Pirate Flag
Photo Credit: Axel Alvarez/Shutterstock

Pirates and privateers (thieves who had the blessings of their home countries) were major players in Chesapeake Bay history. For nearly 200 years, pirates roamed the Bay’s waters looking for prey and outfitting themselves to search for prizes in other parts of the world.

The pirate lifestyle

In the early 17th century, pirates settled near the southern portion of the Chesapeake Bay, increasing the possibility of pirate attacks in the region. As the young Virginia colony flourished and commerce with Europe expanded, pirates and privateers found plenty of opportunities to prey upon vessels.

The first act of piracy was committed on the Chesapeake in 1635. William Claiborne, who owned a plantation on Kent Island, Maryland, sent his agent to capture a small boat as it approached Palmer's Island at the head of the Bay. Fueled by growing tensions between Maryland and Virginia, Claiborne—a Virginian—was likely angry that the Maryland boat had invaded his plantation’s territory. This event kicked off almost 200 years of piracy on the Bay.

Even though they victimized colonial ships, pirates were often tolerated and even courted by governors, merchants and citizens of the colonies. In some ways, supporting piracy marked their growing desire to be independent from England. Pirates sold colonial merchants the black market goods they could not buy from England.

Despite their apparent prosperity, most pirates led hard lives and died early. Life aboard pirate vessels was miserable. The wooden ships were dank and moldy, and stank of waste, rotted meat and unwashed bodies. Pirates’ work was unending. Half a crew could be lost to disease on a single voyage. If pirates did not succumb to disease, they could easily lose their life or limbs in battle. And on occasion, punishment awaited them when they returned to shore.

The brutal life onboard and the likelihood of injury or death did not dissuade all seamen from becoming pirates. The slim possibility of financial reward was a strong incentive. Although many pirates died with little to their names, others somehow managed to thwart authority and find riches.

Historical sketch of Blackbeard with lit fuses in his beard
This portrait depicts Blackbeard with his legendary braided beard filled with lit fuses. (Image courtesy Wikipedia)

A few Bay pirate tales

Pirate adventures helped shape the patterns of settlement on the Bay's shores and the consequent use of its waters. To Blackbeard, the Davis trio and other pirates who frequented the Bay, we owe a colorful—yet barbaric—slice of Bay history.

Davis, Wafer and Hinson

After five years of piracy in the South Seas, the threesome Davis, Wafer and Hinson decided to settle in Virginia with their spoils.

The threesome traveled over land from Delaware Bay to the head of the Chesapeake, then headed down the Bay in a shallop. But before they could complete their trip, Captain Rowe of the Dumbarton captured them and threw them in the Jamestown jail for a year.

Davis, Wafer and Hinson petitioned the Virginia council several times to return their confiscated treasures. Finally, in 1692, the King of England proclaimed that their loot be returned – minus 300 pounds. This money went toward founding the College of William and Mary.

William Kidd

William Kidd was a reputable and successful man who owned several properties in Manhattan before taking to piracy. Kidd commandeered the Adventure Galley, capturing several European ships near Madagascar and in the Red Sea.

In 1699, officials in England ordered that Kidd and his cronies be captured. Kidd soon arrived on the Delaware coast, where some of his crew left the ship. He then sailed for Boston, where he was arrested and deported to England.

On May 23, 1701, the infamous Captain Kidd was hanged.

Theophilus Turner

Theophilus Turner, one of the men who left Kidd's ship in Delaware, boarded Andrew Gravenrod's sloop as it headed up the Bay. Turner had plans to quietly settle with his treasure in the Tidewater area.

When Gravenrod’s sloop was anchored in the Severn River, an agent of the Maryland governer visited. Turner was arrested and sent to England for trial, and his treasure was confiscated.

Edward Teach (Blackbeard)

Of all pirates, Edward Teach—better known as Blackbeard—is probably the most legendary. His untrimmed, braided beard extended from his eyes down to his chest. Teach was a master at creating terror. He would stick long-burning fuses under his hat before going into battle, making him appear demonic.

Like other pirates, Teach sometimes used the seclusion of the Eastern Shore to prepare his ship for sea. Though he traveled far and wide, Teach also found fertile pirating grounds in the area off the Virginia capes. In the fall of 1717, he and Captain Hornigold captured the sloop Betty off Cape Charles and plundered Madeira wine and other valuables.

By the summer of 1718, Teach decided to live the life of a "gentleman," settling in Bath, North Carolina, and marrying his 14th bride. His gentlemanly life was cut short when his nemesis, Governor Spotswood of Virginia, sent Captain Maynard to North Carolina for a duel.

After a bloody fight, Maynard prevailed and carried his prize—Blackbeard's head—back to Hampton, Virginia, on the bowsprit of his ship.