Weird tales of the shoreline’s hidden riches
Centuries after their last voyages, pirates still conjure elemental excitement in our collective imagination. We thrill to cinematic images of sleek sloops silhouetted by full moons sailing the Seven Seas in search of gold, silver, damask and jewels. Well into the 21st century, legends and lore of famous pirates resonate along the shoreline and up the Connecticut River.
Tales of treasures yet unfound—and the supernatural beings that watch over them—are told and retold by those who love bygone days of adventure. Many folks hope to stumble across unimaginable riches buried on our shores by fearless corsair captains on long-ago moonless nights.
Some A-list colonial American pirates may have buried treasure along the Connecticut coast and up the state’s namesake river. Treasure hunters have found caches of gold doubloons. Other hoards of fabled riches still wait to be unearthed. Charles Island off the coast of Milford suffered severe environmental damage due to gold seekers shoveling its sands. That town capitalizes on its buccaneering heritage with a yearly Captain Kidd Day festival geared toward family fun and economic development. Skippers of tour boats that weave among the Thimble Islands spellbind their passengers with tales of Captain Kidd rowing ashore to bury loot on Money Island. There is also Money Point in Westbrook, where an eccentric professor spent years digging the beach at low tide in hopes of turning up Kidd’s gold.
Captain William Kidd is one of the most enigmatic figures in buccaneer history. He exemplifies the larcenous, dashing (sometimes homicidal) sea rovers that sail through our reveries. He was a Scotsman anointed by New York’s colonial governor and English nobility to lead a privateering voyage to, ironically, pursue pirates. He fell from grace when he captured a treasure-laden vessel in the Red Sea that may or may not have been legitimate prey. This angered his supporters, who branded him a pirate.
On the island of Coromos, legend has it that he made the acquaintance of the Angel Moroni, keeper of the golden tablets that loom large in Mormon theology. The Angel purportedly taught Kidd how to summon ghosts and demons to do his bidding, and keep buried riches safe from gold seekers.
Upon his return to the New World, Kidd learned that he was an accused pirate with a price on his head. He sailed up the Atlantic seaboard and landed on Gardiner’s Island in Long Island Sound. Kidd buried a portion of his ill-gotten riches on the island, where he lay at anchor in the summer of 1699. Many small boats from Connecticut visited his ship. Some historians believe those boats returned home laden with gold, jewels, silver and fine cloth. Their comings and goings inspire the legends of demon-guarded Kidd treasure that pique imaginations today.
The luckless captain then sailed to Boston to negotiate with the colonial governor. He was followed shortly by his Gardiner’s Island treasure, but it was not enough to secure his freedom. Kidd was shipped across the Atlantic in chains and hanged on London Dock. His body was encased in an iron cage and swung for years on the banks of the Thames River to warn seafarers away from the pirate life.
While the fabled buccaneer was burying his treasure on Gardiner’s Island, another legend grew there. It involved the lord of the manor, John Lyon Gardiner purloining a large diamond and slipping it into a well bucket. James was a confirmed bachelor, but a resplendent beauty from Lyme named Sarah Griswold, out for a day sail, was blown onto his island by a gale. James was immediately smitten. A few weeks later, he was rowed across Long Island Sound by 40 liveried oarsmen. He leapt ashore, muddying his kidskin boots, and presented a surprised Sarah with the nicked pirate diamond to pledge his troth. She said yes, and returned to Gardiner’s Island as the bejeweled mistress of the manor, and James’ bride. That, at least, is one version of the old story.
Lion’s Rock in Old Lyme is one place where Kidd’s treasure may repose. As the story goes, Kidd followed Moroni’s instructions and installed a multi-headed demon fond of devouring humans to watch over his trove. This horrible apparition can be thwarted, however, if someone reads the Bible while an accomplice digs up the booty. Modern day treasure hunters are frustrated because no one seems to know exactly where Lion’s Rock is located. This elusive piece of granite is one of several sites on the river that is believed to house Kidd’s hoard. Lord’s Island, Haddam Island, Middle Haddam and Haddam Neck are all targets for metal detectors today. The Haddam Neck treasure was supposedly buried by two of Kidd’s crewmen, and is guarded by the petulant ghost of the captain himself.
Farther upstream, Wethersfield Cove is another possible cache site. Generations of gold seekers claim to have been frightened away from digging there by strange and terrifying noises and visions. One would-be millionaire reported that he was chased by the ghost of William Moore—a sailor whom Captain Kidd killed by smashing his head with an oaken bucket for making mutinous remarks. To date, excavations in this area have turned up a few gold coins consistent with Kidd’s time period. Hopeful hunters can be seen scanning the brush surrounding the cove with metal detectors, trowels at the ready, should the pinging begin.
Just across the Massachusetts line, Clark’s Island is so entangled in treasure lore that most folks simply refer to it as Kidd’s Island. There are conflicting stories as to the nature of the shade that oversees that fabled cache of riches. Some say that after Kidd and several crewmen buried the booty, they drew straws to see who would remain on the island to keep watch over the loot. The bloke who came up short was promptly shot and buried beside the treasure chest. Kidd then used diabolical powers to ensure his specter kept the gold safe.
In a slightly more romantic version, the island’s pelf is watched over by the ghost of a beautiful Creole girl, whom Kidd kidnapped from the Caribbean. According to some sources, she was interred along with the treasure so it could be, in Kidd’s words, “watched over by the spirit of her who was once a guileless maiden on the earth.”
Captain Kidd was not the only buccaneer to enlist spirits to safeguard Connecticut swag. In 1753, a Spanish Galleon, the San Jose y Helena, heavily laden with gold and silver, ran aground on a reef off New London. Badly damaged, she was towed to the town’s docks. Her repairs, however, required the removal of her precious cargo so the ship could be careened. To no one’s great surprise, most of it promptly disappeared. In a remarkably generous ruling, the General Assembly compensated the shipwrecked Iberians for their losses, and they happily sailed back to Spain.
Rumors and accusations as to who stole the treasure made their way around the Whaling City’s taverns and taprooms, but no one was ever conclusively pegged as the perpetrator. Gradually, the
town forgot about the incident and settled back to its seafaring ways.
Some 70 years later, a convicted witch named Granny Strickland revived interest in the story. She had been banished from Connecticut for her necromantic activities and settled in Vermont, which had more liberal attitudes toward the Black Arts. She kept a set of clear rocks that she used as crystal balls in her arcane divinations. While in a trance, she claimed her magic pebbles revealed box upon box of silver coins and gold ingots. They were buried, according to the numinous stones, under a dock in New London, and had lain there untouched for decades. The witch summoned her somewhat gullible grandsons, and enlisted them in her efforts to bring the bounty to the Green Mountain State.
With the boys, she sent a hand-drawn map that located the precious metals under a rickety, old unused wharf. In the small hours of the morning, the brothers made their way to the harbor’s edge by lantern light and began to wield pick and shovel. Their hole kept filling with water and digging was difficult. Hot, tired and discouraged, the boys were about to abandon their quest when a shovel sparked against something hard: an ironbound chest. Granny’s visions were validated. They dug as fast as they could until they gained a little purchase on the box and lifted it from its resting place. They wanted to get out of town before dawn. But beings from the Other World had different plans.
As they stooped to lift the heavy box, its iron bindings became white hot and impossible to hold. The air filled with deep growls and the vision of a giant dog filled their pit. Red eyes flashed around them in all directions, piercing the darkness. If that wasn’t scary enough to dissuade them, a huge wild goose with blazing green eyes hovered above them, hissing horrible curses and spitting burning bile on the terrified treasure seekers. Granny had promised they would be safe, but these horrific haints were too much for them. They dropped their tools and beat a hasty retreat out of New London. A disappointed Granny gave them some amulets and persuaded them to go back and try again, but the dock had disappeared.
The gold and silver from the Spanish ship were never found.
Not all Connecticut treasures are guarded by ghouls. In 1655, the pirate David Marteens captured a galleon with cargo worth an estimated $20 million. He was chased by other pirates and made his way up the Connecticut River to Windsor. The Puritans there wanted no part of pirates. But Marteens greased some palms, and set up camp for a couple of weeks to repair his storm-damaged ship and bury his treasure. He made his way inland and dug a deep hole near what is now Salmon Brook. Lacking Kidd’s mystical powers, he relied on stones marked with secret symbols to mark the spot where his money was interred. He sailed downriver to plunder some more and was never heard from again.
For a couple hundred years, treasure seekers would dig in the area in hopes of striking it rich, to no avail. But in the 1920s, a fellow named Nelson chanced upon some rocks inscribed with letters and numbers. He was unable to decipher them, so he enlisted the aid of a buddy named Ruches. Together, they found more stones but could not suss out their hidden meanings. They dug them up and brought them to an archeology professor, who determined that the stones were crafted by one Robert Caldwell—a member of Marteen’s crew. All the guys had to do, said the professor, was return them to their original location and they would point to the prize. Alas, the area had been flooded and overgrown. The friends couldn’t find the rock’s initial resting places. Today, the treasure remains secure in sandy soil, awaiting someone’s spade.
These tales of demons may seem fantastical, but dreams of treasure and the age of pirates endure. The hulls of famous buccaneers parted Connecticut’s waters. Their legacy and lore can be felt on foggy mornings when wisps of memory float along shoreline. We still stroll beaches in hopes of finding a doubloon amidst the sea glass. The legends of these long ago looters are woven into the fabric of our imagination. Today’s denizens of Long Island Sound and the Connecticut River celebrate the memories of famous freebooters, and keep their stories alive to thrill succeeding generations.