who began his seafaring career respectably enough but fell afoul of powerful interests and was eventually hanged as a pirate - but not before burying a part of his treasure, with John's complicity, on Gardiners Island. When John was summoned to Boston by the authorities and told to deliver Kidd's treasure, he complied, but perhaps not wholeheartedly. A good portion of the booty remains unaccounted for.

The island continued to be passed down through the generations. The designation, "Lordship and Manor of Gardiners Island" that had been bestowed by Governor Dongan in 1686 apparently did not carry the grandiose connotations with which it was enriched later on, according to Richard Barons of the East Hampton Historical Society, who writes in a recent essay, "The Gardiners: Myth and History," that it was only in the latter part of the 19th century that the Gardiner family "started to stress their imagined 'Lordly' blue blood." He notes that Gardiner gravestones throughout New England were enhanced or replaced at the time to reflect a medieval theme, the prime example being Lion Gardiner's High Gothic monument, which dates from that era.

Two children born on the island to David Gardiner, a cousin who was given a lease on the island in 1816, figured significantly in the fortunes of the family and its island domain. One (David) married an heiress who gave birth to a daughter, Sarah Diodati Gardiner, who would later use her maternal inheritance to save the island from bankruptcy. The other (Julia) married President John Tyler and took Washington by storm with her beauty and social pizazz.

Sarah Diodati Gardiner

In the absence of interested Gardiners, the island was leased again after 1910 to Clarence Mackay, the wealthy head of a now-defunct competitor to Western Union. Though he seldom used the island himself, he was generous with his friends who used it as a shooting preserve. In their East Hampton guide and history, Jason Epstein and Elizabeth Barlow note that the property was overseen by the author Isak Dinesen's dashing husband, Baron Blixen, who was joined on the island by a succession of mistresses and a Turkish butler. They add that by 1937, the island had fallen into receivership and was rescued by Sarah Diodati Gardiner. She purchased it from Winthrop Gardiner who had inherited the island in 1936. Once married to Sonja Henie, the ice skating star, Winthrop died in 1980, by which time he had begun divorce proceedings from his sixth wife.

The most recent chapter in the island's history has been more like a nine-act opera with Robert David Lion Gardiner, the last heir to bear the name of the family, as its extravagant star. When their aunt, Sara Diodati Gardiner, died in 1953, he and his sister, Alexandra Gardiner Creel, inherited the island. Under the terms of the trust, both siblings were to enjoy lifetime use of the island and the right to pass it on to their heirs - a formula fraught with potential for friction as it turned out, particularly since the childless Robert David Lion Gardiner had no heirs. Perhaps inevitably, quarrels erupted between the two family factions. For years, their battles over ownership of the island were waged in the press and in the courts, with both sides contending that their only concern was the island's preservation.

In one corner was Robert David Lion Gardiner, who invariably referred to himself as "the 16th Lord of the Manor." An undisputed and indefatigable expert on Gardiner ancestral lore, he could hold forth on his "noble" ancestry for hours at a time and rarely passed up an occasion to do so. In the other corner was Ms. Creel, her daughter, Alexandra Gardiner Creel Goelet, and her daughter's husband, Robert Goelet, who battled under the green environmentalists' banner. (Goelet, an avid bird-watcher, earned a graduate degree from the Yale School of Forestry).

The war escalated when Robert Goelet began paying the rising costs to maintain the island and Gardiner refused to pay his half, claiming that he wanted to force the island into receivership by New York State, thus assuring its preservation. His relatives took him to court, which led in 1980 to his being barred from visiting the island, a ruling that Gardiner appealed. When Creel died in 1990, Goelet became the joint owner of the island and the feuding continued. In 1992, the court ruled on Gardiner's appeal, stating that as an heir he could not be denied the use of the island, after which he began visiting it regularly again, though never when the Goelets were in residence.

On August 23, 2004, Robert David Lion Gardiner died at his home in East Hampton at the age of 93. His obituary in The New York Times notes that though the 16th Lord of the Manor had hoped to be buried on the island in a tomb like his grandfather's, his final resting place was to be in East Hampton near the graves of his parents. As for the island, as the sole owner, Alexandra Gardiner Creel Goelet is now free to carry out her preservationist agenda, which means that Gardiners Island will probably continue to look much as it did on that day when Walt Whitman sailed by.

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