CAPTAIN KIDD ON THE RARITAN BAY
(Originally Published in Weird NJ, Volume 14)
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PIRATES IN CENTRAL JERSEY
Many people today are unaware of the role New Jersey, and especially the Raritan Bayshore, played in the lives of many pirate legends in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The waters between Sandy Hook and New York City were infested with pirates and French privateers, and many landing parties rowed on to shore or up the creeks and rivers of Central Jersey, including Wales Creek, Matawan Creek, Waycake Creek, and others. Blackbeard attacked farmers and villages near what is today Middletown, and Captain Morgan often visited the area. The Morgan section of Sayreville is said to have been named after relatives of the infamous pirate. A triad of politicians, businessmen, and ship owners who were either bribed by, or did business with the pirates, protected them. Many wealthy colonial families' fortunes began by either investing in pirate expeditions, or buying plundered goods at a discount and reselling them at a large profit. Pirates were not only tolerated, but in many cases they were openly encouraged. And the most famous pirate to ever trawl the Jersey waters was the notorious Captain Kidd.
THE LEGEND OF CAPTAIN KIDD
It was cold and rainy on the morning of May 23, 1701 in London, England; perfect weather for an execution. The convicted, William Kidd, was lead to the gallows, defiant to the end. The noose was placed around his neck and the wood block kicked out below him. But, instead of a hanging body, only the dangling end of a rope appeared above the gallows. The rope had broken and Kidd had fallen below to the ground. Unlike in the movies, this was not looked upon as an act of divine providence. It was looked upon as a sign of a poorly strung rope. Kidd was promptly brought back to the gallows platform and the ritual was repeated. This time the rope held, and the career of the most famous, and probably ineffective, pirate in history died. The end of Kidd's life was only the beginning of his legend, for what most people remember him for are not his adventures, but his legendary buried treasure.
Captain Kidd was a resident of New York City when he traveled to England in 1695 in search of a commission in the Royal Navy. He was born around 1645 in Scotland, and after commanding a privateer ship in a successful expedition in the Caribbean, he established himself as a wealthy and politically connected colonist, and married a wealthy Monmouth County widow. Failing to gain a command in the British Navy, he was persuaded by political associates and schemers to seek a privateering license. With backing from many of the leading men of the time in England, Kidd was granted a license by the King to seize and capture French and Pirate ships, and split the booty with the government and his backers.
In May, 1696, Kidd set sail from England to New York City in his new ship, the "Adventure Galley". On the way, much of his crew was impressed (forcibly drafted) by a British Navy warship. This forced Kidd to recruit a new crew when he arrived in New York and to pay them a larger share of the profit than he expected. He promised the crew sixty percent of the booty taken, but unfortunately he had already promised sixty percent to his backers. With this inauspicious start, Kidd left for the Red Sea to seek his fortune.
In the spring of 1697, the "Adventure Galley" arrived in the Red Sea. Kidd quickly forgot about his primary mission, and ignored various pirates he encountered. He even docked in the same ports with some, making no attempt to apprehend them, as he was required by the license granted to him by the King. Kidd did try to keep to his promise to attack only French ships at first. However, his crew quickly tired of allowing rich ships of other nationalities to pass unmolested, and attempted a mutiny. It was during this revolt Kidd killed a gunner, William Moore, with a blow to the head, using a bucket as a weapon. The crew backed down, but Kidd was forever changed by the incident, and began to attack ships no matter what their nationality or origin. He had officially become a pirate.
After attacking and capturing several ships, Kidd made his name in pirate lore with the capture of the "Quedah Merchant", a fabulously rich Indian ship traveling with silks, guns, spices and gold. He split some of the booty with his crew, scuttled the "Adventure Galley", and sailed for the Caribbean on the captured Indian vessel, now renamed the "Adventure Prize". On arrival, Kidd learned he been denounced as a pirate, and was wanted by the British government. After scuttling the ship, he purchased a small sloop and headed for Boston with a small crew and hoped to take care of the problem.
On the way to Boston, Kidd stopped at various locations in New Jersey, and dropped anchor off the coast of Monmouth County, in the Raritan Bay. From there he sent landing parties ashore to both New Jersey and New York City to fix his "pirate problem" with the government using his political connections and the proceeds of his captured booty. It was common practice for pirates to buy safety or pardons from corrupt colonial politicians. After bribing all the appropriate people, and hiding some of his treasure, Kidd left for Boston to meet with the governor.
Upon his arrival to Boston, Kidd was arrested by the new governor, a fairly honest man for his day, and imprisoned. He claimed to have hidden a treasure of 40,000 British Pounds, but rumors at the time put his missing treasure at 400,000 Pounds. Only 10,000 Pounds was ever recovered, and it was sent to England along with Kidd in early 1700. In order to protect prominent backers and associates, Kidd was given a quick trial before the Admiralty Court, with limited evidence allowed by the court, and some evidence suppressed by the prosecution. He was found guilty of the murder of William Moore and of piracy and was sentenced to be publicly hanged. He maintained his innocence to the end, and promised to retrieve his treasure to give it to his backers and the government if only they would release him and give him a ship. Whether he was telling the truth, or just trying to save his neck, we will never know.
After his execution, Kidd's body was covered with tar, bound with chains, and hung over the Thames River in London as a warning to all future pirates. It remained there for years until finally it rotted completely away.
THE SEARCH FOR CAPTAIN KIDD'S BURIED TREASURE
Soon after Captain William Kidd's arrest, gold and other treasure worth about 10,000 Pounds was dug up on Gardiners Island off the coast of Long Island. Kidd left it there in the care of John Gardiner, who cooperated with British authorities in retrieving it (Amazingly, Gardiners Island is still privately owned by the Gardiner family after 400 years.). The finding of this treasure, along with Kidd's insistence of a fabulous treasure hidden elsewhere, began the never-ending search for the legendary buried treasure of Captain Kidd.
Although many places in New Jersey have been advanced as the site of Kidd's hidden treasure, four have a particularly strong claim. One site is Cape May, where pirate and other ships often stopped because it was a source of fresh water. Another possible location is an island that was located at the mouth of the Toms River an area that provided protection for pirates from the ocean elements. A third area is Sandy Hook, near where Kidd anchored on his final voyage in Raritan Bay. This spot where the treasure was supposedly buried was marked by a grove of pine trees. These trees vanished long ago, as well as all memories of where they once stood. Probably the most famous and plausible burial site was just north of Sandy Hook near Whales (Wales) Creek, which today is the Southeast border of Middlesex and Monmouth counties. Just off the shoreline was a small island where some 17th century Spanish gold coins were found. This island became known as Money Island, and was located off the coast where Cliffwood Beach is today. It has long since disappeared under the eroding waters of the Raritan Bay, aided by extensive excavation over the centuries. Just inland from this location is a small body of water once called Duck Pond, but now known as Treasure Lake, where some additional gold coins were found. This is another nearby possible site of Kidd's treasure. William S. Horner, the noted and esteemed Monmouth County historian who wrote early in the century, dismisses the Cliffwood Beach legend as "an old and worthless tradition." However he admits to seeing some of the recovered gold.
What is not a legend, and cannot be disputed, was the existence of two gigantic elm trees, which were known as Kidd's Rangers. One was at the mouth of Matawan Creek, in Keyport, and stood until the turn of this century. The other was located at Fox Hill, now known as Rose Hill, which was 30 to 40 feet higher then now (It is an interesting coincidence that Rose Hill became a cemetery in the early 1700's and is considered one of the most haunted cemeteries in New Jersey). These trees, according to legend, acted as range markers to guide Kidd back to his buried gold, and Cliffwood Beach is centered between these two markers when sailing west from Long Island. Horner confirms the existence of these trees, and remembers seeing the one at Matawan Creek in his youth.
To this day, you can still see people occasionally searching for treasure at Cliffwood Beach using shovels and medal detectors. On occasion some tiny bits of gold and silver are still found, but whether they are ancient or modern in age has not been determined.
THE LEGACY OF CAPTAIN KIDD
Before Captain William Kidd set sail for his final voyage from Raritan Bay to Boston, most of his remaining crew left with their shares of the booty, preferring not to take the risk of arrest. Some signed on to other ships, some went back to being pirates, and others settled down. Two of the latter we know stayed on in Monmouth County, New Jersey.
Around the time of Kidd's trail in England, a citizen of Middletown, New Jersey, named Moses Butterworth was arrested in Monmouth County. It was claimed that Butterworth had sailed with Kidd and participated in acts of piracy. The rule of law at the time called for him to be sent to New York, where he would be held until he could be sent to England for trial before the Admiralty Court, which had jurisdiction in piracy cases. Instead, the newly appointed and highly unpopular governor of New Jersey determined a local court in Middletown would try Butterworth. The trial was scheduled to be held at a building originally built as in 1670 as a blockhouse (fort) to protect the surrounding inhabitants from Indians during King Phillip's War. It was later converted to a jail and courthouse when the danger of attack passed. On the day of the trial, a mob of 50 people, some indignant citizens defending the rule of law, others possibly former pirates coming to the aid of crew mate, burst into the courtroom where they took the governor prisoner until the accused could make good his escape. Due to the people's anger, and the weak legal argument of a local court conducting a trial for piracy, no action against members of the mob was taken. Moses Butterworth disappeared somewhere in the direction of Raritan Bay, where he was never seen again, or at least never identified. Years later some people spoke of an old man who lived alone in the Highlands overlooking Sandy Hook, and it was speculated, but never proven, that he was the missing pirate.
Another reformed pirate mate of Captain Kidd who settled in Monmouth County was William Leeds. He became a respected citizen, who was known for his wealth and his generosity. Although some said he knew where Kidd's treasure was buried, and that accounted for his wealth, most people felt he had just invested his ill-gotten money wisely. Upon his death he left his entire estate of 438 acres where Thompson Park and Brookdale Community College is today to Christ Church in Shrewsbury, and Christ Church in Middletown, which at that time were one church, but have since separated. These two churches still benefit financially from the land Leeds bequeathed to them. He is buried at the Shrewbury church. His grave is next to the tower at the north side of the church. Some sources say this church once possessed Leed's sea chest, which they occasionally exhibited, but no one at the church today admits to any knowledge of it.
The church in Middletown is the basis of one of the more interesting legends about Captain Kidd. Carved in the plaster above the pulpit is a small cross. According to legend, Captain Kidd carved this cross with his sword during a visit there, but this would seem to be impossible. The original church at this site was not built until 1702, a year after Kidd's death, and the current church building was completed in 1836, albeit around the framework of the original. However, to this day no one has forwarded a plausible explanation for the cross, or why it is carved there. This is not this church's only connection with pirates. Both the original and subsequent buildings used the foundation of the blockhouse where Moses Butterworth was imprisoned and tried, and where other pirates were held before extradition to New York City and then England for trial. Also, a fierce battle between Middletown residents and Blackbeard and his pirates, on a raiding foray for supplies, took place along King's Highway outside the current church location. This historical legacy of pirates existed through the 250th anniversary of Christ Church in Middletown, when parishioners dressed as pirates "raided" Christ Church in Shrewsbury and carried back historical treasures owned jointly by the two churches to use during the celebration.
These days one can once again walk along the sand and grass of the Raritan Bayshore from South Amboy to Sandy Hook, with only occasional sightings of modern life, as parks and nature areas replace docks and warehouses. Although it will never again look the same as in the year 1700, at least now one can again see what drew the early settlers to this area. The calm waters of the bay, the many creeks and streams, and the good soil and moderate temperature gave them safe harbors, water for drinking and to power their mills, and abundant food. One can also see how close New York City was, but how isolated they would feel without today's paved highways, bridges and commuter railroads. There were only two ways to travel in 1700, slowly on dirt paths through dangerous woods, or more easily over waters teeming with pirates. Looking out on the calm Raritan Bay lit my moonlight on a brisk October, one can see why the early settlers more often than not walked