This week in history, 313 years ago

The world’s most famous pirate, and his Block Island legacy
Thu, 02/21/2013 - 4:22pm

This week in history 313 years ago, in February 1700, Captain William Kidd was shipped from Boston to London and kept in a stone dungeon. Eight months earlier Kidd had been walking on Block Island, a free man.

It was late-June 1699 and Captain Kidd, sailing out of Long Island Sound, saw the welcoming twin mounds of land — separated by the expected space of intervening water — rise ever higher above the horizon until, connecting, they formed the whole of Block Island.

The sailor who would become the world’s most famous pirate was about to pay a visit.

William Kidd’s expectations were similar to many of the summer visitors and residents who arrive here each summer — for ahead, on that mass of ever-more-distinct land, were waiting Kidd’s wife, Sarah, and their two young daughters.

Kidd was a successful New York businessman, a land owner, ship proprietor, and friend of powerful politicians. Commissioned by some of those friends in 1696 to lead a privateering expedition to the Indian Ocean against the King’s enemies, he had accumulated great treasure but, straying too near the invisible boundary between privateering and piracy, was returning now to American authorities to defend his actions.

But as Kidd sailed down Long Island Sound — for a showdown meeting with Lord Bellomont, a patron of his expedition presently sitting as governor in Boston — he began dispersing some of the captured treasure: gold bars, gold dust, silver plate, precious stones, jewelry and fine silks.

Continually Kidd was met by small ships that carried away portions of the wealth for safekeeping with friends. At the eastern end of Long Island Sound, just over the horizon from Block Island, Kidd stopped for several days burying treasure on Gardiner’s Island, bestowing presents also upon the island’s owner, Lord Gardiner.

All of southern New England knew of this slow passage by Kidd toward Boston, and of the cloud of piracy that hung over him. Couriers of the various colonies along the route sent the latest news back and forth. And so it was that Block Islanders also knew of the drama being played out in the waters around them.

Some historians believe Kidd’s fate was sealed when Bellomont realized he could make more than twice as much money by arresting Kidd and claiming as reward one third of the treasure, rather than by declaring Kidd innocent and — as one of Kidd’s business partners in the expedition — receiving only about an eighth of the riches.

Why could Block Island have been a site for Captain Kidd’s buried treasure? Because he was here. And he was here during the very week when his main focus was to disperse a good deal of his treasure, before proceeding to the unpredictable encounter with Lord Bellomont in Boston.

How do we know Kidd was on Block Island? Because after Kidd’s arrest in Boston, Lord Gardiner relinquished to Bellomont the treasure and gifts left on Gardiner’s Island. Writing to Bellomont, Gardiner described how in June “Kidd sailed with his Sloop for Block Island,” and that he returned three days later.

The affidavit of one of Kidd’s crewman — obtained by Lord Bellomont — confirms that Kidd reached Block Island: “Kidd proceeded to Block Island and gave one Sands there two guns.”

That something special occurred on Block Island is suggested by the later visit here of another of Kidd’s shipmates, James Gillam, a notorious pirate in his own right. Gillam, alias James Kelly, had met Kidd in the Indian Ocean and sailed back to America with him, but left Kidd’s ship just before reaching New York. Gillam, who was also eagerly sought by Bellomont, turned up on Block Island— for whatever purpose — after Kidd had departed the island and been put in jail in Boston.

In August 1699 a former governor of Rhode Island wrote to Bellomont about Gillam: “Edward Sands carried Gillam away westward in a small boat from Block Island.”

Bellomont, ever thorough, obtained further information from depositions given by at least four Block Islanders, including the 26-year-old Edward Sands.

That fall, Gillam was caught in Charleston, Massachusetts, shipped to London, tried and executed by hanging.

Kidd himself, while pondering in June 1699 the merits of proceeding to Boston, wrote to Bellomont from the “Block Island Road.” In other words, Kidd’s ship was anchored off Block Island’s Crescent Beach — a well-known roadstead, indicated on old nautical charts as a safe haven from the prevailing southwesterly winds of summer.

After leaving Block Island, Captain Kidd arrived with his family in Boston on July 2, 1699. A few days of seemingly cordial questioning ensued, then suddenly he was shackled and placed in prison on July 6. He would never be free again. After being shipped to London that February of 1700, and kept in a stone dungeon for more than a year, Kidd was tried and hung in May 1701.

So, where would you hide treasure if you were one of the most sought after men in the world, hunted by His Royal Majesty’s ships on the seven seas, and you found yourself anchored off Crescent Beach, Block Island?

In June 1955 mainland newspapers announced the beginning of an electronic search to find Captain Kidd’s treasure in the area around New Harbor. The affair was a joint effort of the Rhode Island Development Council and Radiac Co., which was a division of General Nucleonics Corporation of New York. As implied by the name of the private company, this would be the first time that modern scientific instruments were used so precisely for this purpose.

Amongst the party was M. M. Reiss, president of Radiac and formerly with the Atomic Energy Commission. Also included were a magazine writer, a photographer and an undersea diver. One model of their equipment, they announced, could detect gold, silver, tungsten, copper or iron at many feet beneath the surface.

They had acquired treasure directions from the Rhode Island Historical Society, reading in an ancient hand, “at the SE Side of the Bay there is a Creek and on the south side of the Bay 50 yards from the waters side there is a large hollow oak tree ...”

Moving the detectors across the lawn of the Narragansett Inn, while listening through earphones, one member of the team shouted “I have something! I have something.”

“That’s the cesspool,” said the Narragansett’s owner, Sam Mott.

Neither the Westerly Sun nor the Providence Journal noted the finding of any treasure on Block Island that summer ... so it was reported.