BY ERIK OFGANG, Special To The Courant
The Hartford Courant
September 15, 2013
When it comes to pirate tourism Connecticut often gets robbed of its fair share of the booty.
Sure, pirate activity in the Caribbean has inspired the Disney ride and a billion dollar film franchise, and the famous Blackbeard spent his later years terrorizing the Carolinas. However, Connecticut offers something few other pirate hot spots do — a real chance (slim though it may be) of actually finding buried treasure.
A visit to Charles Island in Milford is a must for any true pirate pilgrim. One of history's most famous high sea robbers, Captain William Kidd, is known to have stopped along the Connecticut coast in Milford in 1699, shortly before he was captured in Boston, (later he was transported to England and hung for piracy in London). It's well documented that Kidd had a full cargo of booty in his ship when he stopped in Milford and that he buried treasure before leaving Long Island Sound at Gardiners Island. What's not known is if he buried all his treasure at Gardiners Island. Later, Kidd would claim that the treasure found was only part of his stash and that if he was not executed he would lead authorities to the rest and give it to the English Crown. Some modern observers have argued Kidd was lying as part of what proved a failed attempt to save his life — others are not so sure.
Connecticut tradition holds that before he sailed out of Milford he buried much of his treasure on Charles Island. Over the years many have tried to locate the treasure but according to local lore Captain Kidd's ghost protects it and the stash is haunted.
It's enough to make a pirate enthusiast say "arrr!"
Charles Island is located in Silver Sands State Park. The island is often accessible from the main land at low tide via a half mile sandbar or what (for you "Jeopardy" fans reading this) is technically called a tombolo. Though be warned, the sandbar is flooded twice a day and the crossing window is usually brief and sometimes does not occur at all, a fact which has left many would be pirate hunters temporarily marooned on the island over the years. Silver Sands Park officials also warn that the sandbar is slippery and dangerous to cross on foot and advise boating to the island instead (it's a short trip by canoe or kayak).
The island is designated a Natural Area Preserve for the local bird population of herons and egrets and the Department of Environmental Protection prohibits visitors on the island for much of the summer, so schedule your treasure hunting expedition for the fall or spring.
On my trip to the island I didn't find any treasure, or spot any disembodied pirate ghosts, but I did find a beautiful park complete with a wonderful beach on Long Island Sound and a boardwalk that allowed for a delightful waterside stroll.
Silver Sands Park would be worth a visit solely for its merits as a beach and picnicking location, but with a little imagination its link to pirate history and legend turns a trip to the park into one of a kind adventure. And the legends surrounding Charles Island are not mere myths — not entirely anyhow.
Michael C. Dooling, of Middlebury, is an author and historian who wrote a book called "A Historical Account of Charles Island." Dooling is not prone to flights of fancy or ghost sightings but says the legend about treasure being buried on Charles Island is compelling because it has roots in actual verifiable accounts.
"I like the legend because it's rooted in history," he said. "He was actually in Milford at the right time in in 1699. He had a hold full of treasure and within a day or two he buried some treasure in Gardiners Island, we just don't know if he buried it all in one place."
Though there are many legends about where Kidd may have buried the remainder of his treasure, (if there was actually more treasure,) Dooling says the Charles Island theory holds more water than others.
"Some legends are outlandish. There is a legend that Captain Kidd may have buried his treasure up the Connecticut River in Massachusetts, which is ridiculous, there's no real reason to believe that," he says. Though he's quick to add that it's likely digging for treasure on Charles Island will not produce any financial returns. "I personally don't believe there's a treasure buried out there, but it's a legend worthy of repeating because there are some good facts surrounding it."
And the legend has inspired generations of treasure hunters.
"Almost every kid in Milford has gone out to Charles Island and dug around looking for treasure," Dooling said.
Connecticut pirate history extends beyond the boundaries of Charles Island.
Colin Woodard, author of the "Republic of Pirates," says that at differing points during the Golden Age of Piracy, (loosely defined as the period between 1696 and 1725) pirates wreaked havoc on Connecticut shipping.
"The Golden Age Pirates were based in and around the Bahamas, but their operations extended from Newfoundland to the Spanish Main, (the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico)" says Woodard, who lives in Portland, ME. "They were among the first snow birds, prowling New England shipping lanes in late spring and summer, and spending the colder months in warmer latitudes. Supported by their pirate base at Nassau, they quickly went from being an occasional nuisance in 1715 and 1716 to a major impediment to New England shipping in 1717 and 1718. The pirates raided our ships, sold our goods to our black market traders, usually in Rhode Island, rested and recuperated in hidden lairs on the Maine coast, and were even captured and executed here."
Woodard continues that "Long Island Sound was regularly targeted by these pirates," however pirates did not venture too far into Connecticut waters because they "feared being bottled up by the Royal Navy, so they tried to maintain easy access to the open sea."
While you shouldn't expect to see Johnny Depp starring in a film called "Pirates of the Nutmeg State" anytime soon, Connecticut does have a real and fascinating place in pirate history. A visit to Silver Sands Park in Milford is a hands on way to explore this history with your family and have some fun in the sun at the same time, and that might just be a treasure in and of itself.
IF YOU GO: Silver Sands State Park in Milford is open from 8 a.m. until sunset. There is no fee for visiting the park. DIRECTIONS: From I-95 take exit 35 then follow Schoolhouse Road south to Route 1 (Bridgeport Avenue). Turn left onto Route 1 then right at first light (Silver Sands Park Way). Follow Park Way across Meadowside Road and continue downhill to main parking lot. For more information about charles island or pirate history visit: http://www.michaelcdooling.com or http://www.colinwoodard.com.
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