The Past is Present
A selection of articles from around Old Saybrook on assorted topics of historical interest. Originally published in Saybrook Neighbor.
BIGGEST MAN IN TOWN
Saybrook Neighbors, May 2019
He is the biggest and boldest man in town and, in fact, is placed on a pedestal. He is a giant of a man with a commanding presence who is remembered today as the soldier engineer who first built the fort that protected the stressed and struggling settlement called Saybrook.
There he stands with helmet and cutlass, still guarding the point where the river meets the Sound.
This Lion Gardiner statue at Fort Saybrook Memorial Park was dedicated November 19, 1930 with formalities that began at the Town Hall with First Selectman Frederick Chapman and then adjourned to follow a procession of school children and the Governor’s Foot Guard to Saybrook Point where prominent Hartford insurance executive Arthur Shipman highlighted the program.
Unveiling the bronze statue were Jonathan, Sarah, and Winthrop Gardiner who arranged for noted sculptor William Ordway Partridge to create the monument. Partridge was celebrated for creating many other statues including Pocahontas in Jamestown, Virginia and the marble Pieta at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Regrettably, he died in May 1930, six months prior to unveiling his Gardiner work.
Lion Gardiner (1599-1663) was an “engineer and master of works of fortification” and was hired by first governor of the river Connecticut, John Winthrop, Jr., to build a fort and lay out a town for possible arrivals of English “men of quality.”
Gardiner and his Dutch-born wife Mary (1601-1665) sailed aboard the “Bachelor” arriving in Boston after a 3 1/2 month voyage and by March 1636 arrived here to begin building a palisade fort and windmill for grinding corn. It was the first English settlement along the shoreline and the first fortified settlement in the colonies.
Here, a month after their arrival, Mary gave birth to a son, named David, the first English child born in what is today Connecticut.
Here, too, killings and retaliation grew and from September 1636 to March 1637 the Pequot siege of Saybrook Fort occurred, the beginnings of the Pequot War and the first sustained, organized conflict in the colonies.
`It is all very well for you to make war who are safe in Massachusetts Bay,” Gardiner complained, but “I have but twenty-four in all, men, women and children, and not food for them for two months, unless we save our corn field which is two miles from home, and cannot possibly be reached if we are in war.”
His protests were in vain and when English soldiers led by John Underhill and John Mason arrived he told them “You come hither to raise these wasps about my ears, and then you will take wing and flee away.”
In fact, Gardiner himself narrowly escaped death when he went outside the fort’s walls with 10 armed men and three dogs. A half mile away, on today’s College Street, they met a small band of Pequots and almost immediately two men were killed.
Others were shot with arrows and as they retreated toward the fort Gardiner was struck in the thigh. The group, he wrote, had to fight “with our naked swords or else they (would have) taken us all alive.”
Soon, these incidents led to all out conflict ending in the nearly total annihilation of the Pequots.
Gardiner completed his four-year contract to build the fort and moved to an island purchased from the Montaukett Indians. Fire destroyed the fort in 1647 and it was replaced by another which remained until removed by the railroad in 1871.
His four years were among the most tumultuous and significant in the history of Saybrook and Connecticut and he earned his honored place in the park.
Copyright Tedd Levy