To The Manor Born

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Robert David Lion Gardiner is a large landowner on Long Island, a successful developer and an impassioned preservationist. What makes Mr. Gardiner exceptional is that he also represents the eleventh generation of a family which has continuously owned the same land since 1639, making the Gardiners the oldest nonaboriginal landowners in America as well as the first American family to found a still-flourishing fortune based primarily on land. Were Long Island still a province of Great Britain, as it was for nearly a hundred and twenty years, Mr. Gardiner would be called “Your Lordship,” as his ancestors were until the Revolution, and would rather like it.

The feudal system of landed aristocracy that prevailed in Great Britain during the seventeenth century was transplanted to the American colonies, but pitted against the vast wilderness of the new country and the determination of the freedom-minded settlers to run their own affairs it could not, and did not, survive very long except for the slave plantations in the South. A number of the original colonies had been established as proprietary rather than royal provinces, the owners having sovereign power to make laws and dispose of land. (After the Revolution the great estates of Penn in Pennsylvania and Delaware and of the Calverts in Maryland were confiscated by the respective state governments, which paid their heirs only a pittance in compensation.) The early proprietors did their best to set up manors—large, self-sufficient farming communities with seigniorial rights and privileges for the lord and master, perpetual rents and insecure tenure for the luckless tenants. The Dutch called them patroonships, like Rensselaerwyck in New York. Maryland’s proprietors, for example, established some sixty manors for cultivating mostly tobacco.

The English land speculators and merchant adventurers who formed companies to settle Virginia, Bermuda, the Caribbean, and New England were Puritan lords and gentlemen who would have liked to impose the manorial system instead of the church-based communities common in other parts of New England. Operating under the ambiguous Warwick Patent of 1631, Lord Saye and SeIe and Lord Brooke undoubtedly had in mind a manor when, in 1635, they dispatched Lieutenant Lion Gardiner to build a fort at the mouth of the Connecticut River to fend off rival Dutch traders and hostile Indians. But the sale of the Saybrook settlement in 1644 to the Connecticut Colony by George Fenwick, one of the Warwick patentees, evaporated this dream. Only Gardiner, with a similar objective in mind, would make it come true through the purchase of an island from the Montaukett Indians twelve miles across the water from Saybrook.

After a career as a professional engineer of fortifications in an English regiment fighting under the Dutch flag in Holland, Lion Gardiner migrated in his thirty-sixth year. In the leather-bound family Bible that had accompanied him from Holland he later set down this account:

In the year of our Lord—1635—July th 10—Came 1 Lion Gardiner and Mary my wife from Woreden a toune in Holland where my wife was borne … wee came from Woerden to London and from thence to New England and dwelt at Saybrook forte foure years of which i was Commander and theire was born to me a son named David in 1635 April the 29 the first born in that place and in 1638 A Daughter was borne to me caled Mary August the 30 and then went to an Island of mine owne which I bought of the Indians Called by them Manchonake by us the He of Wite and Theire was born another daughter named Elizabeth September the 14 1641 she being the first child born theire of English parents.

The Indian name Manchonake meant “the island where many have died,” apparently from a devastating encounter between the Pequots and the Montauketts long before the English appeared. The island lies halfway between the jaws of the easterly ends of Long Island, namely, Orient Point and Montauk Point. It stretches some seven miles, including a two-mile-long sandspit at the tip of which once stood Fort Tyler, built during the Spanish-American War to guard New York City from a sneak attack by the largely nonexistent Spanish navy. Now called “the ruins,” it has until recently made an ideal practice bombing area for United States Navy aircraft. Bluffs of clay face the northeast storms. The island’s thirty-three hundred acres teem with flora and fauna. Tobacco Lot Pond is a haven for squadrons of Canada geese, ducks, and egrets; giant ospreys soar overhead and arrive and depart punctually every year. Bostwick Woods, where turkeys and deer abound, is a virgin forest of white oaks and wild grapevines, seven centuries old. Five freshwater ponds, swamps, sandy beaches, and lush meadowland cast a spell of primitive and ever-changing beauty.