Sep 19, 2013
The Pirates of Long Island Sound
Captain Kidd depicted burying treasure on Gardiner’s Island in a Howard Pyle illustration from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1894.
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Long before movies popularized the image of them owning the clear blue waters of the Caribbean, pirates were operating right here in Connecticut, sailing through Long Island Sound and supposedly burying treasure in Milford.
What might surprise those picturing the terrorizing outlaws conjured in popular culture, however, is that they were welcomed, not feared, by merchants in shoreline communities such as New London and New Haven. The seamen who became known as pirates were then considered black-market traders necessary to the local economy due to British trade restrictions that Colonists believed to be unfair.
“What’s interesting is that every infamous pirate went up and down the Eastern Seaboard,” says pirate historian Gail Selinger, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Pirates, of the era around the turn of the 18th century when Long Island Sound saw the majority of its pirate action. “The governor at the time, John Winthrop, didn’t particularly like them. But the merchants did.”
Connecticut merchants weren’t just buying from the pirates, says Selinger. They went as far as outfitting them with ships. “England wouldn’t let us trade directly with other European nations,” says Richard Radune, author of Sound Rising, which chronicles the Sound’s early strategic importance. “We basically ignored the British navigation acts and that included trade with anyone—even pirates. There was profit to be made by [Colonial] merchants who would take these goods and then sell them in their stores.”
While some pirates were engaged in trade deemed illegal under British law, others actually had official governmental authorization to operate during wartime in the interest of a particular nation. Once war ended, the activities of “privateers,” as they were known, instantly became illegal, says Selinger. Some returned to legitimate concerns, but unable to resist the lucrative opportunities of operating outside the system, many converted to piracy.
Captain William Kidd—the legendary pirate believed to have buried treasure all along the Connecticut coast—may not have been as nefarious as popularly thought. Selinger believes that he was really a privateer, commissioned in 1696 to defend British shipping. “King Charles had invested in William Kidd’s [activities], and he was supposed to go after pirates,” he says. “After months at sea, they didn’t find anybody and his crew mutinied.”
When Kidd later spotted a Dutch ship carrying French passes and goods, he attacked it. While the Dutch were neutral, France was an enemy of England.
“When he landed in the West Indies, he found out he and his ship were considered pirates [because he attacked the Dutch ship],” says Selinger. Wanting to prove his innocence—he had been, after all, commissioned by the King—Kidd sailed to New York, but not before leaving some of his fortune on Gardiner’s Island.