Pirates in Virginia

Pirates were robbers who stole from ships, seized entire ships - and raided plantations on land.

Far inland in Caroline County, Peumansend Creek is reportedly named after a French privateer or pirate. Sometime before 1670, according to local lore, Captain Peuman raided up the Rappahannock River one too many times. Local colonists blocked his escape back to the Chesapeake Bay, and he ended up trapped in a creek near the town of Port Royal. Peuman was killed there, and today the place where he "met his end" is called Peumansend Creek.1

Peumandsend Creek supposedly memorializes where a privateer/pirate named Peuman was killed
Peumansend Creek supposedly memorializes where a privateer/pirate named Peuman was killed
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Pirates were crooks, and pirate ships were the equivalent of modern get-away cars of bank robbers. Nonetheless, at times the English government authorized ships to be "official" pirates called privateers, to attack Spanish, French, and Dutch ships and colonies.

Other nations authorized their own privateers to attack the English, in a form of undeclared-but-official economic warfare. In the 1600's and 1700's, certain ship captains were authorized by different European monarchs through a document called a letter of marque to use private ships to raid merchant vessels of enemy nations.

Kings and queens "outsourced" to expand their navies by authorizing privateers, avoiding the political headaches of raising taxes to build more warships and find crews to staff the vessels. During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress did the same. The official letter of marque endorsement meant that privateers were enemy combatants, and should be protected as prisoners of war if captured rather than executed summarily as pirates.

Ship captains and crews with letters of marque could go rogue and seize merchant vessels without any official blessing; in colonial times, ships sailing to and from Virginia suffered from unauthorized piracy as well as privateering authorized by hostile nations. When nations were at peace and letters of marque were scarce, captains and crews could switch to whatever unofficial opportunities were available.

in 1780, the Continental Congress issued letters of marque that authorized privateers to attack English shipping
in 1780, the Continental Congress issued letters of marque that authorized privateers to attack English shipping
Source: Library of Congress, Instructions to the captains and commanders of private armed vessels which shall have commissions or letters of marque and reprisal

The "rules of the games" were flexible. Determination of what was legal varied, depending upon who was making the decisions. Experienced captains and crews switched back and forth between privateer and pirate, or simply signed up for ordinary commercial trips, depending upon the demand for their services. Before coming to Virginia in 1607, even John Smith had served on a pirate ship in the Mediterranean.2

For example, the transition of the colony of Virginia from royal to Parliamentary control between 1751-1752 created confusion regarding which laws applied in the colony. After Parliament passed the first Navigation Act of 1651, Dutch ships were banned from trading with the colony of Virginia - and Virginia trips were banned from sailing to destinations other than England and its various possessions.

One Jamestown merchant was caught up in the change in policy, sailing The Fame of Virginia to the Netherlands when Virginia was loyal to the king but returning in 1752 after Parliament had seized control of the Virginia colony.

Upon the ship's return to Virginia, another sea captain seized The Fame of Virginia and claimed it as a prize, based upon the ship's violation of Parliamentary law. The Northampton County Court rejected that claim, but the captain who seized the ship was released by the county court officials - and he promptly sailed away with his "prize."

County taxpayers feared they would be required to provide compensation, since county officials had made the mistake of releasing the captain who sailed away, but then a Dutch ship was captured. Colonial officials conspired together to claim that ship as property of the colony, then sell it at a great discount to the owner of The Fame of Virginia (with the arbiters making the decision getting compensated by that owner, as part of the deal). Clearly, the boundary between illegal piracy and legalized privateering depended upon the circumstances, and who got rewarded by different interpretations of the law.3

Dutch privateers, not pirates, caused the greatest damage to Virginia shipping in the Chesapeake Bay area. In 1667, during one of the Anglo-Dutch wars, Dutch privateers disguised themselves as English ships, sailed into the Chesapeake Bay, crippled the one English warship stationed there, captured the fleet of merchant ships preparing to sail to England with full loads of tobacco, and sent landing parties to loot plantation houses along the river. Before the militia under Gov. William Berkeley could organize a response, the Dutch sailed away with all the tobacco ships the privateers could handle and burned the rest of the fleet.

In 1673, another set of Dutch raiders repeated their success, spending days collecting tobacco from Virginia and Maryland merchant vessels despite efforts of ship captains to flee up the Nansemond and James rivers.4

Thanks to intimidation, robbery at sea was often a pretty easy way to make a living. Pirates consciously spread fear regarding their behavior, and announcing their presence by hoisting a blood-red flag. Blackbeard hoisted a black flag with a death's head, while variants used by other pirates are replicated today as the "Jolly Roger" flag with a skull and crossbones.5

Captains and crews who quickly surrendered hoped to be treated better than those who fought back or tried to escape. Crew members from captured vessels ("prizes") would be invited to join the pirates, who at times created a fleet with multiple ships that required additional crew.

Those who refused were imprisoned with passengers in dark and smelly holds below decks or marooned on a plundered hulk from which sails and ropes had been removed. A quick surrender might result in gentle treatment, but pirates were mercurial and often undisciplined. Captains, crews, and passengers could be tortured or killed for information/entertainment, and the fate of captured ships varied

some pirates flew red flags to signal no quarter, while others flew black flags that intimidated captains/crew of merchant ships
some pirates flew red flags to signal no quarter, while others flew black flags that intimidated captains/crew of merchant ships
Source: Library of Congress, Major Stede Bonnet.

Sometimes pirates simply stole valuables, and then released the crew and ship. At other times, pirates would trade their worn-out vessels for a captured merchant ship in better condition, in the maritime equivalent of stealing a faster car.

Ships not suitable for use by the pirates were often burned, or ship carpenters were forced to drill holes below the waterline so the wooden vessels would quickly sink. Putting captives on board, and sinking unneeded ships, enabled pirates to keep their location secret from any English warships patrolling the American coastline and from private vessels chartered by colonial governors to hunt down pirates.

Some pirate crews made decisions by democratic vote. Strong-willed captains made decisions for other crews, and mutinies were not uncommon when the decision process broke down. William Dampier, a pirate who lived for a part of his life in Virginia, captained one of several pirate ships sailing in the Pacific Ocean near Chile in 1704 when another pirate captain marooned a troublesome sailor on an isolated island there.

Four years later, Dampier was navigator on the ship that rescued the castaway, Alexander Selkirk. Dampier's descriptions of his experiences helped stimulate Jonathan Swift to write Gulliver's Travels and Daniel Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe.6

Like modern burglars, pirates sought cash and goods easy to sell. They stole the personal possessions of captured crew and passengers, and resupplied their ships with rigging, food, and whatever wine, beer, and rum they captured.

Pirates might sail a captured ship to a port where officials winked at their presence, and sell the cargo to the equivalent of modern "fences" trafficking in stolen goods. Hogsheads of tobacco or other bulk cargo on captured ships would be thrown overboard if the ship itself was desired. Other ships with hard-to-sell cargoes were simply sunk or burned, after the easy-to-sell items were transferred to the pirate's ship.

Ten years after the successful 1673 Dutch raid in the Chesapeake Bay, the English began to station a Royal Navy guardship at the Virginia colony to protect the commercial shipping from privateers with letters of marque and from pirates. In 1688, the HMS Dumbarton seized four men who were suspected of being pirates. They were in a small boat on the Chesapeake Bay, and were thought to be pirates because the boat carried three chests loaded with gold coins and items of silver.

It turned out one of the four was Edward Davis, who had sailed out of Hampton in 1683 with William Dampier on a pirate expedition (though they also obtained letters of marque from the king of England). Davis ended up as captain of the Batchelor's Delight, which raided Spanish shipping and coastal villages on the west coast of South America until King James II issued a proclamation of amnesty for pirates in 1687. Davis obtained a royal pardon for the crew in Jamaica, but the pirates calculated that it would be wise to split up and seek to disguise their past.

The captain of the HMS Dumbarton and the colonial officials at Jamestown were not willing to accept the pardon granted by the royal governor in Jamaica, but the officials also feared retaliation from other pirates if the four men were punished. Ultimately, one of the four died and the other three were shipped to England for trial. The English judge agreed to a plea bargain in 1692 to release the defendants and restore their confiscated treasure - if they made a substantial contribution to the colony where they had first been arrested. The three former pirates donated the equivalent of $1 million today, and it was used to start the College of William and Mary.7

in 1688, James II granted amnesty to pirates who returned to England
in 1688, James II granted amnesty to pirates who returned to England
Source: Library of Congress, British Attempt to Suppress Pirates

The HMS Dumbarton was lucky to capture four trying-to-retire-in-peace pirates, crossing the Chesapeake Bay in an unarmed small boat. At times, the Royal Navy guardship was outgunned by the pirates. In 1699, the 16-gun Essex Prize warship was forced to evade and then finally flee from the pirate John James and his 26-gun Providence Galley, which then plundered various merchant ships in Lynnhaven Bay and the Chesapeake Bay.

The colonists in Virginia were not anxious to have an effective Royal Navy in the Chesapeake Bay, capable of intercepting all ships and ensuring all duties were collected. As described in The Virginian-Pilot's series of articles in 2006 exploring the history of pirates in Virginia:8

As governor of Maryland a few years earlier, Nicholson had asked the colony's residents to support his request for a royal navy ship to guard the coast from pirates. They had refused. "They are," he wrote bitterly, "afraid such cruiser would spoil the illegal trade."

But the guard ships themselves had a poor reputation. One had been burned in the James River by an attacking Dutch fleet that captured and sailed away with 14 tobacco ships. One was captained by a man who saw a chance to get rich quick and joined with the pirates. One was led by a drunkard and a thief.

Lynnhaven Bay, where pirate Lewis Guittar captured merchant ships in 1700 - but then was captured by the new guardship
Lynnhaven Bay, where pirate Lewis Guittar captured merchant ships in 1700 - but then was captured by the new guardship
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Occasionally, the guard ship was capable of defeating even well-armed pirates. In 1700, the pirate Lewis Guittar captured a fast merchant vessel, the La Paix (Peace) in Barbados, converted it into his pirate flagship, then seized other ships to assemble a pirate fleet. That pirate fleet captured multiple vessels off the Virginia coastline, but Lewis Guittar's success ended after he sailed into Lynnhaven Bay in April, 1700.

He thought the only British warship in the Chesapeake Bay region was the dilapidated Essex Prize. Some of the merchant vessels that were anchored in Lynnhaven Bay tried to escape, fleeing to the Atlantic Ocean and hoping they could sail faster than the pirates, but one ship slipped up the James River to alert the colonial authorities. The powerful warship Shoreham had arrived recently to strengthen the colony's defenses, and it quickly sailed (with Governor Nicholson on board) to challenge the La Paix.

After a battle in Lynnhaven Bay, the sails and rudder of the La Paix were shot away and the pirate flagship disabled. Guittar threatened to blow it up, killing 50 or so prisoners that he had seized from other vessels, rather than surrender unconditionally. To save the lives of the hostages, Gov. Nicholson agreed to grant quarter to the pirates, assuring them of a trial in England. One pirate (John Houghling) jumped off the La Paix and swam to shore in hopes of escaping. After the first trial for piracy in Virginia, Houghling was found guilty and hung, together with two other pirates who had been found asleep on one of their prizes and were therefore excluded from the governor's clemency.9

The presence of the 28-gun Shoreham had surprised Lewis Guittar, and reflected a change in colonial policy to increase protection of merchant vessels sailing between England and the Chesapeake Bay. The British Navy previously sent just poorly-equipped, poorly-staffed vessels to serve as guard ships in the Chesapeake Bay, in part because colonists had been reluctant to increase official patrols in the Chesapeake Bay.

Raids on French and Spanish vessels were no longer legitimized by English letters of marque after the end of Queen Anne's War in 1713, but English pirates based in the Bahamas continued to seize foreign merchant ships. In 1718, after a new royal governor expelled pirates from the Bahamas, Virginia became a prime target:10

Virginia's geography combined with its rich tobacco fleets to turn the waters off the capes and the lower Chesapeake into a choice target. Located near the northernmost reach of the Gulf Stream, the region was easily reached from as far away as the Caribbean ó and the wealth of protected anchorages on its long coastline made it a haven for sea rovers intent on striking without being detected.

The most famous pirate associated with Virginia today is Blackbeard, one of the last pirates to pose a serious threat to Virginia's shipping. Blackbeard (Edward Teach) was a licensed privateer during Queen Anne's War, and an unlicensed pirate afterward. Teach and other English privateers kept seizing merchant vessels from Spain and France even though the Treaty of Utrecht had been signed in 1713, to end the War of the Spanish Succession.

As the story was told, Blackbeard presented a fearsome appearance that was a calculated part of his business style, not a coincidental characteristic. His goal was to frighten victims into surrendering without a fight:11

This Beard was black, which he suffered to grow of an extravagant Length; as to Breadth, it came up to his Eyes, he was accustomed to twist it with Ribbons, in small Tails, after the Manner of our Ramilies Wiggs, and turn them about his Ears : in Time of Action, he wore a Sling over his Shoulders with three brace of Pistols, hanging in Holders like Bandaliers, and stuck lighted Matches under his Hat, which appearing on each Side of his Face, his Eyes naturally looking fierce and wild.

Blackbeard the Pirate
Blackbeard the Pirate
Source: A general history of the pyrates (1724)

In 1718, Blackbeard organized a blockade of the main South Carolina port, Charles Town (Charleston), but managed to get a pardon from North Carolina Governor Charles Eden. The governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood, was less forgiving.

Technically, Spotswood had no jurisdiction over piracy committed in the Atlantic Ocean south of the Virginia border, but pirates based on the Outer Banks of North Carolina threatened ships sailing in and out of the Chesapeake Bay. North Carolina ship captains requested help from Virginia, recognizing that Governor Charles Eden was allied with Teach and unwilling to stop his piracy.

Spotswood was looking for an opportunity to improve his relationship with the powerful gentry in Virginia, who were resisting his authority as governor. A strong stand against piracy would enhance colonial commerce, increasing profits of plantation owners and thus increasing Spotswood's political power in Williamsburg.

On Spotswood's orders, Lieutenant Robert Maynard sailed out of the Chesapeake Bay to Ocracoke Island, where Blackbeard was killed. His head was cut off and hung from the bowsprit on Maynard's ship, displaying the success of the mission on its return to Virginia.12

Blackbeard's severed head was carried back to Virginia
Blackbeard's severed head was carried back to Virginia
Source: The Pirates Own Book (p.217)

Today, the pirate history has been romanticized. The City of Hampton holds an annual festival commemorating his exploits and his ship the Queen Anne's Revenge, converting a once-feared military threat into an excuse for a party. The festival started in 2000 as a Hampton event, to pull some tourists across the water during OpSail 2000 in Norfolk. The continued public response (with 50,000 visitors annually) surprised tourism officials, but they have scheduled events each year.

Hampton's connection to Blackbeard provides something unique to draw tourists to the city. As the Convention & Visitors Bureau Executive Director noted, "No place else has a pirate story like ours to tell."13

Placing the bodies of executed pirates in public locations was thought to deter others from choosing to become pirates. Spotswood had bodies hung in chains at the harbors of Tyndall's Point (York River) and Urbanna (Rappahannock River). The return of Maynard's trophy to Hampton, a gruesome event in 1718, is now a high point of the city's annual Blackbeard Festival:14

A presentation ceremony follows the sea battle, where Lt. Maynard presents Blackbeard's head and defeated crew to Virginia's Governor Spotswood. Visitors can participate in the festivities when they join Blackbeardís funeral parade, Hamptonís version of Mardi Gras, and share in the booty from his treasure chest.

Blackbeard's Point, where Lieutenant Robert Maynard hung the pirate's head, is at the southern end of Eaton Street in Hampton
Blackbeard's Point, where Lieutenant Robert Maynard hung the pirate's head, is at the southern end of Eaton Street in Hampton
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Blackbeard was not the very last pirate in Virginia. In 1720, pirates captured a Virginia vessel near Barbados, and eight of the pirates sought to return to "civilian life" by sailing home with that vessel to the Chesapeake. The pirates were captured and six were executed, but that triggered a threat from other pirates to get revenge on Virginia. Governor Spotswood established lookout posts at Cape Charles and Cape Henry, plus fortifications at the mouths of the James, York, and Rappahannock rivers. Those defenses were not tested, but fear of being captured and tortured by pirates while sailing back to England kept Spotswood in Virginia even after he was replaced as governor.15

Pirate treasure may be buried even today on Virginia's coastline. Captain Kidd sailed from the Caribbean to Boston in 1699, supposedly burying gold, silver, and jewels on the shoreline during the journey. Perhaps his loot was recovered by other pirates soon after he was captured (and later executed in England), or perhaps whatever treasure he buried may be exposed one day after a storm shifts the sands.

graphic from poster for 2013 Blackbeard Festival in Hampton
graphic from poster for 2013 Blackbeard Festival in Hampton
Source: City of Hampton, About the Festival



1. Marshall Wingfield, A History of Caroline County, Virginia: From Its Formation in 1727 to 1924, Genealogical Publishing Company, 1924, p.36, http://books.google.com/books?id=xxVhymOH3usC (last checked September 8, 2013)
2. Meredith Hindley, "Soldier of Fortune: John Smith before Jamestown," Humanities, Volume 28, Number 1 (January/February 2007), http://www.neh.gov/humanities/2007/januaryfebruary/feature/soldier-fortune-john-smith-jamestown (last checked August 18, 2013)
3. Jon Kukla, Political Institutions in Virginia, 1619-1660, Garland Publishing, New York, 1989, pp.170-176
4. "Pirates series: Dutch raiders prowl Hampton Roads," Daily Press (Newport News), May 27, 2012, http://www.dailypress.com/features/history/dp-nws-pirates-2-20120527,0,428923.story (last checked August 18, 2013) 5. Arthur L. Cooke, "British Newspaper Accounts of Blackbeard's Death," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 61, Number 3 (July 1953), http://www.jstor.org/stable/4245947; Peter T. Leesony, "Pirational Choice: The Economics of Infamous Pirate Practices," Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, Volume 76, Issue 3 (December 2010), p.10, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jebo.2010.08.015; "Red is for ruthless: Rare Jolly Roger pirate flag captured in north Africa battle 230 years ago goes on show for first time," Daily Mail, December 16, 2011, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2074868/Rare-red-Jolly-Roger-pirate-flag-captured-battle-north-Africa-230-years-ago-goes-display-time.html (last checked September 11, 2013)
6. Mark P. Donnell, Daniel Diehl, Pirates of Virginia, Stackpole Books, 2012, pp.28-29; Bruce Selcraig, "The Real Robinson Crusoe," Smithsonian, July 2005, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/crusoe.html; "William Dampier," Mariner's Museum, http://ageofex.marinersmuseum.org/?type=travelwriter&id=12; "Two Extraordinary Travellers," British Broadcasting Corporation, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/scottishhistory/europe/oddities_europe.shtml (last checked May 16, 2014)
7. Mark Donnelly, Daniel Diehl, Pirates of Virginia: Plunder and High Adventure on the Old Dominion Coastline, Stackpole Books, 2012, pp.33-42; "The Unreliable Legend of the Batchelor's Delight: Buccaneers Davis, Wafer & Hingson, and the Ship Batchelors Delight," William and Mary Alumni Magazine, Volume 75 Number 4 (Summer 2010), cached at http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:qnpQ0xHl6P8J:https://www.wmalumni.com/%3Fsummer10_pirates (last checked May 16, 2014)
8. Thomas C. Parramore, Peter C. Stewart, Tommy L. Bogger, Norfolk: the First Four Centuries, University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1994, p.55; Mark P. Donnell, Daniel Diehl, Pirates of Virginia, Stackpole Books, 2012, pp.59-65; "Out of the Sea! Chapter 1," The Virginian-Pilot, August 13, 2006, http://hamptonroads.com/node/66521; "Out of the Sea! Chapter 2: Deception," The Virginian-Pilot, August 14, 2006, http://hamptonroads.com/node/66531 (last checked September 8, 2013)
9. Mark Donnelly, Daniel Diehl, Pirates of Virginia: Plunder and High Adventure on the Old Dominion Coastline, Stackpole Books, 2012, pp.69-81, http://books.google.com/books?id=pctJhGN09QQC; "Out of the sea! Chapter 10: Scrutiny," The Virginian-Pilot, August 22, 2006, http://hamptonroads.com/2006/08/out-sea-chapter-10-scrutiny; "Out of the Sea! Chapter 13: Justice," The Virginian-Pilot, August 25, 2006, http://hamptonroads.com/node/66781 (last checked September 8, 2013)
10. "Pirate series opener: Virginia hunts for Blackbeard," Daily Press (Newport News), May 27, 2012, http://www.dailypress.com/features/history/dp-nws-pirates-1-052712-20120526,0,1029984.story (last checked August 18, 2013)
11. Charles Johnson (Daniel Defoe), A general history of the pyrates, 1724, posted in Internet Archive, p.87, http://archive.org/details/generalhistoryof00defo (last checked September 11, 2013)
12. "November 22, 1718 - The Death of Blackbeard," This Month in North Carolina History Archives, November 2003, http://www2.lib.unc.edu/ncc/ref/nchistory/nov2003/nov2003.html (last checked August 18, 2013); Charles Ellms, The Pirates Own Book, 1837 (Project Gutenberg eBook digitized 2004), pp.213-215, http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/12216; Mark Donnelly, Daniel Diehl, Pirates of Virginia: Plunder and High Adventure on the Old Dominion Coastline, Stackpole Books, 2012, p.106, (last checked August 18, 2013)
13. "Hampton Roads' most important pirate," Newport News Daily Press, May 30, 2013, http://www.dailypress.com/features/history/our-story/dp-hampton-roads-most-important-pirate-20130530,0,2501462.post; "Pirates of Hampton Roads: Can Hampton make its pirate history pay?," Daily Press (Newport News), June 3, 2012, http://www.dailypress.com/features/history/dp-nws-pirates-8-20120603,0,4033404.story (last checked September 8, 2013)
14. Mark Donnelly, Daniel Diehl, Pirates of Virginia: Plunder and High Adventure on the Old Dominion Coastline, Stackpole Books, 2012, p.110; "About the Festival," City of Hampton, 2013, http://hampton.gov/index.aspx?NID=2059 (last checked August 18, 2013)
15. Mark Donnelly, Daniel Diehl, Pirates of Virginia: Plunder and High Adventure on the Old Dominion Coastline, Stackpole Books, 2012, p.138

in 1718, Governor Spotswood offered a reward for anyone to capture or kill pirates
in 1718, Governor Spotswood offered a reward for anyone to capture or kill pirates
Source: A general history of the pyrates (1724)

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