Gardiner’s Island is rich with history that dates back to the colonial days of America. It all started in 1639, when the island was settled by Lion Gardiner from a grant by Charles I as the first colonial English settlement in present-day New York state. The island was originally in its own jurisdiction affiliated with neither New York nor New England. The island has been privately owned for over three hundred years by his descendants, and is the only real estate still intact as part of an original royal grant from the English Crown.
Lion Gardiner reportedly purchased the island in 1639 from the Montaukett Indians for “a large black dog, some powder and shot, and a few Dutch blankets.” The Indians called the island Manchonake, while the Gardiners initially called it Isle of Wight. The Montauketts gave Gardiner title at least in part because of his support for them in the Pequot War.
The original 1639 royal patent gave Gardiner the “right to possess the land forever” with the island being declared a proprietary colony with the Gardiners getting the title of Lord of the Manor and thus able to establish laws for the island.
After it was decided that the British rather than Dutch would rule Long Island and that it would be part of New York rather than Connecticut a new patent was issued to Gardiner’s son David Gardiner on October 5 1665 by Governor Richard Nicolls.
In 1688 when Govenor Donegan granted the patent formally establishing the East Hampton government, there was an attempt to annex it to East Hampton. However the Gardiners resisted and the governor reaffirmed its special status. The island’s special status was to continue until after the American Revolution when it was formally annexed to East Hampton.
Gardiner established a plantation on the island for growing corn, wheat, fruit, and tobacco, as well for raising livestock.
The alleged pirate Captain Kidd buried treasure on the island in June 1699. Kidd stopped while sailing to Boston to attempt to clear his name. With the permission of the proprietor Mrs. Gardiner he buried $30,000 in treasure in a ravine between Bostwick’s Point and the Manor House. For her troubles he gave her a piece of gold cloth (a piece of which is now at the East Hampton library) that was captured from a Moorish ship off Madagascar as well as a bag of sugar. Kidd warned that if it was not there when he returned he would kill the Gardiner. Kidd was to be tried in Boston and Gardiner was ordered by Governor Bellomont to deliver the treasure as evidence. The booty included gold dust, bars of silver, Spanish dollars, rubies, diamonds, candlesticks, porringers. Gardiner kept one of the diamonds which he gave his daughter. A plaque on the island marks the spot but it is on private property.
During the American Revolution the Gardiners sided with the colonists. However a fleet of 13 ships sailed into Cherry Harbor and began a process of foraging the island and its manor house at will and were to turn it into a private hunting preserve. Among the British guests were Henry Clinton and John André. At one point Major Andre and Gardiner son Nathaniel Gardiner, who was a surgeon for the New Hampshire Continental Infranty, exchanged toasts on the island. Gardiner would later be the American surgeon who attended to Andre when he was executed after being caught spying with Benedict Arnold.
Following the revolution, the island was formally brought under East Hampton town jurisdiction.
During the War of 1812 a British fleet of seven ships of the line and several smaller frigates anchored in Cherry Harbor and conducted raids on American shipping Long Island Sound. Crews would come ashore for provisions which were purchased at market prices. During one of the British excursions, Americans captured some of the crew. The British came to arrest then Lord of the Manor John Lyon Gardiner. Gardiner, who was a delicate man, adopted the “green room defense” where he stayed in a bed with green curtains surrounded by medicine to make him look feeble. The British not wanting a sick man onboard let him be.
The British were to bury several personnel on the island. Some of the British fleet that burned Washington assembled in the harbor in 1814.
Gardiner’s supply boats were manned by slaves during the war and this made it easier for them to pass through British lines. Many of the Gardiner slaves were to live in the Freetown (East Hampton), just north of East Hampton (village), New York.
Owing to the high cost of upkeep, in 1937 the island was put up for sale but was bought at the last minute by a relative, Sarah Diodati Gardiner, for $400,000. Upon her death in 1953, the island passed in trust to her nephew Robert David Lion Gardiner, and his sister, Alexandra Gardiner Creel. Their aunt had also set aside a trust fund for upkeep of the island, but it was exhausted by the 1970s.
When Creel died, her rights passed to her daughter, Alexandra Creel Goelet. The two were to have a highly publicized dispute over ownership and direction of the island.
Gardiner accused Alexandra of wanting to sell and develop the island. She accused him of not paying his share of the estimated $2 million/year upkeep and taxes of the island. Gardiner said he would not oppose ownership by the government or a private conservancy group.
The case went to court in 1980 and Gardiner was initially barred from visiting the island but in 1992 courts rule he could visit the island (although the Goelets and Gardiner were not on the island at the same time).
Gardiner, who claimed the title “16th Lord of the Manor of Gardiner’s Island” and lived in East Hampton, married in 1961 but had no children, leaving him with no heir. In the 1990’s, Mr. Gardiner attempted to adopt a middle aged Mississippi businessman, George Gardiner Green, as his “son”. Green was said to have been a descendent of Lion Gardiner.
Upon Gardiner’s death in 2004 ownership totally passed to Alexandra. The Goelets have offered to place a conservation easement on the island in exchange for a promise from the town of East Hampton to not up-zone the island, change its assessment, or attempt to acquire it by condemnation. East Hampton has granted the easement through 2025. Thereafter the new owners could develop the island.
Shortly before Gardiner’s death he said: “We have always married into wealth. We’ve covered all our bets. We were on both sides of the Revolution, and both sides of the Civil War. The Gardiner family always came out on top.”