Pirates: What comes to mind? Rogues on the high seas plundering ships; Johnny Depp aka Jack Sparrow the scourge of the Caribbean; pirate costumes for Halloween; black flag with a skull and bones – but did you ever think of Pirates of the Rappahannock?
The Essex History Museum did! So, curator David Jett, with the aid of Ella Gould, a museum intern from St. Margaret’s School, combed historical documents in search of pirates who navigated the Chesapeake, the rivers and tributaries of Virginia’s Eastern coast.
A special exhibit at the Museum, opening August 20, will feature three components: Pirates of the Rappahannock; Blackbeard in Virginia, and Government Pirates or “Privateers.” This article is the first of a three-part series providing additional history about the Pirates who sailed the Virginia coastline and Rappahannock River. Pirates of the Rappahannock
Books and movies glamorize pirates as daring, seafaring individuals in search of adventure. In truth, they were thieves, murderers and kidnappers – generally unsavory characters, although some saw themselves as Robin Hood might; stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Their ships were often stolen from the victims they pillaged.
Although pirates had been a fixture from the onset of maritime trade, their prominence expanded as trade increased between the American Colonies and England. The ships traversing the Atlantic were laden with tobacco, corn, gold, silver and ‘human cargo’ at times. Their target though, was not always a ship in harbor or at sea; often they would pillage plantations near the water’s edge
Who were these pirates? They were not native to one country; Spain, France, England and countries in the Western Hemisphere all had their share. And, not always men; Ireland claimed two women; Grace O’Malley and Anne Bonny. Madam Ching of China ruled the waters with 600 Chinese junks.
Curiously, they developed a language of their own – unique to pirates, and they did not always steal other countries’ goods: Here on the Chesapeake, Colonists pilfered from each other. In the early 1600s food was scarce; a ship laden with corn or tobacco would bring a pretty penny to a thief.
Pirates’ boats used on the Rappahannock were often lightweight with shallow keels for easy maneuverability and swift travel. One of the most prominent pirates to lay waste to Rappahannock River vessels was the Frenchman, Captain Peuman (unknown first name). He targeted ships carrying corn and tobacco for many years until 1670 when the Colonists had enough.
Varying lore tells of his capture: one of Colonists tracking him upriver; another of Colonists blocking passage out of the Rappahannock. Either way, he fled up the Rappahannock to a tributary below Port Royal where he was captured and killed. To this day the creek is called “Peumansend Creek” as that is where Peuman met his “end!”
Other pirates who plied Virginia waters included John James who was branded the “Ugliest man in the known world.” The trademark gold toothpick worn around his neck did not make him any more attractive. He sought to capture the Essex Prize, a ship that guarded Lynnhaven Bay at the mouth of the Chesapeake. The Captain tried luring James into shallow water; instead James pillaged other helpless ships on his way back to Europe.
British pirate, Sam Bellamy was known as “Black Sam” because of his long black locks that were always tied with a black ribbon. He was famous for capturing four ships at the mouth of the Chesapeake. They were laden with 3 million pounds sterling, but he mistook one ship in the Bay as a British “guardship.” He returned to the Atlantic and eventually Cape Cod where he, the crew and the stolen goods were lost. It wasn’t until 1984 when the Whydah was discovered. Her gold and treasures are now on exhibit in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Pirate lore is fun to read about or imagine. It’s even more interesting when you can experience it firsthand at the Essex County Museum. For information about the upcoming Pirate exhibit check out the Museum’s website at ecmhs.org/ or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ECMHS.