- Historic Sites
To The Manor Born
In 1639 an Englishman named Lion Gardiner singled out a piece of the New World and removed his family thereto—his very own island off the Connecticut coast. And despite invasions of pirates, treasure hunters, and British soldiers, Gardiners Island has remained in the hands of that family ever since. Because of Lion’s shrewd investment his descendants have indeed been
October 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 6
Gardiner was something of a viking. Unusually tall for a seventeenth-century Englishman—well over six feet—with a powerful frame and reddish-brown hair, plain of speech, he stood forth as a soldierly Puritan more practical than pious. No one could have been better equipped to command an expedition into the unknown wilderness of Connecticut and to conquer a multitude of obstacles: the scarcity ol food and other supplies; the hostility of the Pequot Indians, a fierce Connecticut tribe; and the almost total neglect of his patrons, all but one of whom—Fenwick—stayed comfortably at home in far-off England. Erom the beginning, unlike his smug and relatively secure compatriots in Boston, Gardiner understood the precarious nature of his military position and deplored the impulse of the outnumbered English to pull the trigger at the slightest provocation. To visiting Bostonians bent on revenge for the Indian murders of two hapless traders he complained: “You come hither to raise these wasps about my ears, and then you will take wing and flee away.” He was right on both counts. The Pequots harassed his small garrison and laid siege to the fort during that fall and winter, although the local Nehantic Indians remained friendly.
A series of warlike incidents culminating in a massacre of settlers in Wethersfield, just below Hartford, led to the declaration of all-out war against the Pequots on May 1, 1637, by the general court at Hartford. Within a month Captain John Mason and a force of ninety men from the river settlements obliterated the Pequot stronghold at Mystic, killing more than six hundred braves, squaws, and children and setting fire to their village. Mason boasted that “we dunged the earth with them!” This was the end of the Pequots’ aggression, but Gardiner was wise enough to comprehend that the Indian menace still lurked elsewhere.
Three days after the victory there appeared at Saybrook Fort an imposing Indian with aquiline features, the younger brother of the Montaukett sachem who ruled eastern Long Island. Wyandance sought to trade, but Lion was suspicious of his real intentions and told him to prove his trust by getting rid of any Pequots who might have infiltrated Wyandance’s territory. Soon the Indian sent back twelve Pequot heads, thus establishing the bonds of a remarkably intimate friendship that endured the rest of their lives. Wyandance taught Gardiner his language, and together they explored the coastline of Long Island. Now forty years old, weary of fighting, with a family to raise, Gardiner sought a home where he might live out his life in peace. Manchonake satisfied him. Unlike Fishers Island, it had plenty of fresh water the year around. Its rich soil, on which the Montaukett tribe cultivated corn, pumpkins, and tobacco, would easily raise wheat and barley for him and provide pasture for cows and sheep. Its bold shoreline and relative isolation would protect him from attack. He said its shape reminded him of the Isle of Wight, and so he named it.
Gardiner took care to acquire legal title from both the Indian and the English proprietors. First he applied for and obtained a grant from the agent for the Earl of Stirling. He was Sir William Alexander, a poet of some note and secretary of state for Scotland, on whom King James i and King Charles i had bestowed vast grants of land from Nova Scotia south. His broad patent, which to a great extent duplicated or conflicted with others given by the Crown, encompassed the whole of Long Island, despite the fact that the Dutch were in possession of that area until 1664. The purchase price for Gardiners Island was a meager five pounds annually—a sum the Gardiners diligently remitted until 1670, when it was reduced to one lamb on the first day of May. Stirling’s grant recognized the island as a separate plantation and empowered Gardiner to make “such laws for church and civil government as are agreeable to God, the King and the practice of the country.” The Dutch authorities let Gardiner alone, perhaps because of the island’s isolation.
In May, 1639, Gardiner also received a deed from Wyandance’s brother. According to Gardiner tradition the transaction was consummated for ten coats of trading cloth, one large black dog, a gun and ammunition, and some rum, totalling about twenty dollars in value, a little less than the Dutch allegedly paid for Manhattan. The Indians kept their rights to hunt, fish, and plant corn.
Thus, his contract with the Puritan lords having expired, (lardiner departed from Saybrook with Mary, two small children, his chaplain, and a handful of followers to (ound the first English settlement in what became the province of New York. It was as daring an adventure as his coming to Connecticut, haunted as he was by the savagery of the Pequots and the knowledge that his countrymen had only a toehold on this untamed coast. He wrote: