A Piece of the “Gold Blanket”: Gardiner’s Island, Captain William Kidd, and the Gifting of Family History

by Allison Donoghue

Figure 1. The scrap of “Gold Blanket” and accompanying note (ca. 1700). Silk. 4.4 x 2.5 in. (11 x 6.4 cm). Courtesy of the Sylvester Manor Collection. Photograph by the author.

Hidden away in Sylvester Manor, a seventeenth-century provisions plantation on Shelter Island, NY, lies a frayed scrap of green and yellow fabric only 4 3/8 x 2 ½ inches in size (fig. 1). Made of silk, cotton, and gilded silver thread, this cloth would have once shimmered in the light. The looping scrawls of a handwritten note give the fragment an abbreviated provenance: “a piece of the ‘Gold Blanket.’” The note asserts that the fabric was “…presented by the Pirate Kidd to Madame Gardiner of Gardiners [sic] Island,” and later “…presented by Mrs. Kimball to Mrs. Horsford, descendants of [illegible] Gardiner.” Carefully passed down and divided through generations of Gardiner relatives since the turn of the eighteenth century, this scrap presents a unique opportunity to study family connections and legacy in colonial North America. While contemporary family histories are recorded in genealogy books, or may be lost entirely, this piece of fabric is a material embodiment of Gardiner familial connections that has transformed over time with the family. By considering the fabric and legend through the lens of Marcel Mauss’s theory of gifting, this essay will unravel how the scrap functions to create and maintain connections and build family legacy. Family genealogies, like Cutis Gardiner’s 1890 book Lion Gardiner and his Descendants 1599-1890, court records, broadsides, local legends, and the scrap itself will support the analysis of the ‘Gold Blanket’ and the connections it creates.

The scrap’s bold colors and distinctive floral motif suggest its journey began in India. The fabric has a woven pattern with two distinct repeating columns, one a glimmering gold and the other a deep green. A full flower with five pink outlined petals and a green stem is visible in the gold columns. The green column is decorated with two gold flowers, cut off by the division of the textile, suggesting a repeating pattern. The five-petalled flower is a common motif found on Indian textiles beginning in the early eighteenth century.1 Europe had been importing vast quantities of Indian textiles with the best being quality embroidered silks and dye painted cottons coming from Gujarat and Bengal.2 However, designs favored by Europeans tended to feature large scale and fantastical florals and foliage on a white background.3 The small, evenly spaced patterning on the scrap could indicate that it was not originally meant for the European market before it was intercepted by Kidd. Although the origin is ambiguous, the luxurious material qualities of the fabric highlight its significant worth. Some of the finest fabrics were woven or embroidered with gilded silver threads called zari, meaning “gold.”4 The making of zari was a highly skilled and hereditary profession, passed down through families. The skill necessary to create zari, combined with the monetary value of the materials used in making the thread, resulted in a prized and expensive commodity. The zari woven into the scrap lends to the accuracy of the note’s description of the textile as a “Gold Blanket.” It continues to shimmer today and is but one small example of the intricate and sumptuous patterns that were achieved using the thread. 

Although it likely originated in India, the fabric weaves together the histories of two small islands off the coast of New York State: Gardiner’s Island and Shelter Island.  The former was purchased by Lion Gardiner (1599-1663) in 1636, who established the island as a Manor property and Lordship under English law.5 By the turn of the eighteenth century, Lion Gardiner’s grandson and the third proprietor of the island, John Gardiner, and his first wife Mary resided in the large manor house that lay on the West end of the 3,300-acre property.6 It was John Gardiner who first encountered Captain William Kidd in the waters off the island in 1701. This encounter made him and Mary into key figures in the legends that would form about the scrap of the “Gold Blanket.” Twelve and a half miles across the bay lies Shelter Island (fig. 2). First purchased by Nathaniel Sylvester (1610-1680) in 1651, it was originally founded as a provisioning site to provide necessities to the Sylvester sugar plantation in Barbados. He and his wife Grizzell established the family home known as Sylvester Manor. Although the current manor house was built in 1737, descendants of the Sylvester family have continuously owned the island for more than 363 years.7  

Figure 2. Nautical chart of Long Island Sound including Block Island, New London and Gardiners Bay (1860). United Kingdom Hydrographic Office.

The marriage of Mary Catherine L’Hommedieu and Samuel Smith Gardiner in 1823 tied the two islands and two families together. The note accompanying the scrap records this family connection between the Gardiners and the Sylvesters and suggests the importance of the scrap in sharing and maintaining those connections. Mary L’Hommedieu Gardiner Horsford, the seventh proprietor of Sylvester Manor, was most likely the “Mrs. Horsford” referred to in the note.8 As a descendant of both Gardiner and Sylvester families through her grandparents, Mary Catherine L’Hommedieu and Samuel Smith Gardiner, she had an intimate connection to the family legend and a special claim to the fabric, which was gifted to her when it was brought from Gardiner’s Island to Sylvester Manor. The small frayed scrap was eventually placed inside the Sylvester family fireproof walk-in vault for safekeeping, along with other family heirlooms and valuables, where it remains today.

By the time the scrap reached Mary, it had already gained its own mythology through its association with Captain William Kidd. In 1695 the infamous privateer-turned-pirate Captain William Kidd became embroiled in a plot which would eventually lead to his infamy and death—as well as bring the “Gold Blanket” to Gardiner’s Island. Kidd began his piratical exploits in 1697 off the Malabar Coast in the Indian Ocean.9 He captured several ships, but his most lucrative prize was the Quedagh Merchant, a large Indian merchant vessel returning to Surat, Gujarat, an important commercial center for the east Asian textile trade during the 17thcentury.10 The Quedagh Merchant contained “60-80 chests of opium, 20-30 bales of silks, 200-300 bales of sugar, and 500-600 bales of calicoes, muslins, and other East India goods”—an estimated value of 200,000-400,000 rupees.11 Kidd’s pirating ended in 1701 when he was captured while visiting the Governor of Massachusetts, his former friend and patron Lord Bellomont, and brought to England for a three-day trial.  

Figure 3. Howard Pyle, “Buried Treasure” (Captain Kidd on Gardiner’s Island) from Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates: Fiction, Fact, & Fancy Concerning the Buccaneers and Marooners of the Spanish Main (1921 ed.). Plate facing pg. 76.8 x 10 in. (20.3 x 25.4 cm). New York: Harper & Brothers. New York Public Library, New York.

England and the American colonies became fascinated with Kidd’s macabre crimes and trial,  as evidenced by several “true” accounts of his behavior, confession, and “dying words” that were published in London broadsides and circulated to the gossip-hungry public during and after his execution.12 Printed on large sheets of paper, broadsides were tabloids that appealed to a wide range of social classes.13 They were often distributed at public executions but could also be found in other public spaces like taverns and marketplaces. Two of these broadsides were written by the chaplain of Newgate prison, Paul Lorrain. His publications especially highlighted Kidd’s refusal to confess to his crimes, drunkenness, and general lack of repentance and morals. Authors highlighted lurid details to emphasize the sinfulness of the criminal and appeal to the public. Several ballads and songs about Kidd were also published and disseminated, most notably Captain Kid’s Farewel to the Seas [sic].14 The proliferation of print material surrounding Kidd’s trial demonstrates the public’s hunger for the grim details and salacious stories relating to Kidd’s piracy. It was in this period of immense public interest surrounding Kidd’s trial that the legend around the scrap began to develop.

According to John Gardiner’s statement, which was published in court documents relating to Kidd’s trial, the encounter between Kidd and Gardiner in 1701 was amicable, although Gardiner was then unaware that Kidd had been accused of piracy.15 Gardiner allegedly met Kidd on his sloop anchored off Gardiner’s Island where they began bartering. Kidd gave Gardiner two “bales of goods” and requested “six sheep.” The formal trading done, Kidd asked Gardiner if he could spare a “Barrel of Cyder [sic].” In appreciation of Gardiner’s generosity, Kidd gifted him “…several pieces of damnified Muslins and Bengals, as a Present to his wife” as well as “three pieces of damnified Muslin” for Gardiner’s own use and “Four pieces of Arabian Gold.” The description of the gifted cloth as “damnified,” meaning to inflict injury or loss, suggests that the cloth may already have been damaged at the time it was gifted to Gardiner.  It was after this initial exchange that Kidd requested that Gardiner keep a portion of his treasure on the Island, including a “box of gold,” a “bundle of Quilts,” and “bundle of goods.”16  

French anthropologist Marcel Mauss’s theory of gift exchange, put forth in his seminal work, The Gift (1925), provides a lens with which to analyze this interaction. Mauss argues that gifts are not truly given freely. The gift “possesses something of [the giver]” and therefore is not “inactive;” it imposes obligations that must be fulfilled and reciprocated.17 According to Mauss, a gift, when given, creates a “debt” that is not fulfilled until it is reciprocated. The obligations, or debt, created by gifts forge connections and build bonds between giver and receiver.18 By accepting Kidd’s gifts Gardiner entered a reciprocal relationship with Kidd. The initial bartering, a seemingly equal exchange of “bales of goods” for “six sheep” is notably different from  the extravagant presents Kidd gave Gardiner. The cloth and “Arabian gold” seem out of proportion in value as a gift when compared to “a Barrel of Cyder.” It is notable that it is only after the exchange of gifts that Kidd requested Gardiner keep his illicit treasure on the island. Perhaps Kidd’s “generosity” influenced Gardiner’s decision to keep the treasure safe. This exchange—the gifting of the gilded cloth and the concealment of Kidd’s treasure—brought the scrap of golden blanket to the island and into circulation within the Gardiner family. This interaction also placed the Gardiner family into the developing lore surrounding Kidd.

Curtis Gardiner recorded the family legends that formed about the encounter over the next two centuries in Lion Gardiner and his Descendants 1599-1890. There are several different stories, the tale becoming increasingly embellished with generations of retellings. In one version the fearsome Captain Kidd broke down the door to Gardiner Manor, rousing John Gardiner from bed and hiding his loot “in a swampy place at Cherry Harbor.”19 In another, Kidd tied Gardiner to a mulberry tree and demanded that Mrs. Gardiner roast him a pig, which was so delicious that he gifted her the cloth of gold.20 Curtis was generally skeptical of the folklore and very concerned with the lack of “proof” these family traditions offered.21 However, he chose to include them in his book because “certain pious family fictions…must not be disturbed.”22 Although embellished and fantastical, the stories provided an oral tradition that imbued the cloth with meaning and connected the family to the salacious pirate.

The family placed significant value on the scrap and the family lore it carried, splitting it into smaller pieces and passing it down as an heirloom for nearly one-hundred and thirty-five years. Curtis reveals the continued journey of the fabric from generation to generation. He writes that a Mrs. Wetmore, great-granddaughter of Mary Gardiner, heard from her mother that Kidd “…made [Mary] a present of the silk, which she then gave to her two daughters.” It was presumably Mary who originally divided the fabric between her daughters. Mrs. Wetmore eventually received the fabric passed down to her by her mother, well preserved and cared for by each generation as it was “…now as good as when first given…upwards of one hundred years ago.”23 Hidden in his footnotes, Curtis Gardiner confided that while visiting Gardiner’s Island in August of 1835, he too was gifted a small clipping of the golden blanket from one of the “remnants.” This clipping was presented to him by Mrs. Sarah Griswold Gardiner, the “widow of the seventh proprietor,” John Lyon Gardiner.24  The continued gifting of the scrap within the Gardiner family is significant, as the exchange of the scrap facilitated and fortified family relationships. The golden blanket had become what might be considered an “inalienable” object.25 Per anthropologist Annette B. Weiner, inalienable objects are unique because they are inherently tied to their original owners, which adds “cultural meanings of wealth” that are separate from alienable objects which are not closely tied to a specific family or history.26 These objects, like the “Gold Blanket”, are powerful because they “define who one is in an historical sense” becoming “…an intimate part of a person’s present identity.”27 As an object tied to the identity of the Gardiner family, the scrap’s value as an heirloom exceeded that of its material worth. 

As the children and grandchildren of John and Mary Gardiner married and left the island, the scrap remained an important tie to their family history. The scrap was evidence of the Gardiner family lore and the connection between distant family members. Today a second, nearly identical, piece of the “gold blanket” resides at the East Hampton Library on Long Island. This fragment is a similar size to the Sylvester Manor sample and is mounted on a black backing inside a gilded frame.28 A popular attraction, stories are written about the scrap in local newspapers every few years. Some of these stories closely echo the family folklore: one label reads, “Kidd broke into the manor house at night…hiding his treasure in the swampy area” off the island and leaving the family with threats of death.29 Others implicate John Gardiner in the legend, one blog writing, “…the Gardiners of Gardiner’s Island…tipped Lord Bellomont on to [Kidd’s] presence” suggesting Gardiner betrayed Kidd’s location and treasure to authorities.30 The continued publication and circulation of the legend maintains the scrap’s connection to the Gardiner family. This remnant was originally a loan from a member of the Gardiner family on occasion of the library’s 40th anniversary in 1937, but later became part of the permanent collection. This new act of gifting expands the scrap’s network into the twenty-first century, connecting the Gardiners to the East Hampton Library and the larger community. This connection, facilitated and materialized by the scrap, reinforces the Gardiner family’s long history and ties to the local community as descendants of early colonists, founders of Gardiner’s Island, and current Lords of the Manor. The library protects and preserves the scrap—and the family history which it embodies—while simultaneously making it more accessible to the public. The preservation of the scrap within the library weaves together the broader history of colonial textile trade beginning in India, the intimate family history of the Gardiners, and the current community of East Hampton, creating a shared bond through the legend of Captain Kidd.


Allison Donoghue is a second-year master’s student at the Bard Graduate Center of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture. She approaches history from an interdisciplinary lens, centering her work around material culture. She is broadly interested in gender, trade, and the relationship between Europeans and Indigenous people in 17th century New England and New Amsterdam.



 1. As a global center of the textile trade, Indian textile manufacturers sold to many markets including Indonesia, Thailand, Europe each with a distinctive preference in floral styles and patterns.

2. Ebeltje Hartkamp-Jonxis, When Indian Flowers Bloomed In Europe: Masterworks of Indian Trade Textiles, 1600-1780, In the Tapi Collection (New Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2022), 9-10.

3. Avalon Fotheringham, The Indian Textile Sourcebook (London: Victorian and Albert Museum, London/Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2019), 47.

4. Vandana Bhandari, Jeweled Textiles: Gold and Silver Embellished Cloth of India (Uttar Pradesh: Om Books International, 2015), 26.

5. Gardiner purchased the property first from the from Montaukett Sachem Wyandanch in 1636 and then again from Earl of Stirling in 1639 who had been given the property by King Charles I. Curtis Gardiner, Lion Gardiner and his Descendants 1599-1890 (St. Louis: A. Whipple Publisher, 1890), 58.

6. Gardiner, Lion Gardiner and his Descendants 1599-1890, 97.

7. “History,” Sylvester Manor, Accessed November 20, 2023, History — Sylvester Manor.

8. Alternatively, the note could refer to Mary’s sister, Phoebe D. Gardiner (8th proprietor of Sylvester Manor), who married Eben Norton Horsford (Mary’s husband) after Mary’s death in 1855. Both Mary and Phoebe were direct descendants of the Sylvester and the Gardiner family through their grandparents, Mary Catherine L’Hommedieu and Samuel Smith Gardiner. Mac Griswold, The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 3.  

9. Recently there has been significant debate over whether Kidd was truly a pirate. For a detailed account of Kidd’s life and piracy see, David Wilson “Piracy, Patronage & Political Economy: Captain Kidd and the East India Trade” International Journal of Maritime History 27, no. 1 (March 2015): 26–40; and Frederick Hanselmann, Captain Kidd’s Lost Ship: The Wreck of the Quedagh Merchant. (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2019).

10. John Guy, “One Thing Leads to Another: Indian Textiles and the Early Globalization of Style,” in Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800, ed. by Amelia Peck (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 14.

11. David Wilson, “Piracy, Patronage & Political Economy,” The International Journal of Maritime History 27, no.1 (March 2015.): 34-35.

12. Paul Lorrain, The Ordinary of Newgate His Account of the Behaviour, Confessions, and Dying-Words of Captain William Kidd, and Other Pirates, that were Executed at the Execution-Dock in Wapping, on Friday May 23, 1701 (London: 1701);  And A True Account of the Behaviour, Confession and Last Dying Speeches, of Captain William Kidd, and the Rest of the Pirates, that were Executed at Execution Dock in Wapping, on Friday the 23d of May 1701. Licensed According to Order. (London: 1701).

13. Sarah F. Williams, “‘A Swearing and Blaspheming Wretch’: Representations of Witchcraft and Excess on Early Modern English Broadside Balladry and Popular Song,” Journal of Musicological Research 30, no. 4 (Oct-Dec 2011): 314.

14. The “Elegy on the Death of Capt. William Kidd,” the “Dialogue Between the Ghost of Captain Kidd and the Napper in the Strand,” and “The Dying Words of Capt. Robert Kidd” were other ballads that gained popularity at the time of his trial. For a detailed analysis of these ballads see William Hallam Bonner, “The Ballad of Captain Kidd,” American Literature 15, no.4 (Jan 1944): 362-380.

15. Graham Brooks, Trial of Captain Kidd (Glasgow: William Hodge and Company, 1930), 215.

16. Brooks, Trial of Captain Kidd, 215-216.

17. Marcel Mauss and W. D Halls, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange In Archaic Societies (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000): 15.

18. Mauss and Halls, The Gift, 15.

19. Gardiner, Lion Gardiner and his Descendants 1599-1890, 97.

20. Gardiner, 98.

21. Gardiner, 98.

22. Gardiner, 98.

23. Gardiner, 98.

24. Gardiner, 98; Jeannette Edwards Rattray, East Hampton History Including Genealogies of Early Families (New York: Country Life Press, 1953), 343.

25. Annette Weiner, “Inalienable Wealth,” American Ethnologist, no. 12 (1985): 210.

26. Weiner, “Inalienable Wealth,” 210.

27. Weiner, 210.

28. “Captain Kidd cloth of gold,” Collection Highlights, East Hampton Library, Accessed October 4, 2022.

29. Colette Gilbert McClain, “Overheard: Fantasy Island,” East Hampton Star, September 12, 2022.      

30. “Buried Treasure on Long Island,” Crime Capsule, accessed November 25, 2023, Buried Treasure on Long Island – Crime Capsule; “Captain Kidd and Gardiner: The Legendary Treasure Revealed.” Dan Rattiner, last modified August 27, 2022, Captain Kidd and Gardiner: The Legendary Treasure Revealed (danspapers.com).



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