To The Manor Born

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At the start of the Revolution the island was being managed by Colonel Abraham Gardiner, a resident of East Hampton and third son of the fourth proprietor, as guardian for John Lyon, then a mere lad of five. Nearly a hundred dependents—Indians, mulattos, and slaves—worked the soil. Beef, cheese, wheat, and wool were the staple articles produced, while trotting horses, fowl and swine, some three hundred cows and steers, and fifteen hundred sheep earned a handsome return on the Boston market. In addition to this, ducks and geese provided plenty of game. On August 8, 1775, thirteen British men-of-war, commanded by Colonel Abijah Willard on H.M.S. Rose , anchored off the northeast shore with orders from General Thomas Gage to obtain provisions for the hungry garrison in Boston. Two hundred redcoats landed, only to find the island deserted except for the overseer, Ben Miller, and two servants. They collected 67 cattle, 1,166 sheep, 90 cheeses, 13 hogs, and seven tons of hay, for which they offered to pay. Miller, however, refused, saying he had been instructed not to sell anything. After the soldiers’ departure the remaining animals were removed and sold on Long Island. Presently the enemy occupied all of Long Island, and from 1776 until the end of the war Gardiners Island was deserted, as the Gardiners had removed to their property at East Hampton.

In the summer of 1780 another British fleet, assigned to keep close watch on the French navy in Newport, hove into sight. Colonel Gardiner and young John Lyon were invited aboard the Royal Oak and entertained by Vice Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot. (Colonel Gardiner was generally regarded as a Loyalist, although his son Nathaniel served as a Continental army surgeon.) The rest of the year and through the following winter British soldiers were stationed on the island, including several hundred sick and wounded. The officers enjoyed hunting wild turkeys and deer there, but the manor house became a shambles, and other buildings and fences fell into ruin. By the end of the Revolution the Gardiners still held their land but had lost most of their personal property.

John Lyon, the seventh proprietor, grew up to be a reserved, sensitive scholar with a great love for his land, Indian culture, and local history. He gave up the title of lord, declaring that “the present Proprietor is better pleased with the liberty both civil and religious which he enjoys in common with his countrymen and fellow citizens than with any empty titles whatever.” A bachelor until his early thirties, he fell in love with a tall, dark beauty from Lyme, Connecticut. Sarah Griswold came from a distinguished family that gave Connecticut two governors; her mother, Sarah Diodati, was descended from Italian nobility. Their meeting was pure romance. With a party of gay young ladies and gentlemen Sarah had crossed the Sound on a sailing frolic, only to become becalmed and then storm-tossed within sight of Gardiners Island. Seeking shelter ashore, they were warmly welcomed and refreshed. John Lyon had never spent a more delightful evening, and soon afterward he and Sarah were married.

 
 
 
 

Sarah Gardiner made the island hum with activity. She bore five children, three of whom were to become proprietors. In her attic workroom she kept six young women busy spinning flax and wool. Tradesmen came and went; artisans stayed long enough to make whatever was needed for the family. Sarah even worked out a system to call the island boat: visitors would raise a smoke signal by burning seaweed on a Long Island beach some three miles distant. A descendant, Sarah Diodati Gardiner, wrote: “At dawn, on New Year’s Day, it was the custom for the men to shoulder their guns, and march around the house, firing, by way of salute, as they passed Mr. Gardiner’s window.”

With a witty and high-spirited mistress in charge of the manor house, John Lyon could return to his bird watching. He recorded detailed observations about the great fish hawks:

  1. 1. They are regular in arriving on the 21 of March and in leaving on 2 i Sept. Heavy equinoctial storms only prevent a day or so.
  2. 2. They repair their nests a few days before they leave them and being on high dry topped trees, they frequently have their nests blown away entirely during the winter.
  3. 3. They lay generally three eggs—hatch about 1 July.
  4. 4. Are very fierce and bold while they have eggs and young and have been known to fix their claws in a negro’s head that was attempting to get to the nest …
  5. 5. As soon as they arrive they wage war on the Eagle and by numbers and perseverance drive him off.

He noted that whenever the hawks were circling high in the air, it meant an imminent change of weather—usually a thunderstorm in two or three hours. They were so voracious when feeding their young that they consumed seven to eight hundred fish a day in three hundred nests. Once John Audubon visited the island as John Lyon’s guest and made a drawing of an osprey carrying off a fish.