In letter after letter to London, Richard Coote,
Earl of Bellomont, the Colonial Governor of New York in 1699 called Long
Island a "great receptacle for pirates." Rhode Island was also notorious
for harboring pirates; but Governor Bellomont said that Long Island (then
called Nassau Island) was worse, especially the east end of it. "The people
there have many of them been pirates themselves, and naturally are not
averse to the trade," he said quite unfairly. "Besides that, they are so
lawless and desperate a people that I can get no honest man to venture
among them and collect their excise and watch their trade." He asked the
British government to give him one hundred men to send to eastern Long
Island the next spring to try to catch smugglers.
Piracy was a funny business. Like the bootlegging of the Prohibition Era, a good many very reputable citizens managed to get mixed up with it. There was a very fine line between privateers and pirates. A privateer was perfectly legal. He was captain of a privately chartered ship, who was licensed to go out when his country was at war, and take any ships that he could belonging to the enemy nation, giving a certain share of the proceeds to his own government. But a pirate just went out and helped himself to any ship and any booty he could see, regardless of nationality.
The Barbary Coast of Africa, or the Spanish Main, come to mind when pirates are mentioned; but eastern Long Island was, as Lord Bellomont intimated, well acquainted with pirates, long ago, and there was plenty of pirate gold about, even though no East Hampton man ever was a real pirate.
Captain Kidd buried treasure on Gardiner's Island in 1699. A boulder with a bronze tablet marks the spot. It is useless, however, to dig for Kidd's treasure, for it was all dug up and turned over to the authorities long before Kidd met his undeserved death on the gallows. There is another story that Kidd also buried treasure at Montauk Point. Two small ponds at the foot of the hill on which Montauk Light stands have been called Money Ponds ever since Kidd's time. One is said to be bottomless.
Eastern Long Island, with the open ocean on one side, and bays and inlets on the other, was very convenient for smuggling and for pirates too. To begin with, the three eastern towns did not want to trade with New York or to belong to New York Colony; they were originally linked with Connecticut and preferred to stay so. Then, it took about six days to sail the length of Long Island and ship whale oil, a principal product two hundred years ago; and it took very little time to slip across Long Island Sound to Connecticut or even up to Rhode Island or Boston. So there was very little trade through New York and therefore very little Customs money was collected. Ships sailed from Northwest in East Hampton, for the West Indies or even London, before Sag Harbor was settled.
Piracy was fairly common, about the time our East Hampton forebears arrived. As early as 1654 the Long Island "plantations" tried to get together for protection against robbers and pirates. Piracy was at its height in 1696, when Captain William Kidd set out from London on the "Adventure Galley." Thirty years later, when Gardiner's Island was overrun by a pirate band, the profession was beginning to wane.
News did not travel fast in those days. When plunder was brought in, it must have been pretty hard to prove where it came from. New York was a convenient place for marketing jewels and silks from the East, and a good place to spend Arabian gold. The sale of supplies to outlaw ships, in exchange for gold or jewels, brought prosperity to the then little town of New York. Naturally the Colonial authorities smiled upon it Just previous to Lord Bellomont's Governorship, there was another Royal Governor, Benjamin Fletcher, who enjoyed the friendship of really terrible, bloodthirsty pirates such as the notorious Captain Tew. Fletcher made it a regular practice to receive bribes for protecting pirates. New York became such a scandal in the eyes of the mother country that it was decided to fit out a vessel to clean up the seas.
The King himself headed a company that fitted out the "Adventure Galley" of 287 tons for this purpose. Some of the most important men in England and the colonies took shares in the vessel. Pirates were to be driven off the seas; and incidentally the vessel's captain was to be commissioned to capture any French prizes that came along, as England was at war with France. No prize, no pay.
Looking around for a man capable of leading the expedition against the pirates, the stockholders decided upon William Kidd. He was a minister's son, born in Scotland in 1645, then living in New York; a brave soldier and master mariner, of spotless reputation. Kidd's story is too long to relate here in full, but documents discovered not long ago1 prove beyond a doubt that he was hanged for political reasons, to save the face of his titled backers; that he was not to blame for the trouble be got into, and had actually been more of a privateer, than a pirate.
At any rate, Kidd was put through the motions of a trial and hanged in London in 1701. His alleged crime was hitting an unruly sailor over the head with a bucket, causing the sailor's death. He never cut a throat or made a victim walk a plank. His name has come down through the years as a symbol of piracy. This is due to publicity. "Kidd" was an easy name to put into a rhyme. A long doggerel was made up about Captain Kidd, and sold on the streets of London at the time of his trial. The words were set to music and sung for generations. The adventures credited to Kidd were actually those of pirates in general.
His Long Island adventure was in June, 1699, just before his capture. He was on his way to Boston, where he hoped to prove his innocence of the crime of piracy. Kidd stopped at Gardiner's Island for three days. While there, he buried treasure worth about $30,000. at Cherry Harbor, a ravine between Bostwick's (Point) and the Manor House. He asked Mrs. Gardiner to have a pig roasted for him. It was done so well that he presented her with a piece of gold cloth, a small bit of which is now preserved in the East Hampton Library. That cloth came from the trousseau of the daughter of the Grand Mogul; it was on a Moorish ship captured by Kidd off the coast of Madagascar. A bag of sugar, too, was given the Gardiners by Captain Kidd. That was a great treat, sugar was hard to get and one of the few things not grown on Gardiner's Island in those days. When Kidd left the island, he promised to return for the buried treasure, and threatened John Gardiner: "If I call for it and it is gone, I will take your head, or your son's."
By that time there was no doubt in Lord Gardiner's mind that his visitor was a pirate. But there was nothing he could do about it except what he subsequently did. After Kidd's arrest, Gardiner was called upon by Lord Bellomont to deliver up the buried treasure. He took it to Boston. The inventory of those bags of gold dust, bars of silver, pieces of eight, rubies great and small, diamonds, candlesticks, porringers, and so forth is still preserved; a duplicate is in the East Hampton Library. One bit of booty, they say, remained with the Gardiners. A diamond was found, accidentally left in John Gardiner's traveling bag after his return from Boston. Mrs. Gardiner gave it to their daughter Elizabeth who married the Gardiner's Island chaplain, a Mr. Green.
Joseph Bradish was a much fiercer pirate than Captain Kidd. He appeared at the eastern end of Long Island earlier in that same year of the Captain Kidd visit to Gardiner's Island, and came very near bringing one of Southampton's first citizens, Col. Henry Pierson, to the gallows for harboring him. Bradish was a bad lot, and his crew, from the description that has come down to us, fits in with the regulation pirate tales. One was pock-marked, another squint-eyed, another "lamish of both legs," another had a "very downe looke." This Bradish, who was only 25, had started out from London in 1698 as a boatswain's mate on a voyage to Borneo and the Far East, in the "Adventure", a "hag-boat" of 350 tons and 22 guns, with a cargo worth about $400,000. in our money. Six months out from London they landed for water on an island near India. Part of the crew seized the ship, leaving the captain and other officers on shore. Bradish was elected captain. They shared up the cargo, then the ship made for Long Island.
One morning in March, 1699, Col. Pierson, who was a member of the Colonial Assembly in New York, looked out of the window at his home in Sagaponack and saw a strange ship under sail in the ocean, not far offshore. He called some neighbors. They launched a boat and went off to the ship. The captain Bradish said they were bound to Philadelphia from London, 15 months out. He asked for fresh provisions and to be taken ashore. He frankly gave his name and birthplace, but nobody here had ever heard of the "Adventure." Rev. Ebenezer White of Sagaponack, minister at Bridgehampton, being at home, joined the pirate and Col. Pierson and the three rode horseback to East Hampton, five miles away. Here they called on John Mulford, a leading citizen; and were also joined by the young East Hampton minister, Rev. Nathaniel Huntting (who later on delivered a strong sermon on piracy).
Rev. White and Col. Pierson returned with Bradish to Sagaponack. The next day Bradish brought ashore four sealed bags. Three contained money, and one jewels. He asked Col. Pierson to take care of them for him. For this he gave Pierson two small guns and a cask of powder, also one jewel, and a small bag of pieces of eight.
The ship lay off East Hampton for a few days, while Col. Pierson went with Bradish to hire three sloops, one from Southampton and two from Southold, that were to unload the ship's cargo. Meanwhile, East Ham~ ton people began to grow suspicious. Several went on board and talked with the mate. He said they came from the Guinea Coast, but there were no Negro slaves in sight. The strangers sold some small guns to the Long Island men; but said they had orders not to open anything else.
An experienced pilot, Samuel Hand, was hired to take the ship to Gardiner's Island. The wind not being favorable, they ran over to Block Island instead. The unloading sloops met the "Adventure" there; Carter Gillum of Southold and Ebenezer Meggs of Guilford, Conn. commanded two of them. When the job was done, they fired guns into the bottom of the "Adventure" and sank her. Then the pirates scattered. There was a great hue and cry. The men were captured, but escaped. Some were recaptured, and sent to England with Kidd. Bradish was hanged.
Meanwhile, a busybody neighbor of Col. Pierson's had told of the treasure left with him. On April 27, 1699, he turned over to the authorities a great quantity of diamonds, rubies, pearls, sapphires, and turquoise. He had a hard time proving that he had been no more than indiscreet, in holding the bag for the pirate; but influential friends spoke for him, and he went free.
Another old pirate tale which may be pure fiction concerns another Pierson. In the late 1700's, according to an old Montauk squaw, a brig came and anchored off Shagwong Reef. Indians went off to it in their canoes and never came back. In the morning the brig was gone. Some thought it a pirate ship. Others thought it more likely to have been a slaver, and the Indians taken to be sold south. About this time a sick man is said to have stopped for the night at Timothy Pierson's, (he lived l73O~1802) on the road toward Bridgehampton. The stranger died there. Mrs. Pierson told that just before he died he said: "I wear a belt." She said that they buried him, belt and all. The tale has come down that at midnight, a light was seen at the grave (Poxabogue cemetery) not far from the house. "I suppose it was robbed," Mrs. Pierson said. Not long afterward, tradition says, the Piersons built a fine new house and gave other evidences of prosperity. The man who "wore the belt" was thought to have been a pirate, off the mysterious brig at Montauk. Mrs. Russell Sage, widow of the financier, was descended from the Piersons; she bought the house and it was torn down a few years ago. Mrs. Royal Luther of East Hampton and her brothers, Norman, Dayton, and Walter Hedges were born in that house.
In 1728, Gardiner's Island was overrun by a band of eighty pirates. They were Spaniards, French, and mulattoes, and came on a Spanish schooner carrying six big guns. They came ashore at night. Two friendly Montauk Indian squaws had warned the proprietor, John Gardiner, then an old man, but the Island lay exposed and quite unprotected from such attacks. The squaws told Gardiner that a schooner had hove to, just at dusk, off Hoop-pole Thicket. Gardiner said "You don't know a schooner from a canoe." At ten that night, the pirates came. Looking for valuables, they cut open feather beds, destroyed furniture, killed farm animals, scattered coins, and tore up paper money. They were furious that most of the Gardiner money was safe in East Hampton. They made off with all the family silver except one tankard, which is now in the possession of Robert David Lion Gardiner. They injured John Gardiner's hands badly in the dark with their cutlasses. They stayed on the Island for several days, living like kings. When they left, they tied the Lord of the Manor to a mulberry tree.
All eastern Long Island took alarm. Drums beat over on Rhode Island for volunteers to go after the pirate ship. Two sloops with seventy men each set sail but returned without the prize. They overhauled the pirate and engaged in battle; but seas ran high, so their shots did not hit the mark often enough to do much damage.
The last raid on Gardiner's Island came not long after that Paul Williams, a Block Islander, came on a schooner. One of his crew, a mulatto, had been on the Island once in a Bermuda vessel. He had taken a fancy to an Indian girl there and persuaded his captain to make the raid. They damaged considerable property but hurt no one.
Eastern Long Islanders did not enjoy the pirates' visits, but they liked the Arabian gold well enough. An old Will left four pieces of Arabian gold "to buy Bibles" which spoke of an uneasy conscience.
Two hundred years later, from 1920 to December, 1933, another species of outlaw appeared on eastern Long Island. That was the Prohibition Era when a rocking line of wholesale liquor ships lay twelve miles offshore from Montauk Point to Cape May, New Jersey, and sold their wares from Canada or the West Indies to men in speedboats who carried them ashore. Rum Row was at its height in 1923. That was a bad time to be on the road at night. Toward midnight, the bootleggers' trucks began to roar toward New York, a gunman riding on the seat with the driver. The danger of lurking hijackers was ever present on the 120-mile trip, aside from the few authorities who might express an official interest in stopping contraband. Here, as elsewhere, some officials fell victim of the corroding influence of Prohibition.
It was a time when wise people kept away from the beach after dark. Cases were being dragged ashore and no audience was desired. People engaged in that traffic were very handy with guns. There was once a shooting battle at Montauk's Third House between bootleggers and hijackers. AH sorts of odd characters from distant parts turned up in the former little fishing village at Fort Pond Bay, (which vanished in World War II). All sorts of luxuries appeared in the cottages along the shore.
Just before Christmas, 1922, the S. S. Madonna V., flying the British flag and loaded to the guards with Canadian whiskey for the holiday market, went ashore opposite Nominick Hills at the west end of Montauk and was soon pounded to pieces. The wet goods fared better than the steamer. Cases came through the surf in such numbers that it looked as if a barrel full of corks had been thrown into a bathtub.
Men, women, and children tore into the surf and salvaged case after case, from dawn to dark. It was noted that a very active salvager was an elderly dyed-in-the-wool prohibitionist who worked as a beaver is said to work. "Might come in handy in case of sickness," he would reply, when anyone dared take time out to speak to him about his activity.
The "big shots" made thousands in the Prohibition Era, the small fry made easy money in the hundreds. There were funny stories and sad stories. Hundreds of people here, as elsewhere, touched bootleg money in some form or other. Now, twenty years later, it appears that the commercial fishermen who kept right on fishing may have been right when they used to say: "Booze money's no good. It don't stick to your hands."
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