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The Legend of Blackbeard the Pirate

The Legend of Blackbeard the Pirate

Photo: History.com

A popular vacation destination that attracts tens of thousands of visitors to its pristine stretches of shoreline each summer, the Outer Banks of North Carolina is home to a wealth of historical attractions. From the site where the Wright Brothers made the first successful powered flight on Dec. 17, 1903, to the place where some of the first English settlers vanished from Roanoke Island without a trace, the region has witnessed the happenings of an assortment of events that have since made their way onto the pages of history books. But when it comes to the people that put the beaches of these barrier islands onto the map centuries ago, few are more well-known than the infamous pirate by the name of Blackbeard.

Photo: ThoughtCo.com

Blackbeard the pirate—whose given name was reportedly Edward Teach—was born in Bristol, England, in 1680. Like the majority of pirates of his time—who sought to earn their fortunes and ultimately return home without soiling their family name—relatively little information is known about Blackbeard’s upbringing. It is believed by historians, however, that his first foray into piracy likely took place around the 1714 conclusion of Queen Anne’s War, during which Edward Teach served as a privateer aboard ships sailing out of Jamaica. When the war was over, Teach relocated his base of operations from Jamaica to the island of New Providence in the Bahamas, where he served an apprenticeship under Captain Benjamin Hornigold—the man who founded the pirate republic in the Bahamas.

Photo: Queen Anne’s Revenge Project

With one of the most influential pirates in history as his mentor, Edward Teach—by now referring to himself as Blackbeard in honor of the long, black beard he often wore in tiny braids secured by thin ribbons of various colors—quickly learned the ins and outs of piracy. The pair of pirates enjoyed considerable success on the high seas, commandeering many large merchant vessels sailing through the shipping lanes of the Caribbean and ruthlessly pillaging to acquire the goods onboard. Although Blackbeard and Hornigold made a top-notch team, Hornigold soon deemed the fortune he had amassed from plundering sufficient and retired from piracy in 1718. With Hornigold giving up piracy to become a planter on the island of New Providence, Blackbeard took the skills he had learned during his apprenticeship set out on his own.

Photo: Pinterest

His first order of business was to convert the Concord—a large French ship that he and Hornigold had captured together—into a vessel better suited for piracy. He mounted 40 guns onboard the ship and renamed her the Queen Anne’s Revenge. With a crew of 300 men, some of whom had served as crew aboard the Concord before it was commandeered by Hornigold and Blackbeard, the Queen Anne’s Revenge was ready to set sail in search of merchant ships whose booty could be plundered. According to historical accounts of Blackbeard’s escapades during the early 1700s, the vast majority of crews whose ships were overtaken by the ferocious pirate surrendered without a fight.    

Photo: Pinterest

By the late spring of 1718, Blackbeard’s piracy career had reached soaring new heights. He was the proud commander of at least a half dozen pirate ships, which at one time blockaded the harbor in Charleston, South Carolina, looting every vessel that sailed in and out of the entrance to one of the busiest ports in the southeastern United States. Following the success of the blockade, Blackbeard and a portion of his flotilla sailed further north to present-day Beaufort Inlet in North Carolina, and later to Ocracoke Inlet on the Outer Banks. In the summer of 1718, Blackbeard and about 20 members of his crew sailed through the Ocracoke Inlet and into the Pamlico Sound, heading for the nearby town of Bath, North Carolina. Sensing that the golden age of piracy was coming to a close soon, Blackbeard made his home in the tiny town on the Pamlico River and married his 14th wife, the daughter of a local planter.

Blackbeard the Pirate’s signature pirate flag.

Unable to resist the lure of the lucrative career of piracy for long, Blackbeard eventually set sail once again and continued to loot vessels and bring the stolen goods back to Bath. The pirate frequently anchored his flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, in Ocracoke Inlet, which served as the spot where the most of the ocean-bound vessels from mainland settlements had to pass through in order to reach the open water. Despite the number of ships Blackbeard had such easy access to in and around Ocracoke Inlet, his crew on the Outer Banks was significantly smaller than it had been in years past—leaving him vulnerable to an attack by those who sought to rid the barrier islands of piracy forever.

Photo: Ekabinsha.org

Having grown frustrated with the infamous pirate and his frequent—and typically successful—attempts to pillage their vessels, the people of North Carolina sought the help Alexander Spotswood, the governor of Virginia. Gov. Spotswood compiled a crew of British naval officers and sent them under the leadership of Lieutenant Robert Maynard to Ocracoke Island in search of Blackbeard. At dawn on Nov. 22, 1718, Blackbeard and his crew were on the receiving end of a ferocious attack by the British sailors.

According to reports, Blackbeard suffered 25 wounds—five of which were gunshot wounds—before finally succumbing to his injuries. To claim the bounty on his head and prove to the governor he had indeed slaughtered one of the most notorious pirates to ever sail the seven seas, Maynard beheaded Blackbeard and displayed the pirate’s head on the bow of the ship as it sailed back to Virginia—a sign to all who witnessed it that the age of piracy in the region had finally come to an end.    

 

 

 

Discover the Deserted Village on Portsmouth Island

Photo: Friends of Portsmouth Island

From Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills to Kitty Hawk and Cape Hatteras, the communities that compose the Outer Banks of North Carolina are coveted by travelers who seek an escape to the sun, surf and sand of this popular vacation destination. While Roanoke Island is best known for the disappearance of an entire colony of settlers centuries ago, and Ocracoke Island is infamous for being a popular haunt for Blackbeard the pirate, it is farther south, on Portsmouth Island, that you will find one of the most unique treasures the Outer Banks has to offer. Once a thriving fishing and shipping village, this now virtually deserted island is the perfect place to get away from it all in a spot where time seems to stand completely still. 

Photo: Our State Magazine

Bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Pamlico Sound to the west, Portsmouth Island lies fewer than five miles to the south of Ocracoke Island. The tiny spit of sand comprises only 250 acres, but thanks to its location, lack of development and very few visitors, it offers some of the best opportunities for fishing and shelling on the entire Outer Banks. Accessible only by private boat or hired ferry, Portsmouth Island isn’t a simple spot to get to, but those who make the journey will be rewarded with pristine stretches of shoreline, a wide array of wildlife and a glimpse back in time to what life on the island would have been like in its heyday nearly two centuries ago.

Photo: Ocracoke Observer

The first visitors to settle on Portsmouth Island arrived on the sandbar shortly after 1753, when blueprints for the first planned village on the Outer Banks were initially drawn up by European settlers. Prized for its convenient location along the edge of Ocracoke Inlet, the island quickly attracted mariners and in no time became a bustling port. By the mid-1800s nearly 1,500 cargo vessels were passing through the inlet that separates the islands of Portsmouth and Ocracoke, and more than 500 residents called Portsmouth home by 1850. A series of houses sprang up around the island, as did a post office, general store and lifesaving station.

Photo: Village Craftsmen

Despite enjoying success in the sea trade for a century after its founding, the port of Portsmouth Island saw a serious decline in the number of vessels passing through the Portsmouth Inlet after a hurricane cut two new inlets through Hatteras Island—Hatteras Inlet and Oregon Inlet—in 1846, effectively joining the sound to the sea. These new inlets provided an opportunity for vessels to bypass Portsmouth Island entirely, favoring instead the points farther north, which offered easy access to inland points along the North Carolina mainland. With fewer and fewer vessels to assist and tend to as they passed through Ocracoke Inlet, the people of Portsmouth Island steadily began to lose their livelihoods in the lightering industry.

Photo: Our State Magazine

Slowly but surely, members of the tight-knit community parted ways, some in search of sea trade in other areas along the barrier islands and others in search of entirely new professions. By the turn of the 20th century, only a few dozen fishermen and their families remained on Portsmouth Island, along with a handful of island men who continued to serve at the lifesaving station that had been constructed in 1894. The lifesaving station was decommissioned in 1937, prompting more people to move away, and by 1955, only 12 islanders inhabited the village. Over the course of the next two decades, Portsmouth Island’s population continued to dwindle, and in 1971, only three people—two female residents, Elma Dixon and Marion Babb, and one male resident, Henry Pigott—were left. Later that year, Henry Pigott passed away, and rather than remaining on the island and continuing to rely on private boats to bring in supplies, Marion and Elma reluctantly relocated to the mainland.

Photo: Michael Halminski Photography

Once the ladies left the island, the 13-mile-long stretch of sandbar and the tiny village was abandoned entirely. For years, the buildings on Portsmouth Island were battered by storms and salt air, and with no one to perform the upkeep, the structures fell into a state of disrepair and were left to further deteriorate in the harsh elements. In 1976, however,  the Cape Lookout National Seashore was established, and an effort to restore the village and pay homage to its maritime heritage was launched.

Photo: Michael Halminski Photography

Among the structures that were renovated to their original condition were Henry Pigott’s house, the lifesaving station, the post office, general store and a Methodist church. Today, visitors to the Outer Banks can travel to Ocracoke Island and take a private boat or ferry to Portsmouth Island to learn about the unique history of the centuries-old village that, in its day, was one of the most important and most prosperous ports on the entire Eastern Seaboard.

 

History of the Ocracoke Light Station

Photo Courtesy of VisitNC.com

The most famous lighthouse along the Outer Banks of North Carolina may be the iconic black-and-white spiraled structure that stands on a spit of sand at Cape Hatteras, but when it comes to navigational aids guarding the Graveyard of the Atlantic, a lesser-known but equally important lighthouse should not be overlooked. Located on the southern edge of Ocracoke Island—a 16-mile-long stretch of sand accessible only by boat—the Ocracoke Light Station has a storied past that dates back to the days when Blackbeard the Pirate sailed the seas surrounding the barrier islands that comprise the Outer Banks.

An unincorporated community in Hyde County, Ocracoke is situated south of Hatteras Island and just a few nautical miles northeast of Portsmouth Island. Ocracoke Inlet—a narrow waterway that lies between Ocracoke Island and Portsmouth Island—became a popular channel during the late 1500s for ships needing to gain access to inland ports ranging from Elizabeth City to Edenton and New Bern. Because of the island’s convenient location between the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound where ships often traveled along area trade routes, a small village soon developed in what is currently known as Ocracoke Village in the 1730s.

Photo: Bob Muller

Due to the constantly changing sandbars beneath the surface of the sea, navigating the coastline near Ocracoke Island became extremely difficult, and many mariners experienced issues with shoaling and found themselves shipwrecked on the sandbars. To assist with the navigational troubles these mariners dealt with during their journeys from the trade routes of the Atlantic Ocean to points inland, numerous “pilots” who were familiar with the shoals were hired to help steer ships safely through what was quickly becoming one of the busiest inlets on the Eastern Seaboard. Because these pilots eventually settled on Ocracoke Island, the tiny village was originally referred to as “Pilot Town.”

Recognizing that a crew of pilots was not quite enough to assist mariners sailing the sound and sea near Ocracoke, the U.S. Lighthouse Service deemed the spot worthy of further aid to sailors, and in 1794 construction on a navigational structure began. The lighthouse—a wooden tower in the shape of a pyramid—was built on a 25-acre island between Ocracoke and neighboring Portsmouth Island to the south called Shell Castle Island. A small house was also constructed on Shell Castle Island to provide accommodations for the resident lightkeeper, as well as a handful of additional facilities such as gristmills and cargo wharves.

Although this first lighthouse was extremely successful in helping to warn mariners of the nearby sandbars and assisted them in navigating their way from the ocean to their inland destinations, after fewer than 20 years the structure was deemed obsolete. Shoaling had caused the channel itself to shift its location by nearly a mile, and, according to the National Park Service, the lighthouse and the keeper’s quarters were both destroyed by lightning in 1818, leaving mariners in the dark once more.

A few years later, the U.S. government purchased a two-acre area on the southern end of Ocracoke Island and hired Noah Porter, a builder from Massachusetts, to construct a new navigational aid for Ocracoke Inlet near the channel’s new location. The property was purchased for a total of $50, and, despite budgeting $20,000 for the lighthouse and the one-story keeper’s quarters, both were completed for just $11,359 in 1823.

At a height of 75 feet, the Ocracoke Light Station is significantly shorter than many of its counterparts along the coast; however, its light—which can be seen as far as 14 miles at sea—provided the perfect solution for sailors searching for assistance in safely navigating the shifting shoals off the North Carolina coastline. A sturdy structure whose solid, white brick walls are five feet thick at the base and taper to two feet thick at the top of the tower, the Ocracoke Light Station has withstood hundreds of storms and dozens of hurricanes in the nearly two centuries it has stood watch over the southern portion of the Outer Banks.

Photo: Our State Magazine

Unlike many other lighthouses along the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the Ocracoke Light Station is not open to the public for tours or climbing; however, the second-oldest operating lighthouse in the United States still attracts thousands of visitors each year who stop by Ocracoke Village to see this unique piece of Outer Banks history in person.

Torpedo Junction & Ocracoke Island’s British Cemetery

If you’re a history buff visiting the Outer Banks of North Carolina, your itinerary likely includes popular attractions such as the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, Corolla’s Whalehead Club, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the site from which an entire colony vanished on the northern tip of Roanoke Island. But to fully experience everything the Outer Banks has to offer those with an affinity for learning about the past of this stretch of seashore between sound and sea, a stop at the British Cemetery is a must.

Nestled well off the main road in a wooded lot on Ocracoke Island, the British Cemetery is a historic spot within the confines of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Maintained by the National Park Service, the 2,290-square-foot cemetery marks the final resting spot of heroic British sailors who fought alongside American troops defending the Eastern Seaboard from attacks during World War II.

national parks traveler
Photo Courtesy of the National Parks Traveler

Soon after American was thrust into war with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Germany launched a covert mission code-named Operation Paukenschlag. This initiative—whose English translation is Operation Drumroll—called for a series of assaults on unsuspecting ships sailing within the merchant-heavy sea lanes along the East Coast of the United States. Although today this stretch of the southern Outer Banks is prized for its pristine beaches, minimal development and wide array of wildlife, the area was once characterized by fiery explosions at sea and referred to as “Torpedo Junction” due to the massive amount of submarine assaults that occurred here in the early 1940s.    

offbeattravel
Photo Courtesy of OffBeatTravel.com

Orchestrated by Karl Donitz, a German admiral and U-boat commander, the operation began when five submarines were sent on a journey across the Atlantic Ocean in late December 1941. Unaware of the submarines making stealth underwater advances upon the shoreline of the Outer Banks, U.S. merchant ships continued upon their trade routes, protected only by a handful of naval vessels assigned to patrol this portion of the Atlantic—the majority of which were slow and unsuited to take on submarine attacks. According to the National Park Service, only one vessel—a 165-foot-long Coast Guard cutter named the Dione—patrolled the waters off Cape Hatteras, rendering the region extremely vulnerable to well-timed submarine attacks.

In addition to its lack of preparedness in terms of the types and number of ships patrolling the seaboard, the U.S. also failed to take proper precautions onshore to reduce the risk of underwater assaults on naval vessels. Local lighthouses—including the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and Ocracoke Lighthouse—remained lit at night, and blackout restrictions were not enforced. With lights along the shoreline ablaze throughout each evening, a brightly lit backdrop was created, allowing German U-boat commanders to easily spot the location of merchant ships passing along the coastline of the Outer Banks.

Photo: National Park Service
Photo Courtesy of he U.S. National Park Service

Having not prepared properly for a potential attack—and unknowingly creating the perfect conditions for submarine assaults—U.S. ships were an easy target for the German sailors, who had years of experience conducting submarine attacks on unsuspecting victims. The result was devastating: In the first six months of 1942 alone, 397 Allied merchant ships were struck and sunk in the poorly protected sea lanes of the Atlantic Ocean. Cape Hatteras—with the bright beacon of light emitted from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the massive currents that converged at Cape Point in Buxton—became a navigational focal point for U-boat commanders. More than 80 ships were sunk in this particular spot that earned the area its nickname of Torpedo Junction.

islandfreepress

Relatively unchecked by unprepared American Naval forces, the German U-boats continued their slaughter of merchant ships. When those in command came to the realization that the loss of so many ships ultimately threatened the entire war effort, the U.S. finally accepted assistance from the British Royal Navy in patrolling the coast of North Carolina and began to strike back against enemy German forces. Bolstered by the aid of 24 British ships—including a transformed trawler called the HMS Bedfordshire—the U.S. was eventually able to regain control of the waters surrounding Torpedo Junction on the Outer Banks.  

geocaching
The HMS Bedfordshire. Photo Credit: Geocaching.com

Although Admiral Donitz called off the attacks on Torpedo Junction in the summer of 1942 and sent his submarines to places that provided less resistance, the U.S. and its British allies suffered greatly from Operation Paukenschlag. On May 12, 1942, the HMS Bedfordshire was struck by a torpedo while patrolling the coastline of the Outer Banks. All 34 British crew members were killed when the ship sunk, and several of their bodies washing ashore on Ocracoke Island in the days following the attack.

Photo: U.S. National Park Service

Outer Bankers residing on Ocracoke Island buried the bodies of these brave British sailors who fought alongside American naval forces next to the grave of another British soldier who was killed when the San Delfino was sunk by a torpedo just one year earlier. The plot of land that serves as the final resting place of America’s allies at Torpedo Junction is now known as the British Cemetery in historic Ocracoke village and attracts hundreds of visitors to pay their respects each year. In honor of their sacrifice while assisting U.S. trips in the fight against German forces, memorial services—including a 21-gun salute and the placement of wreaths on all the graves—are held at the British Cemetery each year on the anniversary of the Bedfordshire’s sinking and attended by locals and visitors to the Outer Banks alike.

ocracoke observer
Photo Courtesy of the Ocracoke Observer

 

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