From Treasure Island to Pirates of the Caribbean, the lore of swashbuckling pirates has captured the imaginations of many. Romanticized in literature and film as rugged outlaws, pirates have been around since ancient times. However, when we think of pirates, most of us commonly picture the Golden Age of Piracy, as first described in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. During this time in the 17th and early 18th centuries, more than 5000 pirates were said to be at sea.
And many of them found their way to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Our majestic coast is known for many things, but none of the local legends are as far-reaching or as popular as the pirates that made our island their personal pirate playground. An ideal stop for pirates, the OBX was a midpoint between the Caribbean and larger colonial ports in the North. In addition, our waters were often treacherous and created the perfect situation for shipwrecks, thus forming the "Graveyard of the Atlantic."
In honor of international Talk Like A Pirate Day, we're sharing a bit of swashbuckling history of pirates off the North Carolina coast. Channel your inner Jack Sparrow and grab some grog (but only if you're of drinking age) and gather up your maties as we take you on an OBX adventure on the high seas.
Origins of Outer Banks Piracy
Piracy on the Outer Banks of North Carolina dates back to late 1500s, when Queen Elizabeth I ordered English explorers to come to the area and set up a military colony to rob Spanish ships. Known as privateers, these men were essentially "legal pirates," engaging in activities that could only be described as piracy but which had the express support and authority of a sovereign nation.
While Outer Banks pirate history started with these "sanctioned pirates," the Caribbean originated as one of the most common destinations for pirates. However, as large groups of colonists arrived and trade increased along the New World coastline, they migrated. The unending shipments of good and supplies to and from the New World mainland were irresistible, and in the late 1600s, Ocracoke Inlet and the beaches off the North Carolina coast began to attract the attention of freelance pirates.
Despite being off the beaten path, the Outer Banks coastline offered a distinct advantage for both sailors and pirates. With its close proximity to the Gulf Stream, it grew into a well-used trade route; sailors used our offshore waters to gain time on their voyages. It was also the perfect getaway for outlaws thanks to the Diamond Shoals—a cluster of shifting, underwater sandbars located just off the coast of Cape Hatteras. These treacherous shoals caused many ships to run aground, creating easy prey for pirates to plunder and pillage.
Because of this, the Outer Banks became a haven for many pirates during the 17th and 18th centuries. Using boats that could sail through shallow waters, pirates could navigate through inland waterways to the sea, rob ships, and then sail back to their hideout.
Outer Banks Pirates
The Outer Banks, particularly Ocracoke Island, are well known to be the stomping grounds for some of history's most infamous pirates. Notable swashbucklers like Blackbeard and Calico Jack, among others, made the OBX one of their favorite plundering destinations—robbing privateers and making merry with their loot.
Stede Bonnet was an early 18th-century Barbadian pirate known as "The Gentleman Pirate" —a name give to him because he was a wealthy plantation owner before abandoning his wife, children, land, and fortune in 1717 to become a pirate. Bonnet would lose his crew, and his loot, to Blackbeard, and would later resurface as the infamous Captain Thomas, with a mission to get revenge. Eventually convicted of piracy, Bonnet was hanged on December 10, 1718, after less than two years of adventure on the high seas.
Charles Vane was an English pirate who operated in the Bahamas during the end of the Golden Age of Piracy. Certainly one of the most skillful pirate captions (and also one of the cruelest), he successfully plundered a numerous vessels, often selling his goods in the Carolinas. A good friend of Blackbeard, Vane joined up with his friend on Ocracoke Island in the fall of 1718 for a week-long celebration laden with food, rum, and women—the largest pirate festival ever held on the mainland of North America. After a hurricane wrecked his ships, Vane was rescued by Buccaneer Captain Holford, who extradited him to authorities, where he was put on trial, found guilty, and hanged in November 1720.
Nicknamed "Calico Jack" for his colorful wardrobe, Rackham was famous for his two female crew members—Anne Bonney and Mary Read. He often traveled throughout Ocracoke Inlet and was known for his Jolly Roger flag with crossed swords. Under the command of Charles Vane, Rackham was ordered to flee from a French warship after leaving Blackbeard at Ocracoke. After traveling to New Providence, Rackham joined forces with Anne Bonny and the life of piracy for these two began. In 1720, Rackham's crew was overtaken in Jamaica. He was convicted of piracy and hanged in Port Royal, Jamaica on November 20.
Known as Blackbeard, he was the most infamous pirate of the Outer Banks. Although he called Bath, North Carolina, home, he used Ocracoke Island as a hide-out while he ransacked and pillaged unsuspecting ships off the banks of North Carolina. He met his end on the morning of November 22, 1718, when Virginia's Governor Spotswood sent Lieutenant Robert Maynard to attack Blackbeard's ship in Ocracoke Inlet. 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.
Outer Banks Pirate Attractions
Shiver me timbers! Who knew the Outer Banks was such a popular location for piracy? Ready for more Outer Banks pirate legends and lore? There are many historic OBX sites and attractions to learn more about North Carolina's legendary pirates.
The waters where Blackbeard met his demise can be found just off the coast of Ocracoke Village. Known as Teach's Hole, this locale, though hard to distinguish, is viewable from a number of vantage points along the Ocracoke waterfront.
Once home to wild pirate parties, Springer's Point is now a peaceful nature preserve where visitors can wander along wooded trails to the soundfront, which overlooks the infamous Teach's Hole.
Ocracoke Preservation Museum
This small museum located in a historic 1900 residence features a wealth of personal stories and collections, which includes tales of Ocracoke's local brushings with offshore pirates.
North Carolina Maritime Museum
Take a day trip to neighboring Beaufort, NC to visit the North Carolina Maritime Museum. A newly opened exhibit features artifacts taken from Blackbeard's favorite pirate ship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, which was re-discovered off the coast of North Carolina in the past decade.
Side note: although real pirates probably didn't use much of the vocabulary we now think of as "pirate lingo," Talk Like a Pirate Day is a great way to learn some OBX history and celebrate a bygone era.