Pirate's Treasure Buried in the Connecticut River

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 charm!

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.

After 1492, 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 know 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 restive crew.

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 the 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 Mona Island, 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 for his 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!!
Source: bio. umass. edu