It was on a stormy Christmas Day, 1811, that field hands and members of the Gardiner family on the island that bore their name made their way to the shore where a French sailing vessel was founding in heavy seas.
Some 100 vessels were said to have been driven ashore on Long Island in the fierce northeaster that stretched from Dec. 24 to 25 that year. The blizzard slammed New England, then crossed the Atlantic, adding to winter turmoil that had troubled the Royal Navy greatly. Foundering just off the island, the Maria Louisa, a schooner of 230 tons, struck on an intensely cold day, Sarah Diodati Gardiner wrote in her “Early Memories of Gardiner’s Island.” An unnumbered portion of the crew died, to be later buried on the island, presumably, and the survivors were taken to the manor house.
Her grandmother, then but a girl, was eager to see the sailors and crept to the door of the lower kitchen for a look. There they lay, stretched on bedding on the floor, where they “excited the compassion of the household,” Miss Gardiner wrote.
Another survivor, a Maltese cat, became a member of the family. Miss Gardiner’s great-grandfather, as she told it, noticed the cat clinging to a piece of wreckage and asked that it be brought to him. The men were able to grab the cat, and presented it to him wrapped in a large silk handkerchief. Restored to health, the cat’s offspring were numerous, Miss Gardiner wrote.
A generation later, when Miss Gardiner was a girl, an old friend of the family who owned one of the Maltese’s descendents offered to send it to her. A few days later, Miss Gardiner’s family, then living on Staten Island, received a package with the cat inside, which they christened Maria Louisa after the ship from which her forebear had been rescued.
The cat’s bloodline is surely lost to time, but one does wonder if some of the local felines hereabouts carry a little of that long-ago Maltese’s spirit.