On June 25th, 1699, in the presence of John Gardiner, Captain William Kidd buried a treasure, including gold and jewels, on Gardiner's Island. Captain Kidd reportedly said to Gardiner, "If I call for it and it is gone, I will have your head or your son's." Son David Gardiner was just eight years old.
William Kidd was born around 1645 in Greenock, Scotland, on the Firth of Clyde, to a Presbyterian minister and his wife. While not much is known about Kidd's early life, having grown up around a port attracted him to life on the sea. By 1689, he was a member of a buccaneering crew in the West Indies (Caribbean.) No doubt tempted by the tales of making a fortune raiding the cargo of other ships, he eventually was commissioned with a ship from the English government for his privateering service on behalf of King William Ill. (Buccaneer is derived from the French word boucanier - user of a boucan [grill] for roasting meat - which pirates used in the West Indies.)
It was in the late 1600's that piracy (and privateering) came into prominence, only to die out in the early 1700's, a period of less than 50 years. Piracy was the robbery of ships at sea by thieves and outlaws. Privateering, on the other hand, was the officially sanctioned raiding of one country's ships by an enemy country. Captain Kidd, at different times, was both a pirate and a privateer. Piracy and privateering became very popular as the value of trading by ship increased among the nations of the world in the 1600's, with the advent of longer voyages ever since the time of Christopher Columbus.
After a period of piracy and privateering, mostly in the service of the English government against enemy French ships, Captain Kidd sailed his ship to New York City in 1691 and settled down to the more respectable life of a burgher (a townsman, middle-class citizen). He married a widow who had a sizable estate and they moved into a house at 119-121 Pearl Street, where they had two daughters. They also became charter members of present day Trinity Church through the "rental" of a pew. Trinity Church was a new Anglican church being built at the time.
By 1695, Captain Kidd became bored with his domestic life, and found himself longing for the more adventurous life that he once led with its freedom on the seas. He decided to sail his ship to London to formally request a royal commission as a privateer for the English government to fight French ships. England happened to be at war with France (King William's War, or the Nine Years War). After extended negotiations with the Whig leadership of the English government, Kidd received a commission not only to act as a privateer to raid enemy ships, but also to attack pirate ships. Piracy was becoming so prevalent that the major governments were being pressured by their merchant citizens to restrain piracy, in order to keep it from interfering with growing legal commerce.
In early 1696, Captain Kidd was provided with a formidable new ship, the Adventure Galley, to pursue his royal commission in the East Indies (Indian Ocean), where commerce, enemy ships and pirates could be found in abundance. The Adventure Galley was a 124 foot sailing vessel that was equipped with 34 cannons and 23 pairs of oars for her 150 man crew to row the ship when maneuvering in battle or light wind. Life aboard a privateer (as well as a pirate ship) was a lot more democratic than one would expect for the time; since the maritime experience of the captain and crew members was equally valued. The captain and crew of a privateer (and a pirate ship) would consult on decisions that needed to be made onboard: plans of action to take, meting out punishment for disobedience, and sharing the spoils of their raids.
It was in the Indian Ocean that Captain Kidd's fortunes would change, resulting in a trial and his hanging in London a few years later. For nearly two years the Adventure Galley sailed the Indian Ocean without taking a prize. The crew began pressuring Kidd to take any ship, regardless of its nationality, and in violation of the royal commission. A disgruntled crew member, gunner William Moore, continually taunted and threatened Captain Kidd, until one day, in a final confrontation, Kidd took a bucket and smashed it against Moore's head, resulting in his death the next day. Captain Kidd would later face charges of murder in a London court.
With the pressure building to raid any ship, Captain Kidd found himself in a quandary. While his royal commission allowed him to raid only French or pirate ships, he and his men were becoming desperate in their attempt to do either. "No prey, no pay" was the rule in privateering and piracy. If you didn't take any ships, you earned no pay. Gradually, the thought of raiding other types of ships became more appealing, and by late 1697, Kidd and his crew of the Adventure Galley began raiding ships of other nationalities. It wasn't long before Captain Kidd made his second fateful mistake, for which he would also be tried for simultaneously in London. On January 30th, 1698, he seized the Quedah Merchant, a 500-ton merchantman ship with a rich cargo that happened to be Armenian-owned and sailed by an English captain. When Kidd discovered his mistake - having captured an Englishman's command - he wanted to free the ship, but his crew refused and mutinied, forcing Kidd to seek shelter in his ship's cabin.
In late 1698, with his own ship in bad repair, and many of his crew having deserted for other ships with their spoils, Captain Kidd abandoned the Adventure Galley and set sail for home (New York City) in the Quedah Merchant, by way of the Caribbean, believing that his actions on the distant high seas would not catch up with him, or that he could explain them away. In the meantime, the English government received word of Kidd's activities and issued an order for his arrest on piracy. Captain Kidd learned of this when first anchoring in the Caribbean. He decided to purchase a smaller vessel, the trading sloop Antonio, on which he placed the Quedah Merchant treasure, and set sail for New York in early 1699.
Captain Kidd planned to appeal to the new governor for New York and Massachusetts, Lord Bellomont, who had been one of the six original English government officials who helped finance the Adventure Galley voyage when it was being planned in London. But Lord Bellomont was more concerned with his own fate, and proceeded to negotiate by letter with Captain Kidd as Kidd sailed around Eastern Long Island in June of 1699. Kidd was visited by his wife and two daughters at this time, as some treasure was removed by crewmen in small boats. It was during this period that Kidd dropped anchor in Gardiners Bay, and visited twice with John Gardiner of Gardiners Island, trading treasure for provisions. Gardiner was often visited by pirates, since they were very active while he was the third lord of the manor, from 1689 to 1738.
Evidently feeling that he could trust John Gardiner, Captain Kidd decided to bury the bulk of his treasure on Gardiners Island, near Cherry Harbor (in a swampy part of a heavily wooded area [Bostwick Forest] to the left of the white painted windmill and red brick manor house that you can easily see on Gardiners Island with binoculars, as you face the island from the Barnes Landing beach). The treasure included gold, silver, rubies, diamonds and silks. On display in the East Hampton Library is a small piece of silk that Kidd gave to John Gardiner, referred to as the "cloth of gold", for its gold thread design.
Captain Kidd eventually sailed from Eastern Long Island to Boston to meet with Lord Bellomont, with the understanding that he had the lord's support. Within a matter of days, Lord Bellomont had Kidd arrested and thrown in jail, and promptly began rounding up the treasure that Captain Kidd had spirited away, including the treasure on Gardiners Island. In March of 1700, Kidd was shipped under arrest to London with his treasure in the hold of the ship, accounted for with a list drawn up by Lord Bellomont (a list preserved to this day). Captain Kidd was placed in Newgate prison in London where he would remain for over a year before his trials for murder and piracy. In two days of trials, Kidd was promptly found guilty of both murder and piracy and sentenced to be hanged. On May 23, 1701, protesting his innocence and having consumed sufficient alcohol to meet his fate in a drunken state, Captain Kidd was brought to Execution Dock at the edge of the Thames River in Wapping, a section of London. His final moments were also controversial, since his hanging rope broke and he had to be strung up a second time, before he breathed his last.
Upon Kidd's death, a mystery developed as to what became of all his treasure. The English government came into possession of that part of the treasure collected by Lord Bellomont. The directors of Greenwich Hospital pressed a successful claim for a grant to use some of the treasure to help build what is today Greenwich Hospital on the Thames River. The question of what became of other treasure that Captain Kidd may have secretly buried has never been answered.
Prepared by: Bill Good, Jr., a member of the Barnes Landing Association
Primary source: Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates, by Robert C. Ritchie