Captain William Kidd And The Legend Of The Lost Treasure

WORLD HISTORY | November 13, 2019

Captain Kidd in New York Harbor, in a c. 1920 painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Captain William Kidd was hanged for his crimes and his body left to rot in a cage for three years as a warning to other pirates. He was one of history’s most notorious pirates, but Kidd claimed never to have been a pirate at all. Then there is the enduring mystery of his lost treasure, which still has people searching the globe.

William Kidd, privateer, pirate. 18th century portrait by Sir James Thornhill. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Early Life

William Kidd was born circa 1645 in Greenock, Renfrew, Scotland. His father was a sea captain. Little else is known of Kidd’s early life except that his father died when he was young. The young Kidd joined a merchant ship’s crew and landed in New York. There he settled and married Sarah Oort. Oort, who had two previous husbands, was wealthy and with a touch of scandal married Kidd less than two weeks after her second husband passed. The couple had two daughters. Meanwhile, Kidd developed a reputation as a worthy sea officer and mingled in high society.

Engraved portrait of Richard Coote, 1st Earl of Bellomont, a colonial governor of New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

The Pirate-Hunter

In 1689, Kidd was hired and financed as a privateer by the governor of New York, Lord Richard Bellomont to attack French shipping and colonies in the Caribbean during the War of the Grand Alliance. While Kidd was successful at first, his crew mutinied leaving him stranded in the Caribbean. Despite this setback, the next year Kidd was engaged as a pirate-hunter to patrol the American coast.

Of all things, Kidd wanted to be a commissioned officer in the Royal Navy. However, he could not get an appointment. Instead, he was convinced to be a pirate hunter in the hopes that if he impressed the authorities enough he would be recognized and given the position.

Captain Kidd killing a mutinous crew member with a bucket. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Kidd Goes Pirate

In his new position as a pirate-hunter, he received the ship Adventure Galley and made his way to the Indian Ocean. The thought was that that region would have richer pickings. Since privateers got a portion of the captured prizes, there was great financial motivation to do so. However, Kidd was drawing blanks on finding targets and soon his crew grew mutinous. This eventually led Kidd in a rage to kill one of the crew by smashing him with an iron bucket. In the meantime, either willingly or unwillingly, Kidd began to turn pirate, taking a ship that sailed for the British East India Company the Rouparelle which he justified taking because it sailed with French papers. Then in 1698, he took the Quedagh Merchant which had a rich cargo that included silks. While the ship flew under a French flag, the vessel was actually British and the captain was trying to trick the Adventure Galley whose identity was in question.

Kidd’s crew refused to give back the prize. He relented and sailed his ships to St. Mary’s Island off Madagascar. There he found the leader of the crew that mutinied many years ago leaving him stranded in the Caribbean -- he was now a well-known pirate named, Robert Culliford. He ordered his crew to attack. Instead, the vast majority of Kidd’s crew defected to Culliford. They took the accumulated treasures, burned the Adventure Galley and the Rouparelle (renamed to November) and left Kidd and 13 loyal crew the Quedagh Merchant. The constant mutinying of his mean speaks volumes about Kidd’s leadership ability. His enterprise in ruins, Kidd sailed back to the Americas.

Buried Treasure: illustration of William "Captain" Kidd overseeing a treasure burial by Howard Pyle. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Burying His Ill-Gotten Gains

Upon his return to the Caribbean, Kidd learned to his dismay that he was a wanted for piracy. Thinking that he would be able to rely on Lord Bellomont and his other connections to save him, he sailed for New York. He fenced what cargo he had left and then buried a portion of his treasure on Gardiner’s Island, a small island located just east of Long Island, New York. Curiously, all pirates except for Captain Kidd did not bury treasure. 

Captain Kidd executed. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)


Kidd was hoping to use the treasure as a bargaining chip or bribe for a pardon. Lord Bellomont did not wish to protect a “pirate” that might scandalize him. He and Kidd’s friends deserted him. Bellomont had Kidd arrested and sent to England for trial. The trial which was unfair since Kidd was not allowed to build a defense or obtain documents that could prove he was not a pirate, was found guilty of murder and piracy. He was hanged on May 23, 1701, at Wapping-on-the-Thames in England. It took three attempts to execute Kidd since the rope broke twice. His corpse was tarred and feathered then left to rot in a cage for three years.

Kidd at Gardiner's Island: illustration of pirate captain William Kidd's supervision of the burial of his treasure at Gardiner's Island by Homer Pyle. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

The Gardiner's Island Hoard

Rightly or wrongly, Kidd has become history’s most notorious pirates. However, the enduring legend of his buried treasure lingered on. John Gardiner, the owner of Gardiner’s Island, reported to Lord Bellomont that there was treasure buried on the island. The governor dispatched men to find it. They dug up a chest and box of gold, gold dust, a box of silver, a silver ingot, Spanish coin, rubies, diamonds, porringers (small bowls), and candlesticks. The total amount was 1,111 ounces of gold worth about $1.6 million in 2019 dollars; 2,353 ounces of silver worth about $41,000 in 2019 dollars, and 17 ¾ ounces of jewels. This became the property of the Crown.

Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

The Legend that Never Dies

Kidd apparently hinted that he had hidden treasure in other locations -- or at least this is the unsubstantiated rumor. Since Kidd’s execution, people have been constantly looking for a second treasure hoard from Oak Island, Nova Scotia to Madagascar to Vietnam. In fact, as late as 2015 there was a false claim of finding the treasure in a wreck off Madagascar. As romantic and alluring as it sounds, the likelihood is that Kidd’s treasure was only the cache on Gardiner’s Island and no more. This makes sense considering how a great part of his prize was taken off by mutineers. The legend, however, did inspire Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island as well as other fictional works — for that we may thank Captain Kidd, whose sad story gave him historic immortality, but not in the way he may have wished.

Tags: Captain William Kidd | pirate

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Joseph A. Williams


Joseph A. Williams is the author of Seventeen Fathoms Deep: The Saga of the Submarine S-4 Disaster and The Sunken Gold: A Story of World War I, Espionage, and the Greatest Treasure Salvage in History.