From New Jersey to Vietnam, there’s barely a swatch of the world left untouched by the swashbuckling pirate Captain Kidd’s evasive legacy. For 300 years, treasure hunters have been scouring Kidd’s route along the high seas for thousands of pounds in lost treasure he’s said to have buried. The hunt has inspired presidents (Franklin Delano Roosevelt went on at least one search expedition) and authors (Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island comes straight from the Kidd rumor mill) and continues to spur foolhardy adventurers along.
On Thursday, American explorer Barry Clifford announced a discovery of sunken treasure languishing at the bottom of the Indian Ocean off the coast of Madagascar. Clifford believes the 110-pound silver bar with strange markings he uncovered is a remnant of the notorious pirate’s wrecked ship.
Though Madagascar has embraced its newfound status as the location of a long-sought loot, there’s not yet confirmation that the loot actually belonged to Kidd. UNESCO has criticized Clifford’s methods and will be sending a contingency to take control of the area next month. While he’s the latest to proclaim success in a long-failed mission to recover thousands of pounds of stolen pirate treasure that have evaded explorers for centuries, Clifford certainly won’t be the last to shout Captain Kidd’s name at first sight of a glint at the bottom of an ocean.
In the late 1600s, Captain Kidd was tasked by Britain to combat the scourge of piracy that had infested its trading waters. Kidd, a captain of high repute living in what’s now New York City, was asked by the colonial governor to head an expedition fighting the blight of ship hijacking occurring on the Indian Ocean.
Within two years, Kidd realized his true passion was actually the piracy itself, and became one of the most legendary pirates to ply the high seas.
Sadly, piracy isn’t a long-term gig for most. Kidd was no exception, and in 1699 he ditched his ship, the Cara Merchant, in the Caribbean before he returned to New York. Though he expected his political connections could save him, Kidd was shipped back to England and sentenced to death. It took three ropes to successfully hang Kidd in London in 1701.
His last and most famous conquest before his very public downfall was grabbing a Armenian ship with an English captain and a belly full of British East India Company loot. The supplies on this ship—it was supposedly stocked with thousands of pounds of gold, silver, textiles and porcelain—became inspiration to uncountable treasure hunters.
But when it was discovered in 2007 off the coast of Catalina Island, University of Indiana archaeologists were pleasantly surprised to discover that centuries of Kidd followers had failed miserably.
“When I first looked down and saw it, I couldn’t believe everybody missed it for 300 years,” one of the divers said. “I’ve been on thousands of wrecks and this is one of the first where it’s been untouched by looters.”
It wasn’t for lack of trying. Kidd boasted of having amassed a treasure worth 40,000 British pounds, but only a quarter of that was dug up on a New York island and returned to London shortly after his death. For three centuries, the promise of that remaining bounty has put gold bullions in the eyes of treasure hunters across the globe. But even if they had gotten to the sunken ship before archaeologists did, there was nothing to find—Kidd is thought to have stripped it of valuables and burned it before leaving the island.
Rumors of Kidd’s treasure has spurred on two centuries of visitors to a small island off the coast of Nova Scotia, famed for its sinkhole called the “money pit.” Since 1795, treasure hunters with their eyes on this hole have been landing at Oak Island, to dig for the evasive treasure. There are a litany of theories about what the tenacious diggers on Oak Island are actually looking for, but the most widely held belief is that Kidd left his loot there.
A young Franklin Delano Roosevelt was one of the early adopters of this theory. In 1909, the future president sailed to Oak Island and helped finance and erect “Camp Kidd” as headquarters for their treasure hunting expedition.
“I wish much I could have gone up the coast this summer and visited Oak Island and seen the work you are doing—for I shall always be interested in that romantic spot,” he wrote to a friend years later.
FDR isn’t the only name connected to the wayward treasure. Among the strangest theory is a rumor started in the early 1900s that John Jacob Astor secretly amassed his fortune by discovering Kidd’s treasure buried on Deer Isle, Maine. But not all were impressed by the promise of devoting untold hours to a reward so unlikely.
Benjamin Franklin gave perhaps the most level-headed assessment of the treasure hunting craze when he wrote in 1729 of the digging that had commandeered the Eastern coastline:
“[T]here are among us great numbers of honest artificers and labouring people, who, fed with a vain hope of growing suddenly rich, neglect their business, almost to the ruining of themselves and families, and voluntarily endure abundance of fatigue, in a fruitless search after imaginary hidden treasure.”
If the most prevalent conspiracies of Kidd’s gold are correct, the Eastern Seaboard of the United States is covered in pockets of buried loot. Kidd docked along the Eastern Coast multiple times, even after he was a marked man. New Jersey has seized upon this nefarious history, particularly in Cape May—which holds an annual Captain Kidd Treasure Hunt—and Sandy Hook. On its tourism website, under the heading of “Treasure Hunt,” the Garden State encourages would-be explorers with an overview of the six more likely places where Kidd’s treasure has been rumored.
“Believe it or not, there is treasure to be found on the beaches of New Jersey,” the website claims.
Boston, too, has laid claim to the loot. Kidd traveled there on his way to New York, where he’d ultimately be sent to his death across the ocean. In 1901, a letter was found in Rhode Island allegedly signed by Kidd that detailed the Massachusetts whereabouts of his treasure, describing it as tens of thousands of pounds in money, jewels, and diamonds.
“Come soon, without fail, and I will tell you more and all about the money,” he wrote to John Bailey, esq. in New York. “It is on Conant's Island, about three miles down the Harbor of Boston—they don't think it is so near Boston; but you must keep dark here—say nothing to any one here about me till you see.” Conant’s Island was later renamed Governor’s Island, and became the site of Logan Airport in the 20th century.
At least the aforementioned treasure hunting attempts have been grounded in hints of historic accuracy—other theories are much more far-flung. In the 1970s, an eccentric British adventurer named Richard Knight claimed to have actually dug up three chests full of Oriental and European treasures on a one-man mission to a small Vietnamese island in the dead of night. The way he tells it, relayed in a spectacularly dramatic article in the Daily Mail, is that he was accosted by pirates and forced to rebury the loot off the coast of Thailand. A few years later, he enlisted the help of a 19-year-old American named Frederick Graham Jr. to recover it—and ended up sparking an international incident.
In 1983, the pair rented a speedboat from Thailand and landed on the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc. Knight was armed with a 300-year-old treasure map and conviction that the late pirate had buried a bounty of gold and jewels there—although it was never confirmed that Kidd even sailed those waters. They were arrested five hours after landing, and Graham quickly became the only American prisoner in Communist Vietnam until his family raised enough money for his release 11 months later.
The mission, Graham told the Associated Press upon his return to San Francisco, was “pretty stupid.”