- Historic Sites
Artifacts pulled from the wreck of Blackbeard's flagship Queen Anne's Revenge offer a glimpse into the bloody decades of the early 18th century, when pirates ruled the Carolina coast
Spring 2011 | Volume 61, Issue 1
It was evident that the pirates were experienced fighting men who might prove invaluable. Some no doubt drifted off to Virginia, Pennsylvania, or New York, but most probably remained, finding at least a lukewarm welcome among the many widows and anxious townspeople. The abandoned farmsteads and coastal waters teeming with fish and mollusks also must have appeared attractive. Once the pirates accepted King George’s Act of Grace they could settle down, marry, and live out their days in the anonymity of the Carolina backcountry. North Carolina, and particularly Bath County, could not afford the luxury of spurning these casual, free-spending outlaws who pumped some life into the moribund economy and might well spring to arms if Tuscaroran terror reawakened in the forests and swamps.
For unrepentant predators such as Bonnet and Blackbeard, North Carolina offered a useful, temporary foothold between the two rich southern ports of Charles Town and Norfolk. To those who returned to their old calling, the sparsely populated Outer Banks and many shallow inlets offered convenient hideaways. Bonnet and Blackbeard took the king’s pardon from Governor Charles Eden at Bath and then sailed away on separate courses. Bonnet ravaged the Virginia and Delaware coasts and returned to Cape Fear, where he was captured after a savage action by a South Carolina flotilla under Col. William Rhett. Before the year was out, he and most of his crew had been tried and executed.
By contrast, Blackbeard, known to North Carolinians as Edward Thatch, was in no hurry to resume “pyrating.” Hard-pressed merchants and innkeepers welcomed his cash and abundant trade goods. Ostensibly settling into the colony’s domestic life, he married the daughter of a local planter, but it was said that he took “liberties” with his neighbors’ wives and daughters when socializing with their families. Over the next four months the restless Thatch mostly traded but occasionally pilfered, moving back and forth from Bath to Ocracoke and out to sea in his eight-gun sloop. Theoretically retired from piracy, he still brought in a French “sugar ship” that he claimed had been abandoned at sea; the colony’s vice admiralty court declared it a derelict and his salvage lawful.
Thatch’s activities created enough apprehension “among some of the best of the Planters,” noted a contemporary, that they appealed to Governor Eden. More concerned about Indian raids, he ignored their pleas. Those disturbed by Thatch’s apparently cozy relationship with the seat of power secretly approached Gov. Alexander Spotswood of Virginia, a declared enemy of freebooting, who readily agreed “to extirpate this nest of pyrates” and organized a two-pronged invasion by land and sea. Aided by local guides, Virginia marines occupied Bath on November 23, confiscating a large amount of sugar and some cotton from Governor Eden and Secretary Tobias Knight. The day before, Lt. Robert Maynard’s two sloops had fallen upon Blackbeard in a brief but bloody action near Ocracoke Inlet. Maynard triumphantly returned to Virginia laden with cocoa, indigo, and cotton from the pirate camp—as well as Blackbeard’s severed head, which swung from the bowsprit. Those pirates who survived were tried in Williamsburg the next March. All but one were hanged.
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For almost three centuries afterward, Blackbeard’s ship lay beneath a layer of sand on the outer bar of Beaufort Inlet, except on occasion when the channel shifted course. By the latter half of the 20th century, a nexus of hurricanes and storms had cleared enough sand to expose Queen Anne’s Revenge. Beaufort Inlet had been known as the resting place of Blackbeard’s flagship from the day of its grounding by way of contemporary letters, reports, and even a story in the only colonial newspaper of the day, the Boston News-Letter. Folktales about Blackbeard and his company grew with the endless retelling, until they had gained a worldwide currency as icons of “the Golden Age of Piracy.”
The modern quest to recover the Queen Anne’s Revenge began with comprehensive research on Blackbeard by the nautical archaeologist David Moore, whose report on the 1718 wrecks attracted the attention of Phil Masters, who had founded Intersal Inc. in 1988 to research historic shipwrecks. One of Intersal’s projects involved searching Beaufort Inlet for the Spanish treasure ship El Salvador, lost in 1750. Capping an eight-year-long hunt in 1996, Masters enlisted the experienced shipwreck diver Mike Daniel to help locate the wreck. In November of that year, excited divers surfaced after examining the source of a strong magnetometer reading. They described a seafloor littered with cannon and anchors. The artifacts recovered that day, including a 1705 Spanish bell, were clearly from an earlier 18th-century wreck, more than likely one of Thatch’s vessels.
The next day, the state sent its chief underwater archaeologist Richard Lawrence and conservator Leslie Bright to examine what could be the most significant colonial shipwreck ever discovered in its jurisdiction. They confirmed the initial assessment, declared the wreck a protected archaeological site, assigned it the number 31CR314, and soon nominated it to the National Register of Historic Places. A rare landmark agreement between Masters’s Intersal, Daniels’s Maritime Research Institute, and the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources turned the Queen Anne’s Revenge and its artifacts over to the state for investigation and recovery. (To date, Intersal’s search for the Adventure has failed to discover that sloop.)