Pirate's Treasure Buried in the Connecticut River
For inquiries contact Libby
Clarke's Island, which
lies in the Connecticut River in Northfield, Massachusetts, just
off the upper end of Pine Meadow, has a legend attached to it.
According to Temple and Sheldon (1875), the story goes this way:
Captain Kidd and his men ascended the Connecticut River searching
for a place to bury a treasure of gold, somewhere secluded but
distinctive. They buried the chest of gold and drew lots to see
which of their number would be killed so that his body could be
left on top of the chest to protect it from all treasure hunters.
Over the years a legend grew up around the treasure - the gold
could be dug up only by three people at midnight when the full
moon was directly overhead. They must form a triangle around the
exact spot and work in absolute silence, words would break the
In the early 19th century, Abner Field and two of his
friends attempted to find the treasure by following the
directions exactly. At midnight, under a full moon shining
directly on them, they sweated and dug, silently. Shovelful by
shovelful, they dug deeper and deeper. The sweat poured off
their bodies even in the chill night air. The mosquitoes swarmed
around, biting, but the three men were afraid to kill them for
fear the sound would break the charm. Any amount of discomfort
could be tolerated in order to find the buried treasure chest.
Suddenly there was the echoing sound of crow-bar striking against
iron. Just as the men saw a corner of the chest emerge from the
dirt, someone exclaimed,"You've hit it!" and the trio of treasure
hunters watched in consternation as the chest immediately began
to sink out of reach.
Who was Captain Kidd, where
did he get this chest of gold and why was he trying to bury it on an island in the Connecticut
River? To answer some of these questions, we must go back to the
Age of Piracy.
Spain claimed all of the territory "discovered" by
Christopher Columbus. During the next two centuries, England,
France and The Netherlands would try to gain a foothold in the
West Indies in order to share in the vast wealth found there.
These nations employed every possible means to obtain their
objectives, e.g. officially sanctioned wars during which the
privateering commission (letter of marque) allowed privately
owned ships to attack enemy vessels or, in peace time, the letter
of reprisal that could be used to attack ships of a former enemy
in order to recover any commercial losses incurred in an earlier
war. The line between officially sanctioned acts and actual
piracy was always a fine one. Were you a legitimate privateer or
a pirate when a corrupt government employee on an obscure island
in the Caribbean gave you a commission to sail and then claimed a
share of the captured goods? Were you legitimate or a pirate
when commissioned by local merchants and government officials who
invested in your voyage and took their share of the profits from
that voyage? Were you legitimate when Queen Elizabeth I of
England sanctioned your voyage as she did Francis Drake's and
then took a share of the loot brought home? Because the profits
to be made were so large, central governments so weak and greed
and corruption so rampant during this period, it was very
difficult to control the situation. Actions that were condoned
by one group were often looked on as illegal by another.
Unlike Jean Fleury, Sir Francis Drake or Sir Henry Morgan
who sailed when governments sanctioned acts of piracy and, more
frequently than not, benefitted economically from such acts,
William Kidd sailed in the last quarter of the 17th century at a
time when governments and investors were no longer willing to
condone the unruly actions of a few rogues but preferred to
invest in regular, organized commerce. In other words,
governments and investors now had more to gain through
established trade than through acts of piracy. It was William
Kidd's misfortune to sail the seas as a privateer/pirate just
when the rules changed and the privateer/pirate became an outlaw.
But William Kidd could not know any of this when he began his
life upon the sea.
Before 1689, Kidd was a member of various buccaneer crews
and eventually captained a privateer ship that was commissioned
to protect the English colonies in the Caribbean against French
attacks. He soon learned that patronage (i.e. making friends
with influential men who could help him) was the best method of
advancement. For the next half dozen years Kidd was in New York
(a haven for pirates) doing favors for, and accepting favors
from, powerful friends. In 1695 he set sail for England, hoping
to obtain a royal commission as a privateer. He took part in a
plan to capture some pirates who had sailed to the Red Sea and to
bring their loot to England where the investors (who included
King William) would divide it among themselves. Little did he
that he had made a fatal mistake!
Kidd sailed aboard the Adventure Galley, which
resembled the ship pictured here, leaving London in April, 1696,
bound for New York City and then on to the Red Sea in August.
The hunt was on and any ship belonging to a country at war with
England was fair game. Sailing with the prevailing winds, Kidd
headed south and west until he could pick up the southeast trade
winds near the equator. By mid December, the Adventure
Galley was in the South Atlantic, wallowing in a dense fog.
Suddenly the mist cleared and Kidd found himself in the middle of
a Royal Navy Squadron out of England and in
desperate need of new sailors to replace those lost to scurvy
during their voyage. By law, the Royal Navy had the right to
take half the men from any ship flying an English flag. Captain
Kidd knew that his voyage could not continue if this happened so
in the still of a windless night, he had his ship rowed away from
the squadron. Because Kidd left in such a stealthy manner, the
captains of the Navy ships were convinced he was up to no good.
They spread the word that he was a pirate when they landed in
Africa. Now fighting scurvy on his own ship and desperately in
need of fresh food and water, Kidd rounded the Cape of Good Hope,
unable to land because the Royal Navy Squadron was bound there.
Instead he headed for Madagascar, the haven for pirates in the
Indian Ocean which lay another 2,000 miles to the northeast, and
landed there in late January, 1697. All the ships of commerce in
the East Indies were available to Kidd and his crew. The race
was on: could they capture enough ships to make the voyage
worthwhile before succumbing to the ever present dangers of
disease and a
rotting ship. So William Kidd made the decision to
go to the Red Sea to capture one of the ships bearing rich
pilgrims going to Mecca. From there he continued his
unsuccessful quest down the coast of India - always looking for
the elusive treasure that would turn his voyage into a success.
By this time all thought of legal methods was gone; success was
all that counted because treasure was necessary to pay off the
Finally in late January, 1698, the Quedah Merchant
was sighted rounding the tip of India. Flying French colors in
order to trick the quarry, Kidd and his crew attacked: the prize
yielded money plus a cargo of silk, muslins, calico, sugar,
opium, iron and saltpeter which could be sold at the nearest port
for a rumored 7,000 pounds. The Quedah Merchant, renamed
Adventure Prize, was kept by Kidd as he made plans to
leave the area in his by now leaking ship. The date was March,
1698, nearly two years after leaving London. Unfortunately for
Kidd, those two years had brought a change of attitude in England
toward piracy. Officialdom now wanted to stamp out piracy in
favor of legal trading procedures. And to make matters worse,
the Quedah Merchant was not just any cargo ship. It
belonged to Muklis Khan, an influential and highly placed member
in one of the eastern kingdoms, and he demanded that the East
India Company, the English trading company in the East Indies,
make restitution. Not only had William Kidd committed an act of
piracy he had made an enemy of the commercial establishment in
England! He would be made to pay.
Kidd arrived in the West Indies in April, 1699, in the
Quedah Merchant, the Adventure Galley having
succumbed to rot. The word had been sent out from England --
Kidd should be considered a pirate. Realizing that he would not
be safe in any of the normal ports, Kidd headed for
an uninhabited island found in the channel between Puerto Rico
and Hispaniola (present day Dominican Republic). Because Mona
belonged to no one, it was a safe place to hide. Speed was
necessary now, no place was safe. Kidd had to get to New York
City, where he had influential friends, and try to save himself.
The Quedah Merchant was abandoned in the River Higuey
in Hispaniola, its cargo unloaded and sold on the spot. Gold was
much easier than bulky goods to transport. Kidd, now captaining
the Saint Antonio, headed for New York City. But what
happened to the Quedah Merchant you may ask. Because its
appearance was so distinctive, no one would sail it in the
Caribbean. It was burned and left to sink slowly where it lay,
far from the home water of the Indian Ocean.
The mood in the American colonies at this point could be
characterized as one of pirate fever. Up and down the coast,
everyone was on the hunt for pirates. Kidd
successfully made his way to Block Island where he began
negotiations through his contacts in New York to gain a pardon
actions, claiming he was forced by his crew. Could this have
been Kidd's chance to travel up the Connecticut River and bury
some gold? In July, 1699, Kidd was captured and thrown in jail
in Boston and then sent to England aboard the frigate
Advice in February, 1700, to stand trial. Once in
England, Kidd became a political pawn to be used to bring down
powerful men in the government. The trial started on May 8 and
was completed the next day -- the verdict was guilty of murder
and multiple piracies.
Captain William Kidd was hanged on May 23, 1701, but not
easily. The first rope put around this neck broke so he had to
be strung up a second time. Captain Kidd would never sail again,
but a legend grew up around his treasure. How much gold did he a
actually have? What happened to it?
Did he bury some part of it while he lay at anchor at Block Island?
Could he have gone up the Connecticut River, portaged around the falls he encountered,
and found a good hiding place on Clark's Island? We can't know
for sure, but present day maps of the Connecticut River label the
island as Kidd's Island. Next time you're there, bring a shovel
-- and be quiet!!
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON PIRATES, EXPLORE THE "NO QUARTER GIVEN", the "SEA TALES AND STORIES", and the "ABOUT PIRATES AND THEIR LIVES" WEBSITES.
J.H. Temple and G. Sheldon. 1875. History of the Town of
Northfield. Joel Munsell, Albany, N.Y.
Robert C. Ritchie. 1986. Captain Kidd and the War against
the Pirates. Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, MA and London.
Exquemeling, John. 1684. The Buccaneers of America.
Arciniegas, G. 1946. Caribbean, Sea of the New World.
A. Knopf, New York.