Dennis Adams, Information Services Coordinator of the Beaufort County Library (Retired) wrote in 2007 that “Piracy was one reason the Spanish first came to what is now Beaufort County in the 1500s.” Privateers and piracy were often acts of official government policy with regard to the North and South American colonies. The government records of the United Kingdom, Spain, France, and Portugal reflect this concern. The Law Library of Congress has digitized its collection of pre-1923 piracy trials. This historical collection of piracy trials is critical for understanding how the various nations of the world handled piracy issues before the year 1900.
Please note: Dennis Adams’s article from the Library’s former website is the foundation for this introduction.
Walter Edgar in South Carolina: A History wrote that buccaneers, rival navies and hurricanes were the biggest threat to Spain’s treasure ships in the Caribbean and the Bahama Channel. The excellent harbor of Port Royal Sound was seen as a possible haven for the Spanish fleet and the end of a foreseen overland route for mule caravans carrying treasure from Mexico. However, according to The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina: Volume 1, 1514-1861, “the need for a land-based installation at Port Royal Sound naturally diminished” after 1585, when Spain established a successful guarda costas (coast guard) system of galleys to protect Florida from pirates. Risks increased for Port Royal Sound as the Caribbean grew more secure for the Spanish, French and British fleets. The British Royal Navy drove pirates northward to the less-protected Carolina coastlines.
According to the South Carolina Encyclopedia‘s entry on Piracy: “Piracy flourished on the South Carolina coast chiefly in two periods: the early proprietary years (1670-1700) and at the end of the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’ (1716-1720)….Pirates, most of whom began their commerce raiding as legal war-time privateers, thrived” in the uncertain circumstances caused by a weak proprietary government during a period of political unrest and military threats to the English colony from Native Americans, the Spanish and the French. “The character of the privateers authorized to prey upon enemy commerce,” wrote David Duncan Wallace in The History of South Carolina, was “indicated by the common usage of the words ‘privateer’ and ‘pirate’ as synonymous.”
For the quarter of a century after founding of Charleston in 1670, its citizens enjoyed a cozy relationship with the pirates. Pirates spent lavishly while in port, and the townspeople could buy stolen goods from the freebooters at irresistibly low prices. Although local officials saw these shady dealings as good for the local economy, the royal government eventually began removing governors who worked too closely with the pirates.
Governor Landgrave Thomas Smith openly started to suppress the pirate trade in 1694, and the Charlestonians themselves finally realized that secure sea lanes were more important to their growing trade than bargains in the black market. Six pirates were hanged in Charleston in 1700.
In 1718, Edward Teach (Blackbeard) held several wealthy South Carolinians hostage and anchored outside Charleston harbor, threatening not only to kill the hostages, but to attack the city if Governor Robert Johnson did not deliver medical supplies. Johnson gave in, thus avoiding certain bloodshed and pillage. After Blackbeard’s insolent threats of 1718, the Colony was even more resolved to end the menace. British ships defeated a pirate ship off Charleston even as Stede Bonnet and his pirate crew awaited trial in the city. Bonnet and 48 others were hanged in November and December of 1718. Blackbeard died on November 22, 1718 in Ocracoke Inlet, North Carolina. His surviving crew members were tried and executed in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Although piracy was a male dominated profession, several women are identified in the historical record as pirates. Anne Bonney lived in Charleston before taking to the sea. She and her friend and fellow pirate, Mary Read, were captured along with John “Calico Jack” Rackam in later summer 1720 on a vessel they had stolen, the William. The 11 male pirates from the William were tried and convicted on in Spanish Town, Jamaica (known as St. Jago de la Vega), on November 16, 1720 and all were hanged within two days. Two weeks later, Bonney and Read were tried for piracy. Though convicted, each was pregnant and thus their executions delayed until such time as their babies were born. However, Read got sick and died in prison shortly thereafter. Bonney disappeared from prison and the rest of what happened to her is unknown.
Spanish privateers had stopped trade in Port Royal during the War of Jenkins’ Ear in 1739.
At the start of the French and Indian War in 1756, the British commissioned a galley in Charleston and another in Port Royal Sound to defend the coast against privateers. In 1757, runaway slaves reportedly piloted a French privateer off the Georgia coast, causing fears that the rich plantations of Port Royal might be plundered.
An English privateer stayed at Port Royal for a short time in September 1758. Spanish captain Don Martin de Hamassa captured a brigantine off Port Royal in 1763 and later sunk a schooner in St. Helena Sound. Don Martin also seized the schooner Tybee upon which Beaufort merchant John Gorgon had depended his trade, and brought it to St. Augustine, Florida. This was, according to Rowland, Moore, and Rogers, the “last significant naval action among the sea islands of the Beaufort District during the colonial era.”
A familiar building at 812 Bay Street is rumored to have once been a pirate hang-out frequented by the legendary Blackbeard and other pirates. John Cross Tavern has been legendary in Beaufort as the handout for Blackbeard and the other pirates who came noising through the town. According to A Guide to Historic Beaufort, 9th edition, revised (1999) by the Historic Beaufort Foundation, however, “perhaps no site in Beaufort illustrates the frustration caused by the scarcity of pre-Civil War records, ” which were lost to accident and neglect.”
The Foundation added that “local folklore has long held that John Cross built a tavern (in Beaufort) in the early 1700s.” Existing records show that tabby concrete building was constructed by Captain Francis Saltus around 1796 and that it did not house a tavern until the 20th century. Historians believe that the building had many commercial uses up to the early 20th century, including a dry goods store and a fruit stand. According to Historic Beaufort Foundation’s Executive Director Evan Thompson (cited by Sandra Walsh in “John Cross Tavern: The End of an Era,” Beaufort Gazette, 22 February 2007), a previous tavern named for a certain John Cross did exist, but that one was located on Scott Street. It was in business sometime between 1800 and 1820, well after the Age of Piracy.
This selective list of materials about pirates was prepared by Grace Morris Cordial, MLS, SL, CA, Manager of the Beaufort County Library’s (SC) special local history collection and archives, the Beaufort District Collection (BDC). The BDC focuses on local history, Gullah culture, genealogy, natural history and archaeology of lowcountry South Carolina’s Beaufort, Hampton, and Jasper counties. Original Post:11 November 2011; Latest update 16 September 2017; All links verified as of 13 July 2018.
“The Crows Nest: An Exploration of Pirates in South Carolina” Accessed 16 September 2017.
The History of South Carolina Under the Proprietary Government, 1670-1719 by Edward McCrady, 1897. Accessed 16 September 2017.
Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates; Fiction, Fact & Fancy concerning the Buccaneers & Marooners of the Spanish Main, by Howard Pyle and Merle de Vore Johnson, compiler, 1921. Librivox has an audio book version posted on the Internet Archive at https://archive.org/details/book_of_pirates_1103_librivox. Accessed 16 September 2017.
“Pirates and Privateers: The history of Maritime Piracy” website by Cindy Vallar has a wealth of information and links to additional information about pirates. Accessed 16 September 2017.
Privateers in Charleston, 1793-1796 by Melvin H. Jackson (Smithsonian Studies in History and Technology, no. 1), 1969. Accessed 16 September 2017.
The National Maritime Museum of Greenwich, London, England has a web page entitled “Stories from the Sea: Pirates“. Accessed 13 July 2018.
“Pirates of the Carolinas,” a lesson plan for Grade 4 using primary documents from Documenting the American South. Accessed 16 September 2017.
The Shaftesbury Papers, Collections by the South Carolina Historical Society, vol. 5, original publication, 1897; reprint, 2000. Please see pp. 206, 239, 249, 264, and 469. (Please note: There is a lot of preliminary data before you get to the title page that indicates the beginning of the printed Shaftesbury Papers.)
Come to the BDC Research Room to see these items:
Piracy [vertical file]
B JOHNSON Robert Johnson, Proprietary & Royal Governor of South Carolina by Richard P. Sherman, 1966. (SCLENDS has copies you can check out)
SC 369 SOU The Shaftesbury Papers, Collections by the South Carolina Historical Society, vol. 5, original publication, 1897; reprint, 2000. Please see pp. 206, 239, 249, 264, and 469. (Please note: There is a lot of preliminary data before you get to the title page that indicates the beginning of the printed Shaftesbury Papers.)
SC 387.5 COK Charleston’s Maritime Heritage, 1670-1865: An Illustrated History by P.C. Coker III, 1987. (SCLENDS has copies you can check out)
SC 910.45 CON Pirates and Raiders of the Southern Shore by T. D. Conner, 2007. (SCLENDS has copies you can check out)
SC 910.45 HUG The Carolina Pirates and Colonial Commerce, 1670-1740 by Shirley Carter Hughson, originally published in 1894; reprinted 1973. (SCLENDS has copies you can check out)
SC 910.45 MAR Skull and Crossbones: South Carolina’s Infamous Pirates [DVD] (Mary Long’s Yesteryear), originally published, 1988; DVD format, 200-. (SCLENDS has copies you can check out)
SC 919.45 PYL OVRSZ Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates; Fiction, Fact & Fancy concerning the Buccaneers & Marooners of the Spanish Main, by Howard Pyle and Merle de Vore Johnson, compiler, 1921. Audio book version from Librivox: https://archive.org/details/book_of_pirates_1103_librivox
SC 910.45 ROB Blackbeard and Other Pirates of the Atlantic Coast by Nancy Roberts, 1993. (SCLENDS has copies you can check out)
SC 910.45 SPE Shipwrecks, Pirates & Privateers: Sunken Treasures of the Upper South Carolina Coast, 1521-1865 by E. Lee Spence, 1995. (SCLENDS has copies you can check out)
SC 975.703 JAC Privateers in Charleston, 1793-1796; an account of a French palatinate in South Carolina [by] Melvin H. Jackson, 1969. (BDC only)
SC 975.7 MCC The History of South Carolina Under the Proprietary Government, 1670-1719 by Edward McCrady, 1897. (SCLENDS has copies you can check out)
SC 975.799 ROW The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina: Volume 1, 1514-1861 by Lawrence S. Rowland, Alexander Moore, George C. Rogers, Jr., 1996. (SCLENDS has copies you can check out). See in particular, pp. 26-27, 44-46, 50, 58, 63, 148-149, 151, 155, 176, 186, 212, 229, 247-248; for French privateers, see 20, 22-23, 32-33, 40, 42-43, 147-148, 151; for Spanish privateers, see 141, 145, 147-151, 154-155.