Captain Kidd Visits Gardiner's Island

Bill Good Jr. | June 25, 1998

'If I call for it and it is gone, I will have your head or your son's.'


On June 25, 1699, in the presence of John Gardiner, Capt. 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." David Gardiner was just 8 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 his early life, growing up around a port attracted him to a life on the sea. By 1689, he was a member of a buccaneering crew in the West Indies, no doubt tempted by tales of making a fortune raiding the cargo of other ships. ("Buccaneer" is derived from the French boucanier, one who uses a boucan, or grill, for roasting meat - which pirates often did in the West Indies.)

Captain Kidd was eventually commissioned with a ship from the English Government into privateering service on behalf of King William III. It was in the late 1600s that piracy (and privateering) came into prominence, only to die out in the early 1700s, 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 those of an enemy country. Captain Kidd, at different times, was 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 1600s.

Kidd sailed his ship to New York City in 1691 and settled down to the more respectable life of a burgher. He married a widow with a sizable estate and they moved into a house at 119-21 Pearl Street, where they had two daughters. They became charter members of Trinity Church (the oldest church in Manhattan) through the "rental" of a pew. Trinity 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 existence he had formerly led, with its freedom on the seas. He decided to sail his ship to London and request a royal commission to fight French ships for the English Government. England was then at war with France.

After extended negotiations with the Whig leadership, Kidd received not only a privateering commission to raid enemy ships, but also leave to attack pirate ships. Piracy was becoming so prevalent that European governments were being pressured by their merchant citizens to restrain it, and to keep thieves at sea from interfering with the growth of commerce.

In early 1696, Captain Kidd was provided with a formidable new ship, the Adventure Galley, to pursue his 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 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 together on decisions that needed to be made on board: what action to take, meting out punishment for disobedience, sharing the spoils of their raids.

It was in the Indian Ocean that Captain Kidd's fortunes would change, resulting in his trial and 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, a 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.

The gunner died the next day. Captain Kidd would later face charges of murder.

With the pressure building to raid any ship, Captain Kidd found himself in a quandary. His royal commission allowed him to raid only French or pirate ships, and he and his men were becoming desperate in their attempts to do so. "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 be simultaneously tried in London. On Jan. 30, 1698, he seized the Quedah Merchant, a 50-ton merchantman with a rich cargo that was Armenian-owned, but happened to be captained by an Englishman. 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 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 in the Quedah Merchant for his home in New York City, by way of the Caribbean, believing, apparently, 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 the death of William Moore and the boarding of the English captain's ship, and issued an order for Captain Kidd's arrest on piracy. Kidd learned of this when first anchoring in the Caribbean. He purchased 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 of 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 negotiated by letter with Captain Kidd as Kidd sailed around eastern Long Island in June of 1699.

It was during this period that Kidd dropped anchor in Gardiner's Bay, and visited twice with John Gardiner of Gardiner's Island, trading treasure for provisions. Gardiner was often visited by pirates, who were very active while he was third Lord of the Manor, from 1689 to 1738.

Evidently feeling he could trust John Gardiner, Captain Kidd decided to bury the bulk of his treasure on Gardiner's island, near Cherry Harbor, in a swampy part of a heavily wooded area, Bostwick's forest. (This place is to the left of the white windmill and red brick manor house that can easily be seen with binoculars as you face the island from the Barnes Landing beach or any beach on Gardiner's Bay.)

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 the Gardiners, 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, believing that he had the lord's support. Within a matter of days, however, Lord Bellomont had Kidd arrested and thrown in jail, and promptly began rounding up his treasure, including what had been left on Gardiner's 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, where he would languish for over a year before his trials on murder and piracy.

In two days of trials, Kidd was 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; the 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 had become of his treasure. The English Government came into possession of that part of it 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. But the question of what happened to other treasure that Captain Kidd may have secretly buried has never been answered.

Bill Good Jr. of Springs, a director of the Barnes Landing Association, wrote this for the association's May newsletter in honor of East Hampton's 350th anniversary.