October 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 6
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
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:
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.
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:
Never once, however, did Gardiner or later settlers have to employ arms against the local Indians. They helped him with the tilling, and he continued to befriend them. On the other hand, the Narragansets did their best to foment trouble. In one raid they took Wyandance’s daughter Momone prisoner on her wedding night, but Gardiner intervened through his friends in Boston and ransomed her. Thereupon Wyandance, now an old man and the grand sachem of Pommanocc, or Long Island, in gratitude for “his love, care and charge,” deeded Gardiner “a small tract of land” plus “one-half of all the whales or other great fish cast up on the beach from Napeake eastward to the end of the Island,” all for the sum of ten pounds annually for ten years. Wyandance’s gift, amounting to some forty thousand acres in Suffolk County, made Gardiner one of the largest landholders in North America. Unhappily the sachem was murdered shortly thereafter, allegedly poisoned by the Narragansets, causing Lion in his grief to write: “My friend and brother is dead. Who will now do the like?”
Gardiner also bought thousands of acres in other parts of the south shore. He was one of a group acquiring thirty thousand acres for the settlement of East Hampton, where, in 1653, after spending fourteen years on his Isle of Wight, he moved his family. There he died in 1663 at the age of sixty-four.
His son David could not have been more of an opposite. In his youth a fop and ne’er-do-well who wasted a good deal of his patrimony on high living in London, he so angered his father as to be disinherited. His mother, however, later left the island to him in her will. Eventually he returned and settled down as a farmer in Southold. He sold to Richard Smith the land that became Smithtown. Despite his wealth, his was a bitter, undistinguished life, full of dislike for the Indians and fondness for the rum bottle. Yet he did have the sense to protect his father’s patent after the Dutch surrendered Long Island to James, Duke of York. The first English governor, Thomas Dongan, consented in 1686 to draw up a third and final deed establishing “the Lordshipp and Mannor of Gardiner’s Island,” the name David preferred. But in 1688, the year before David’s death, the manor was annexed to East Hampton by the Assembly of New York and subjected to assessment for property taxes.
After David came John, a huge, salty reincarnation of his grandfather, who loved drink, Indian girls, and his land in equal measure. A servant, once asked to describe his character, replied: “On the main he might pass for a good man but on the island he was a devilish rogue.” The Indians called him Ginese, “the tall or powerful one.” He employed them to kill whales in the Atlantic and to till his corn, adding greatly to his wealth.
It was fortunate for the Gardiners’ survival that such a robust, fearless chieftain held sway during the heyday of piracy along the Atlantic coast. Many of the freebooters were fitted out by double-dealing, rich New York merchants. It was inevitable that Gardiners Island, given its convenient location between Boston and New York, its accessible beaches and concealed coves, would serve as an excellent pirate hide-out.
In the summer of 1699 an emissary came to John Gardiner with a mysterious tale about one William Kidd and his sloop, the San Antonio . Kidd, a member of Trinity Church in New York, then had the reputation of being a gentleman as well as a trustworthy merchant, sea captain, and privateer. Privateering, when sanctioned by the authorities, was considered a legal form of piracy on the high seas. Kidd had received a royal commission to arrest all unauthorized pirates and to prey mainly on French shipping in the Indian Ocean. But unbeknownst to Gardiner, Kidd had run afoul of the company of nobles that had backed his expedition, including the Earl of Bellomont, governor of the provinces of Massachusetts Bay, New York, and New Hampshire. Off the coast of Madagascar Kidd had captured the Quedagh Merchant , a ship belonging to the Great Mogul, and expropriated her rich cargo. His excuse was that he would be forgiven for plundering the vessel of an ally if it served to bring home plenty of gold to his impecunious king, William III. But his patrons, to free themselves from a charge of complicity, decided he must be made the scapegoat and proclaimed him a pirate. Now Kidd lay in wait near Block Island in the San Antonio , convinced of his innocence yet not daring to face Bellomont in Boston until he had obtained a pardon from the king. Soon he anchored at Gardiners Island, inviting John aboard and impressing him with charm and friendliness. Captain Kidd explained he was in need of a few supplies—six sheep and a barrel of cider would suffice—and he gave the proprietor a cloth of gold from the dowry of the mogul’s daughter as a gift for Mrs. Gardiner.
Three sloops were observed at rendezvous in the bay and taking chests off the San Antonio , evidence subsequently that Kidd had arranged to divide the spoils. After a few days Kidd requested permission to leave on shore four bales of cloth, a bundle of quilts, a chest, and a box of gold. Gardiner permitted him to bury all of it in a swamp between the manor house and Bostwick Point. To keep Gardiner honest, Kidd issued a chilling warning: “If I call for it and it is gone, I will take your head or your son’s”; with that he sailed away, never to return. Apparently he had changed his mind and decided to risk the wrath of Bellomont, for he made for Boston but was quickly jailed.
During his investigation of Kidd’s exploits the governor uncovered the story of his visit to Gardiners Island and summoned its proprietor to Boston along with the treasure. There was a great discrepancy between the list Kidd had given to Gardiner and the goods returned, giving rise to doubts as to whether Gardiner was telling the whole truth. Admittedly John had overlooked a small chest containing rare stones, but Bellomont could prove no intent to defraud.
On his return home John was horrified to learn that his wife had been harassed by one of Kidd’s accomplices. James Gillam, who had escaped from custody in Boston, wanted the gold and jewels he himself had deposited on the island, but Mary Gardiner somehow inveigled him to leave empty-handed. The ruffian threatened: “I will be the downfall of Gardiner even if it takes twenty years. …” The goods Gardiner gave back to the Crown were valued at thirty thousand dollars, yet most of the treasure was never accounted for, except for one item. The family still tells the story that when John Gardiner unpacked his portmanteau, a large diamond rolled out on the floor. Mary seized it, declaring she would keep it as recompense for all the trouble she had suffered, ft remained a valued heirloom for several generations. Gillam was never able to carry out his threat, and the unfortunate Kidd was hanged in London in 1701, not for piracy but for having killed a mutinous member of his crew.
There were other piratical forays. At dusk in September, 1728, two squaws reported a schooner mounting six guns at anchor. John laughed it off with the remark that the Indians couldn’t tell a schooner from a canoe; but under cover of night there landed some eighty buccaneers, a motley lot of Spaniards, French, and mulattos. Because old John was too ill to leave his bed, his Indian steward gathered up the women and children and transported them safely to the south shore in his canoe. The pirates plundered the manor house, breaking up the furniture and taking all of the family silver. Enraged because Gardiner’s money was in East Hampton, they gashed him with their cutlasses. For several days they continued their depredations, removing to their vessel everything they could carry. Word finally reached Rhode Island, and two boats with a hundred and forty men set out in pursuit. But the pirates escaped, leaving Gardiner tied to a mulberry tree yet far from dead.
At last John was left in peace. Every inch the lord, he outlasted three wives and was married to a fourth in his seventy-second year. Once he complained that his third wife, Elizabeth Allen, who was called the “up-river woman” from Hartford, had been a mistake, declaring that “I would as lief lie with a bag of carpenter’s tools.” At the age of seventy-seven, while visiting his son in Groton, Gonnecticut, he died after a fall from a spirited horse.
The ownership of the island alternated from Davids to Johns for eight generations. There was serenity and prosperity until the Revolution erupted. John’s heirs were gentlemen farmers who maintained careful accounts of their stewardship in large calfskin ledgers and continued to add to their Long Island holdings. David, the fourth lord, entailed the island, his will providing that his eldest son inherit it, “to continue in a lineal descent of the male line of my family to the end of time.” The fifth proprietor, John, and his son both attended Yale College. Indolent and a spendthrift, this John is remembered for abolishing the chaplaincy that Lion had established on the island; John was angry because his daughter had eloped with the young minister. David Gardiner, the sixth proprietor, after settling his father’s debts, built the fourth and most imposing manor house, which survived until 1947.
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. 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. 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. They lay generally three eggs—hatch about 1 July.
- 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. 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.
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.
A tragedy in February, 1844, interrupted their courtship momentarily. She and her father, a New York politician, had been invited, along with numerous dignitaries such as Dolley Madison, Thomas Hart Benton, and the President, aboard the new propeller-driven warship Princeton , built by John Ericsson, the designer of the Monitor in the Civil War. [See “‘The beauty and chivalry of the United States assembled,’” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , December, 1965.] Salutes were being fired from the Peacemaker gun on the forward deck. While Julia and President Tyler were enjoying a glass of champagne belowdecks there was a sudden terrible explosion above: the gun had burst asunder, killing her father and two members of Tyler’s Cabinet, four months later, however, Julia Gardiner and President John Tyler were secretly married in New York. The dour John Quincy Adams wrote in his diary: “Captain Tyler and his bride are the laughing stock of the city.” He was fifty-four, she twenty-four. But President-to-be James Buchanan was envious: “The President is the most lucky man who ever lived. Both a belle and a fortune to crown his Presidential career.”
An earlier Jacqueline Kennedy, she set a style of elegance in the White House, introducing French cooking, dancing, and the playing of “Hail to the Chief when the President entered with his bride on his arm. One historian said she held court like an empress. Involving herself politically as well, she helped Tyler bring Texas into the Union with fervent speeches to senators and their wives. After signing the order of annexation her husband handed her the pen, and she wore it as a charm around her neck the rest of her life. After Tyler’s withdrawal from the election of 1844 they retired to his Virginia estate, where Julia mothered seven children and became a passionate Southerner. Although she never returned to Gardiners Island, her father’s house in East Hampton was used as the summer White House by President Tyler and herself.
John Lyon Gardiner, the second son of Samuel Buell, took over as the eleventh proprietor after serving as a colonel in the Civil War. His successor in 1910 was his son, another Lion Gardiner, a banker with J. P. Morgan. This Lion leased the island to Clarence Mackay, head of Postal Telegraph, who used it mostly for hunting parties. Other lessees were the sportsman Winston Guest and the Sperry Rand Corporation, which made it an executive retreat. During Guest’s lease the hurricane of 1938 swept over the island and demolished halfDf the oak forest. Misfortune struck again in 1947, when the old manor house built by David Gardiner in 1774, with its beautiful panelled walls and columned porches, burned to the ground. Valuable antiques were destroyed, and the caretaker saved his life only by jumping from a window. It is thought that the fire was started by a guest falling asleep in bed while smoking a cigarette.
After two more proprietors, Jonathan and Winthrop, the Gardiners, somewhat impoverished by the depression of the iQSo’s, considered selling the island. But a peppery old spinster, Sarah Diodati Gardiner, who was descended from Lion the First three ways, came to the rescue and paid off the mortgage in 1937 so that it would remain in the family. Both her mother and father had Gardiner blood. As a young girl she had visited the island and was enraptured by its beauty a half century before she became its first female owner. After the fire Aunt Sarah erected a new twenty-eight-room manor house in Georgian style. Still unmarried at her death in 1953 at the age of ninety, a multimillionairess, she left it to her nephew, Robert David Lion Gardiner, and his sister, Alexandra Gardiner Creel, who took possession at the expiration of Sperry Rand’s lease in 1963.
Today Gardiners Island is little changed from the time Lion Gardiner came upon it and made it his home 336 years ago. There are still 250 acres of white oak in Bostwick Woods never touched hy an axe, the only such stand of timber in the world. The osprey still arrives and departs on schedule, building his six-foot nest in the crotches of dead trees. Elsewhere the fish hawk has almost become extinct due to pollution, and the hundred or more on Gardiners are probably the largest such colony in North America. Wild turkey and deer still roam; swans and other fowl make Tobacco Lot Pond their home. Bird watchers have identified several hundred species.
The sixteenth proprietor, who has inherited three Gardiner fortunes (from his father, his uncle, and his aunt), feels very strongly about retaining ownership in the family; Gardiner has a nephew but no children of his own. Maintenance costs him over a hundred thousand dollars a year, and though it is assessed as open space, the island was recently valued at eight million dollars; furthermore, government officials have been eyeing it greedily for public use, while environmentalists fervently hope it will some day become a wildlife sanctuary. Even without Gardiners Island Robert Gardiner would have substantial holdings; in fact, he may be New York’s biggest landowner. He personally owns a twenty-million-dollar shopping plaza in Islip (which he intends to turn into a mall, with a statue of Lion Gardiner in the center); five thousand acres on the south shore, including another Gardiner manor in Bay Shore; the twenty-five-room “summer White House”; and a five-acre marina in East Hampton.
The island, however, is his dearest possession. Now and then he consents to open it for nature study or day-long inspections for the benefit of his favorite charities. On these rare occasions, playing the role of the genial and well-informed host, he regales awed visitors with a torrent of tales and a display of family heirlooms. On foot or by jeep one can see the spot where Kidd supposedly buried his loot, the stone walls built by slaves, the eighteenth-century windmill with wooden gears, the family graveyard, and the watchtower from the top of which Gardiner ancestors scanned the sea for blowing whales. “Can you visualize my island becoming a campsite?” Gardiner asks rhetorically. “One public toilet would ruin it.” To him the Gardiners are unique: “Look at what’s happened to those other colonial lords of the manor. Most of them have nothing left. The Pells lost Pelham at the end of the Revolution. The Livingstons? That’s Grossinger’s now. The Rensselaers? Not a — to — in. As for the Du Ponts, Rockefellers, and Fords, they are nouveaux riches. The Du Ponts came in 1800; they’re not even a colonial family.”
In 1972 Congressman Otis Pike, a New York Democrat, sponsored a bill to make Gardiners Island a national recreation area. Conscious of his responsibility for preserving the Gardiner legacy as long as possible, and with something of his ancestors’ fighting spirit, (jardiner went all out to oppose Pike’s attempt to break up what he called “a millionaire’s paradise.” He ran for Congress on the Conservative ticket and lost. Then, appealing to the ecologists and antiquarians, he mounted an intensive public-relations campaign that resulted in more than eighty thousand letters of support being sent to the House Committee on the Interior. Pike withdrew his bill. But although Gardiner won that battle, he has not won the final victory. One way or the other, through government confiscation, voluntary gift, or simply lack of more Gardiners to carry on, the Gardiner family may some day lose their island, and the longest proprietorship in America will have come to an end.