- 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
During the War of 1812 the British again sought provisions from Gardiners Island. None other than Sir Thomas Hardy, of Trafalgar fame, commanded the seven ships of the line that anchored in Gardiners Bay. Foraging parties took oxen from the plow and killed them, but this time they paid the market price for everything seized. Commodore Hardy was a model of courtesy and affability and saw to it that his officers behaved for the most part in a gentlemanly manner toward the proprietor and his family.
The happy relationship was marred by one disagreeable incident, however. In June of 1813 a boat’s crew from the American squadron of Commodore Decatur that had been blockaded in New London Harbor slipped past the British guns, landed on the island, and hid in the woods. They ambushed a party of British officers in the manor house and captured them. Hardy, convinced that Gardiner had betrayed his men, ordered his arrest. But the wily John Lyon took to his bed, placed medicine, glasses, and spoon on a table, and instructed his wife to tell the officers that her husband was too sick to receive them. Although they insisted on going into his bedroom, his naturally pale, delicate constitution and the reflection of the room’s green curtains on the bedstead combined to give him indeed the appearance of an invalid. The British left after grumbling that if anything of the kind happened again, they would hold Gardiner personally responsible. Fortunately the war ended without further incident; and Hardy must have forgotten the unpleasantness, for at the end of July he sent John Lyon an astonishing document that essentially served to excuse Gardiner from his government’s censure for any cooperation he might have given the British. Hardy wrote that “had you not complied with my wishes as you have done, I should have made use of force, and the consequence would be the destruction of your property, yourself a prisoner of war, and the few articles in the possession of your dependents taken without payment.”
Alter John Lyon’s death the most frequent invaders were treasure hunters excited by tales of Kidd’s unrecovered gold. From time to time these trespassers would beach a boat and search for the hiding place, which is now marked by a small monument. The steward, one David Mulford, conceived a stratagem to outwit the marauders. Desiring to move a large boulder, he carved the initials “W.K.” on it, dug a small hole under its base, scattered a few old pennies around the opening, and sat back to watch. Sure enough, the next raiding party discovered the bait and furiously began to excavate. Of course there was nothing more to be found, but the rock itself was freed. In 1869 the island was once more subjected to invasion by foreigners. The Cuban Liberators, a motley collection of exofficers and fanatics, set up a camp within a mile of the mansion. They were bound for the West Indies on a filibustering expedition. In short order, however, their ardor was checked by a company of marines who landed from a revenue cutter.
Sarah Gardiner outlived her husband and two of her sons. She leased the island to a cousin, another David Gardiner, from 1817 to 1820; then she ran it herself until her eldest, David Johnson, came of age in 1825. He died unmarried four years later, the last proprietor to inherit by entail. His brother John, also a bachelor, as the ninth proprietor, purchased the shares of his sisters and younger brother and occupied the island with his mother for nearly thirty years. The youngest brother, Samuel Buell, followed him as tenth proprietor from 1861 to 1882; since his brothers had allowed the island to decline, he concentrated on restoring it to the prosperous conditions that had prevailed during the life of his father, John Lyon.
The only colorful personality of this generation, a female throwback to Lion and his grandson, was Julia Gardiner, great-granddaughter of Colonel Abraham Gardiner and a distant cousin of David Johnson Gardiner. Born on the island in 1820, she grew into a tall, dark, flirtatious young lady who dazzled the society balls of New York in winter and graced the elegant resort of Saratoga Springs in summer. Moving on to the social whirl of Washington, she was introduced to President John Tyler, the Virginia aristocrat and a recent widower. Although more than twice her age he fell madly in love with her.