Keep It Safe: Captain Kidd Did Drop Off a Vast Treasure on Gardiners Island
But the gold was never buried there, as local folklore suggests.
First seen on Dan's Papers - February 15, 2020
Captain Kidd never buried treasure on Gardiners Island, Photo: iStock
Captain Kidd, the pirate, buried treasure on Gardiners Island. People have written about it from time to time. Often accompanying these stories are drawings of Captain Kidd, in full pirate regalia, standing on the island alongside two of his crew, who, using shovels, are digging the hole where the treasure is to be placed. Indeed, today on the island a historical marker sits in front of a pile of stones to indicate where the pirate buried the loot.
Recently, I came across a 1,000-word letter written in 1699 by Jonathan Gardiner, the proprietor of the island at that time. Gardiner wrote this letter to the Earl of Bellomont, a powerful British government figure based in Boston who had hired Kidd as a privateer. Kidd’s job was to go out in a ship Bellomont paid for and steal treasures from French freighters. England was at war with France. But as Kidd had captured treasure, then never turned any of it over to Bellomont, Bellomont was furious.
He declared Kidd an outlaw and a pirate and put a price on his head. And when he learned Kidd’s treasure was on the island, he wrote on the king’s behalf to Jonathan Gardiner, demanding it back. Gardiner was happy to be rid of it. He was a farmer who had no use for this treasure. Indeed, this treasure had been thrust upon him. And Captain Kidd said he’d kill Gardiner and his family if it wasn’t there when he came back to pick it up. Now Kidd was in a Boston prison. And he wouldn’t be coming back.
I found this letter in a century-old book called The Book of Buried Treasure by Ralph D. Paine, and Mr. Paine, in comments he wrote about the letter, had this to say.
“This artless recital [of his encounter with Kidd] has every earmark of truth, and it was confirmed in detail by other witnesses and later events.”
The letter does not, however, indicate anything was buried. And it is also clear that the pirate himself never set foot on Gardiners Island.
Needless to say, immediately after receiving this letter, Lord Bellomont had the treasure on Gardiners Island in his possession.
Much of the letter is not only artless, but it is written in the flowery Old English style that was popular at the time. Here’s the essence of the letter, in modern words.
Early one evening, Gardiner wrote, I saw a sloop with six guns riding at anchor off my island near our farmhouse. It just sat there, and so two days later in the evening, I rowed out and went on board to say hello.
The captain met me as I climbed aboard, introducing himself as Captain Kidd. I’d never heard of him. But he was friendly. He asked how my family was and I told him they were fine. He said he was on his way to Boston to meet with his financial backer, the Earl of Bellomont, and asked if I could take three young slaves, two boys and a girl, ashore to keep them safe until he returned to pick them up. I said I would do that.
I rowed the three to shore.
About two hours later, a small boat from the sloop was rowed ashore with two bales of goods and another slave boy, which I also took.
The next morning, the rowboat again came to shore and the rowers asked me to come out to talk to the captain again. When I got there, he asked if I could spare six sheep and a barrel of cider. He was very persistent, so I said I could do that and so sent for two of my men to come out so I could order that done.
While my men were off getting those things, Kidd gave me a gift for my wife of beautiful muslin and Bengali fabric. He showed it and then put it in a bag for me, and then 15 minutes later, added three more pieces of fabric to the bag.
When my men arrived with the cider and sheep, Kidd gave the men each a piece of Arabian gold for their trouble and then offered to pay me for the sheep and the cider. I said he’d given us more than enough with the present for me and my wife. He then gave more things to my men, including muslin bandannas.
And so we once again left. When we were seen to be safely on shore, Kidd fired four guns as a salute. And then he sailed off, headed for Block Island.
Three days later, the sloop dropped anchor again just offshore. And once again, Kidd sent his men in a rowboat to fetch me out to see him.
Aboard the sloop, Kidd asked me to hold still more things until he returned. They were a box of gold, a bundle of quilts, a metal chest filled with valuables and three heavy bags of other valuables.
Then two of his crewmen, named Cooke and Parrat, stepped forward and asked me to keep two bags of silver weighing 30 pounds for them. And then another mate asked me to keep a small bundle of gold and gold dust of about a pound. This mate also gave me a gift of a sash and a pair of worsted stockings. I stayed a little longer and then Kidd, seeing I was about to leave, gave me a bag of sugar. He also said that if the things he’d left with me were not there when he got back, he would kill me and my family. Then I was rowed ashore and the sloop left for Boston.
* * *
It is interesting to read that at no time did Captain Kidd either step on the island, bury anything on the island or even ask Gardiner to bury anything on the island. He was just to keep it safe until he got back.
This letter to Bellomont concludes with a long, detailed list of what Gardiner was to guard. It is the only treasure Kidd ever left in somebody else’s care, as far as we know. Here’s the list.
1. One Bag dust Gold.
2. One Bag Coined Gold and in it silver.
3. One parcel dust Gold.
4. One Bag three Silver Rings and Sundry precious stones. One bag of unpolished Stones. One ps. of Cristol and Bazer Stone, Two Cornelion Rings, two small Agates. Two Amathests all in the same bag.
5. One Bag Silver Buttons and a Lamp.
6. One Bag broken Silver.
7. One Bag Gold Bars.
8. One Bag Gold Bars.
9. One Bag Dust Gold.
10. One Bag of Silver Bars.
11. One Bag Silver Bars.
The whole of the Gold above mentioned is Eleven hundred, and Eleven ounces, Troy Weight.
The silver is Two Thousand, three Hundred, Fifty-three ounces.
The Jewels or Precious Stones Weight are seventeen Ounces … an Ounce, and Six… Stone by Tale.
The Sugar is Contained in Fifty-Seven Baggs.
The Merchandize is Contained in Forty-one Bailes.
The Canvas is Seventeen pieces.
* * *
One could speculate that because Gardiner was running a large farm operation on this 18-square-mile island there would be prying eyes noting where all this stuff was being kept, and so it might be best for Gardiner to go off by horse and wagon into the woods alone and bury the stuff where only he’d know where it was. He couldn’t just store it in a shed or under a bed, after all.
In the end, Captain Kidd’s treasure was collected by Lord Bellomont’s agents from Gardiners Island, taken to Boston and then to London. Kidd, meanwhile, after remaining in a Boston prison for over a year, was transported to England, where he was held in the Tower of London, tried, convicted of piracy and murder, and then hanged.
* * *
Nearly 300 years later, I met with Robert David Lion Gardiner, the 17th Lord of Gardiners Island—it’s still in the family—who told me that he and his wife had gone to London to attend the 1951 coronation of Queen Elizabeth. “I had brought a copy of the list of treasures my ancestor gave to Lord Bellomont’s agents. I wondered if the Queen had a list of what was received in London from Boston. She said she would have one of her chamberlains look into it, and she did. The lists did not match. London received less than Gardiner had sent. Sticky fingers along the way showed a crime had been committed that we had just discovered 300 years later. Ha.”
Document showing Captain Kidd’s treasure inventory
This article first appeared in Dan's Papers.