The Gardners of Massachusetts: An American Legacy

By

Anthony Taylor Dunn

 

For most, the Gardner name does not easily come to mind as do such historic family names as Revere, Copley, or Kennedy. However, the Gardner name has an important place in American history spanning from the birth of our country to the present day.

 

The First Governor of Massachusetts

 

The Gardner family history dates back to early colonial America when Thomas Gardner sailed from England to Cape Ann in 1623, only three years after the arrival of the Mayflower. He was dispatched from Weymouth, England, by the Dorchester Company and was appointed as the overseer of the Plantation at Cape Ann. Unfortunately, this area proved to be unsuited for farming due to the predominantly rocky and unfertile soil. Those that remained did so “to the hazard of their lives,” and most died in the first three years. In 1626, the survivors of the colony under the direction of Roger Conant relocated to the mouth of the Naumkeag River and founded present day Salem. Yet the title of Massachusetts’ first governor belongs to Thomas Gardner because he was the first man of authority over what developed into the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

 

Salem and the Witch Trials

 

Thomas Gardner left nine children, two of which became prominent figures in their own rite. Samuel was born in 1627, one year prior to the official renaming of Naumkeag to Salem. He was a merchant by trade and built a corn mill in town. In later years he became a member of the board of selectmen and general court.

 

Another son, George, married Elizabeth Stone who was the daughter of the Reverend Samuel Stone, a leading clergyman of the day. Their daughter married John Hathorne, the infamous "witch judge" who was the chief interrogator of the accused witches in the Salem witch trials of 1692. John Hathorne was the grandfather to author Nathaniel Hawthorne.

 

The American Revolution

 

A fifth-generation grandson to Thomas, Ebenezer Gardner moved from Roxbury to Nova Scotia. During the outbreak of the revolution, he remained loyal to the colonies and his farmhouse was the central location for the Committee-of-Safety, the governing assembly of political and military leaders. After a failed attempt to defeat Fort Cumberland whose victory would have added a new state into the union, the British put a bounty on his capture. His farmhouse was burned in the early winter of 1776, and he fled south to Machias, Maine (formally Massachusetts) with his family suffering exposure and near death.

 

Ebenezer Gardner’s grandson, John Gardner, married Rebecca Berry who was the daughter of another important figure in the Revolutionary war, John Berry. On June 2, 1775, a band of Machias patriots responded violently to threats on their town from a British officer and attacked and captured his 100-ton schooner, Margaretta, killing the officer and three crewmembers in the process. They Machias patriots lost two men, and three others were badly wounded. John Berry was one of the survivors who took a musket ball through his mouth before it exited behind his ear. The battle of the Margaretta has been coined “the Lexington of the sea” because it was the first naval battle in the Revolution.

 

Boston Society

 

The Gardner family has established roots in Boston society, beginning with Samuel Gardner, a seventh-generation grandson to Thomas, who owned the former estate of the Vassals and Hubbards on Summer Street.

 

However, most Bostonians as well as many throughout the world will instantly recognize the Gardner name as it associated with the prominent Boston financier, John “Jack” Lowell Gardner, the ninth-generation grandson. His wife was Boston socialite Isabella Stewart Gardner. She was a collector of valuable art and, inspired by the Palazzo Barbaro of Venice, had Fenway Court constructed in 1899 to store her collection. The building was later willed to the city of Boston, as a public museum that became the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

 

The event that put the Gardner name on the map was the infamous art heist of all time when in 1990 two men disguised as police officers stole thirteen paintings from the museum. These pieces included Rembrandt’s only seascape, "Storm on the Sea of Galilee", and the total estimated value of the robbery was well over three hundred million dollars.