Chesapeake Bay Pirates

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Add pirates to the list of trials and tribulations faced by early settlers around the Virginia Colony’s Chesapeake Bay. But pirates were simply independent entrepreneurs.

In the Virginia Colony’s Council Minutes, pirates were mentioned often. The colonists, “hath been many times exposed to great hazard and danger by Privateers frequently resorting hither,” a Councilor said. Sir William Berkeley (1606-1677), who served as Royal Governor from 1641 to 1650 and 1660 to 1677, lamented the fact that the North American sea lanes between his colony and England were “so full of pirates that it is impossible for any ships to go home safely.”

A Very Brief Background

Pirates were merely following the centuries-old practice of high seas looting that was sanctioned by Kings who, lacking a Navy, gave license to ship captains to attack the enemy in their name. In return for the King’s permission to go a-pirating, a portion of the loot would be returned to royal coffers.

Sir Francis Drake was among the most famous English sea dogs commissioned by Queen Elizabeth. Funds from pirating supported early attempts by Sir Walter Raleigh to colonize Virginia. These “good pirates” were known as privateers.

But “good” privateering required pirates, recruited from the ranks of poor seaman and those who worked on the land but took up pirating in the off season. Henry Morgan led many such men that he recruited from among sailors and Caribbean buccaneers. Pirates, whose thirst for booty and fondness for reckless living, illustrate what pirating had come to by the time the pirate stereotype was popularized. Daniel Defoe wrote the first General History of the Pyrates and Blackbeard was a prime example of the eighteenth-century pirate that authorities sought to eliminate.

Pirates on the Chesapeake

The Chesapeake Bay provided an excellent refuge for pirate plundering. The estuary waters lapped thousands of miles of shoreline. Pirates cruised its edges and moved in and out of rivers, creeks, and coves. Governor Berkeley and other leaders complained to their English superiors that the waterway was impossible to patrol. Ships as well as plantations that dotted the shore were game for pirates who looted them for tobacco, household goods, and food.

Donald G. Shomette researched the subject and published Pirates on the Chesapeake. His volume remains the most scholarly text documenting the activity of pirates in the region from 1610 to 1807.

Seventeenth-Century Pirates in Virginia

In the early 1600s, Captain John Powell, a member of the Virginia Company, was among the “English mariners given to dabbling in piracy,” according to Shomette. When the opportunity to stop and seize a ship presented itself, Powell and other independent seamen who had grown up far from government centers thought nothing of this enterprising trade. There was a certain tolerance for piracy in the Chesapeake because it was remote and removed and settled by so many from the fringes of English society. Pirates “continued with their merry business of trading with locals, and occasionally plundering a few homes … and shipping.”

In 1682, a group of pirates who called themselves privateers arrived from Tortuga and settled peacefully in Accomac on the Eastern Shore. Perhaps the group sought to leave their wild days behind and take up family life ashore. Or perhaps Accomac served pirates well as a place to refit ships and take on supplies for future missions. The area was known to produce a new bred of Virginia-grown pirate given to anarchism and small-time pillaging that persisted through the age of sail.

Golden Age of Pirates

In Virginia, as in the rest of the Western world, pirating was less and less well-tolerated as global trade accelerated through the late 17th and into the 18th century. Virginians realized that pirating made the Chesapeake less hospitable to commerce. A custom officer said that, “all these parts swarm with pirates, so that if some speedy and effectual course be not taken the trade of America will be ruined.”

After the War of Spanish Succesion, governments had less need for privateers but there were plenty of out-of-work pirates. The first three decades of the eighteenth century are marked by tales of ruthless and wantoon pirates who vandalized ships, tortured hostages, and drank with abandon. Notorious pirates like Blackbeard lived only to plunder the rich.

Guard ships of varying degree of effectiveness were put in place in the Chesapeake through the years. Perhaps the growth of North American commerce itself was a deterrent to the tolerance that prevailed earlier.

Last of the Great Age of Maritime PrivateeringAfter the Golden Age, European wars once again gave rise to the need to sanction privateers. Leaders worried about Spanish and French privateers interrupting Chesapeake Bay commerce needed their help. Later, the American and French Revolutions also echoed in the Chesapeake. The need for privateers in the Chesapeake continued through the age of sail.

Privateers made war and plundered the ships of the enemy all the while engaging in ordinary commerce. On the high seas, privateering was a tradition with deep roots.

An example of latter-day respectable privateers was Lewis Hudgins of Mathews, Virginia. Hudgins and others who settled in Mathews, on the western shore directly across from Accomac, participated in legal and perhaps some illegal aspects of trade in agricultural products and slaves. Lewis Hudgins certainly learned the seaman’s entrepreneuring raider ways as he came of age during the War of 1812. He settled down ashore, where he farmed and built ships. During the American Civil War he engaged in swashbuckling runs on Union blockades. In turn, Union forces raided his farm, stole slaves, and burned his shipyard to the ground.