With its shallow inlets, North Carolina’s Outer Banks became a haven for many pirates during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The most notable was the Pirate Blackbeard. Blackbeard called Bath, North Carolina, his home and spent his time as a pirate ransacking and pillaging unsuspecting ships off the banks of North Carolina.
Before he was Blackbeard, he was known as Edward Teach. Teach hailed from England, and most historical records and accounts indicate that he was born in Bristol around 1680. Little is known about Teach’s early life, except that he served as a privateer in Queen Anne’s Navy during the War of the Spanish Succession.
Around 1716, Teach joined the crew of Benjamin Hornigold, one of the most notorious pirates of the time. Hornigold and his crew preyed upon merchant ships throughout the Caribbean. Hornigold’s crew captured a French slave ship in November of 1717, and Teach was given command of the stolen vessel. Teach renamed the boat the Queen Anne’s Revenge and set sail as the ship’s new pirate captain.
Teach increased Queen Anne Revenge’s armament from the original fourteen guns to forty guns and then spent the next several months harassing ships off the eastern seaboard of North America. Around this time, Teach grew a long dark beard and cultivated a persona as a fierce pirate who operated under the pseudonym Blackbeard.
Blackbeard earned a reputation as a ruthless pirate. He terrorized sailors and ambushed passenger and cargo ships in the dim light of the dawn, when he had sufficient cover to approach unsuspecting vessels. Often the crew of the ships would surrender without a fight after laying eyes on the pirate and the next several years became known as the Reign of Fear of Blackbeard the Pirate.
Blackbeard grew his rich, dark beard out so that it covered almost his entire face. He would often tie slow burning matches or hemp to the ends of his beard and under his captain’s hat, so that smoke billowed out and around his face, striking terror into the heart of his victims. He added to his alarming appearance by wearing a crimson coat and always carrying two swords on his waist as well as stuffing any other pockets with an array of pistols and knives.
The climax of Blackbeard’s Reign of Fear was in May of 1718, when he laid a weeklong blockade to the port of Charleston, South Carolina. By this time in Blackbeard’s career he commanded over three hundred pirates and had come into possession of several ships and which he used to line up across the bay in Charleston. He held the city hostage for several weeks, demanding food, money, and other supplies.
Following his stint of pillaging Charleston, Blackbeard surprisingly surrendered to North Carolina’s governor, Charles Eden, under the promise that he would stop his devilish pirating ways. Blackbeard lived up to his reputation as a family man and took his fourteenth wife from Bath, North Carolina where he also took up residency.
Blackbeard’s reformed lifestyle did not last long. He soon took up piracy again, this time hiding out in the inlets of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. While Blackbeard horrified the people of the surrounding colonies, North Carolinians enjoyed buying goods at discounted prices from him, which he had stolen from ships. North Carolina’s governor, the colonial secretary, and the customs collector all shared in Blackbeard’s spoils and received commissions from him in exchange for protection and asylum.
In 1718, as sailors become more anxious about going to sea, Virginia’s Governor Spotswood decided to take matters into his own hands and sent Lieutenant Robert Maynard in pursuit of Blackbeard. It was well known that one of Blackbeard’s favorite hiding spots was Ocracoke Inlet, and Maynard headed there with two well-equipped ships ready to confront the menace of the seas.
On the morning of November 22, 1718, Maynard attacked Blackbeard’s ship in the shallow inlet. Unfortunately for Maynard, Blackbeard and his crew were familiar with the inlet, and with strategic maneuvering, they caused Maynard’s ship to run aground on a shallow sandbar. Blackbeard and his crew quickly boarded Maynard’s ship, because all of the crew seemed dead. Unbeknownst to Blackbeard, Maynard had taken his surviving crew down below to the belly of the ship and waited patiently to ambush and surprise Blackbeard.
Upon Maynard’s command, his naval fleet attacked Blackbeard, who was wounded five times. All of Blackbeard’s surviving crew was either killed or taken prisoner. As a warning to other pirates, Blackbeard’s head was cut off and suspended from the bow of Maynard’s ship.
The Reign of Fear of Blackbeard the Pirate was over, and the colonies surrounding North Carolina all breathed a sigh of relief. Maynard and many others after him searched for Blackbeard’s famous treasure yet found nothing. The inhabitants of the Outer Banks were left with the legacy of the pirate and some claim, his ghost.
To this day the Outer Banks of North Carolina are known as the graveyard of the Atlantic. Ocracoker’s assert that on a clear evening you can see the ghost of Blackbeard’s body swimming through the water looking for his severed head.
This piece was originally published as part of the North Carolina History Project.