by Jim Marquardt
“It was not a squeamish age,” said a historian describing Lion Gardiner’s parley with Wyandanch, a leader of the Montauk tribe and an influential Native American for much of Long Island. Gardiner demanded “If you kill all the Pequots that come to you, and send me their heads, then you shall have trade with us…If you have any Indians that have killed English, you must bring me their heads also…” Despite this potentially gory beginning, Gardiner and Wyandanch eventually became close allies, even friends, and between them kept the peace on the east end of Long Island.
Most of us know little about Gardiner’s Island, sitting between the north and south forks, nor of the man who gave it his name. Initially Gardiner called it the Isle of Wight, since its shape reminded him of that island off the south coast of England. A soldier, Gardiner arrived in the new world in 1635 with the commission to establish a fort in Saybrook at the mouth of the Connecticut River to protect an expected colony of settlers. In the fall 1989 issue of the Long Island Historical Journal, Professor Roger Wunderlich of the University at Stony Brook wrote that Gardiner was probably a gentleman without title, ranking below the nobility, and may have taken the Saybrook job for the one hundred pounds per year it paid.
Gardiner dreaded the Pequots, a Native American tribe in Connecticut that battled constantly with colonists and other Indians. In one attack on the fort, a Pequot arrow pierced Gardiner’s leg. Finally a large force of colonists and Indian allies exacted heavy casualties on the Pequots which quieted them down for a while. But knowing there could still be trouble ahead, Wyandanch canoed over the sound to Saybrook and made his deal with Gardiner in exchange for protection. The pact relieved eastern Long Island of the English-Indian warfare that plagued New England for 40 years. During their stay in Saybrook, Gardiner and his wife Mary had a son, David, and daughter, Mary.
Other tribes prodded Wyandanch to turn against the English, but he had complete confidence in Gardiner. When the Saybrook settlement petered out, Gardiner bought his island a few miles off East Hampton for “ten coates of trading cloath.” Soon after, he received a confirming grant from the King’s grantee for Long Island, thus becoming “independent of every other settlement, and subordinate only to the general government of the Colony.”
Gardiner’s Island is substantial, seven and a half miles long and three miles across at its widest point. In 1798, a family descendant described its soil as good for wheat, its timber mostly of large white oak, with brooks, springs and ponds keeping it watered. Though Gardiner and Wyandanch were able to preserve the peace, other Indian tribes continued fighting. According to Curtiss Gardiner, in 1654 the Narragansetts from Rhode Island swooped down on the Montauks the night before Wyandanch’s daughter was to be wed, killed the groom and kidnapped the bride. Mostly through Gardiner’s efforts, ransom was raised and the daughter returned safely to her distraught father. A grateful Wyandanch gave Lion Gardiner land between Huntington and Setauket, citing Gardiner’s “kindness, counsel and advice in our prosperity.”
When Wyandanch was ordered to come to Southampton to testify in a murder case involving Indians, his people feared for his safety, but Gardiner allayed their concerns by presenting himself at the Montauk camp, declaring he would stay until “you all know it is well with your sachem.” Lion Gardiner died at 64, and in 1686 Governor Thomas Dongan granted his son David a new patent and the new name for the island. In modern times the heirs have struggled with rising maintenance costs and taxes. According to Wikipedia, Gardiner’s Island is now in the hands of Alexandra Creel Goelet, a seventeenth generation direct descendant. She established family trusts to own the island and entered a conservation easement with East Hampton that stipulates the town will not rezone, change the assessment, or acquire the island by condemnation through 2025.
Historian Wunderlich admired Lion Gardiner for learning the native language and gaining the trust of his Indian neighbors, “treating them without condescension.” His and Wyandanch’s diplomacy headed off interracial warfare. Gardiner and his wife, says the historian, are symbols of the transition first generation immigrants made from the old world to the new, “They were Americans before the word was coined.” The soldier-statesman would have been delighted to know that a descendant, Julia Gardiner, born on the island in 1820, married President of the United States John Tyler in 1844, becoming first lady of the White House at the age of 24.