Written by Jason Epperson, Storytelling by Abigail Trabue

Piracy, the act of seizing a ship or its cargo from its lawful owners, has been a plague since people first set sail on the high seas. By the Elizabethan Era, English piracy entered a Golden Age, as pirates plundered its coastal waters unchallenged. As Spain gradually increased its wealth through its own savagery in the New World, English pirates feasted on Spanish ships, eventually spreading piracy to the Caribbean Sea.

In fact, there are so many stories of piracy and privateering in today’s National Parks, that choosing just one was difficult, so we settled on two – centered around Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.

The Lost Colony of Roanoke

In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh, known for bringing tobacco and perhaps the potato to England and laying his cloak on the ground for the Queen to avoid puddles, was authorized to search out and take possession of, for himself, “remote, heathen and barbarous lands.” He sent his a party to Roanoke scout a suitable location. Colonization ventures were extremely speculative at the time, so Raleigh lured investors by combining colonial plans with privateering enterprises, the disruption of Spanish shipping having been officially sanctioned by the English Crown. The colony was to be a base, underwritten by English investors, for attacks on Spanish shipping in the western Atlantic. Roanoke was ideally suited to prey upon Spanish treasure ships as they sailed up the coast from the Caribbean to catch the Gulf Stream to cross the Atlantic.

Raleigh settled a self-governing community in Roanoke bent on privateering. They were led by John White, an artist and friend of Raleigh who had accompanied a previous expedition. The were told they were to settle the Chesapeake Bay and had been ordered to stop at Roanoke to pick up the small contingent left there the previous year, but when they arrived on July 22, 1587, they found nothing except a single skeleton. The master pilot refused to let the colonists return to the ships, for unknown reasons, and they were forced to settle Roanoke.

The business of settling and the business of plundering ships were in direct conflict with each other, and the colony was failing. The colonists persuaded White to return to England to explain the colony’s desperate situation and ask for help. Left behind were 115 colonists – the remaining men and women who had made the Atlantic crossing — and White’s newly born granddaughter Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the Americas.

In England, White procured two supply ships and set out to return to Roanoke after the winter. The ships and their crews were distracted by a piracy attempt of their own on the Journey back to Roanoke, but they lost the battle. They were badly damaged, and their supplies were seized. White was forced to return to England, and when he finally made it back to Roanoke in 1590 with another privateering squadron on his granddaughter’s third birthday, the colonists had vanished.

There was no sign of struggle, and the only clue was the word “CROATOAN” carved into a post of the fence around the village, and the letters C-R-O carved into a nearby tree. The houses had been dismantled, which signaled that their departure had been intentional and unhurried. White took this to mean that they had moved to Croatoan Island (now known as Hatteras Island), but he was unable to conduct a search.

Some evidence of English living among the Croatoan Native Americans has been found, but nothing conclusive. The fate of this “lost colony” remains one of the world’s great mysteries.

Sir Francis Drake

England’s first outing to Roanoke — the one that left the Skeleton behind for White’s colony to find — was actually rescued by another pirate: Sir Francis Drake.

Having pillaged the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean through the spring of 1586, Drake arrived at Roanoke in June of that year in time to rescue the 115-man military detachment from starvation and an impending Algonquian attack, transporting them back to England.

Drake made a name for himself as the second man to circumnavigate the globe, plundering Spanish shipping along the way. In 1588, he led an English fleet of warships to destroy the mighty Spanish Armada off the coast of England, paving the way for England to become a global superpower it is today.

Our next story, over 150 years before the Lost Colony, involves a pirate so famous that most pirate lore — especially all of those Pirates of the Caribbean movies — is drawn from him and his men, even though he was only an active pirate for two years.



Edward Teach served England as a privateer in Queen Anne’s War until turning to piracy in 1713. His career in piracy began in the Caribbean with fellow pirate Benjamin Hornigold. In 1717, after Hornigold rewarded him with a hijacked ship, Teach set out on his own.

Queen Anne’s Revenge, Teach called the ship, which carried a crew of 40 cannons and 300 men. He always introduces himself as Edward Teach, but those who knew him or feared him called him Blackbeard.

Blackbeard and his men sailed the Caribbean and the Atlantic coast of North America, torturing merchant ship crewmen and passengers, stealing cargo, and gaining a reputation as one of the most notorious pirates in history.

Blackbeard developed a reputation for being superhuman in battle, partly because he knew the importance of image. For battle, he dressed in all black. He strapped 6 pistols to his chest, and swords to his waist. His beard was wild, covering most of his face up to his eyes. He would twist colorful ribbons into it, and slow-burning cannon fuses that would flash and smoke, enveloping him in a supernatural fog that lit his wild eyes.

Most of his victims simply surrendered their cargo rather than fight, which was good business for Blackbeard — he rarely lost any men taking over a ship, and he often rewarded a quick surrender with respect. A damaged ship was less useful to pirate than an undamaged one, and if a ship sank in battle, the entire prize would be lost. So pirates sought to overwhelm their victims without violence, by building a frightening reputation.

Blackbeard vowed to butcher anyone who resisted and to offer tolerance to those who resigned civilly. He built his reputations on acting out those promises: killing resistors in horrible ways. Those who surrendered survived, and lived to spread the stories of mercy or revenge.

Despite the terror Blackbeard inflicted, he only spent two years as a pirate. After the Queen Anne’s Revenge sank, Blackbeard and his crew approached North Carolina’s governor Charles Eden for an official pardon. Eden, who was likely paid handsomely, granted their request. Blackbeard settled in the coastal town of Bath marrying and joining local society. But the temptation to plunder again was too strong, and one day, he set sail out of Bath and came back with a loot-filled French ship. He swore it was abandoned at sea when he found it.

Blackbeard’s pardon only fueled piracy in North Carolina, which was commonly ignored, as Blackbeard and several other pirates found the coastal waterway an ideal target. Eden helped Blackbeard appear legitimate, and Blackbeard returned to piracy and shared his takings.

After tolerating Blackbeard’s terrorism for eighteen months, North Carolina residents and merchant sailors begged Virginia’s colonial governor Alexander Spotswood for help. Acting in secrecy, Spotswood arranged an ambush of Blackbeard, offering a bonus for Blackbeard’s death.

The end of Blackbeard came at the hands of the Royal Naval Lieutenant Robert Maynard, sent by the Governor of Virginia. The legality of the intrusion of one colony on another was questionable, but North Carolina residents had begged for help. On November 22, 1718, Maynard cornered Blackbeard with two ships, Jane and Ranger, which were immediately fired upon by Blackbeard and his crew, severely damaging the Ranger. When the Jane began to take damage, Maynard ordered the crew to go below deck, creating the illusion of an abandoned ship.

Blackbeard took the bait. Leading a charge aboard the vessel, he and his men were surprised by Maynard’s crew. When he was finally killed, Blackbeard was found with twenty-five stab wounds and five gunshots. He was decapitated, his head hung on the Ranger’s bowsprit, and his body tossed overboard, bringing a literal end to Blackbeard and a symbolic end to Atlantic Coast piracy.

The governor of Virginia had it mounted on a pole near the intersection of the Hampton and James Rivers, where it stayed for years as a warning to other pirates.

On November 21, 1996, a private research company found the wreck of the famous Queen Anne’s Revenge, just over a mile off the shore of the Fort Macon State Park in North Carolina. The ship proved to be one of the most successful diving sites in the entire world, bringing to the surface over 250 thousand artifacts, including the combat gear and personal belongings of the pirate crew.

Visit Cape Hatteras National Seashore

Map of Cape Hatteras

Blackbeard and his gang, as well as dozens of other pirates, ruled off the coast of North Carolina in an area now set aside as Cape Hatteras National Seashore. A 70-mile portion of the of barrier islands that rin from New York to Mexico.

The main activities are sunbathing on the pristine beaches, exploring the historic structures, fishing and birdwatching. From the third Friday in April through Columbus Day, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the Bodie Island Lighthouse are open for climbing. Those with off-road vehicles can access the ocean and the sound with a permit seasonally.

Four campgrounds offer tent and RV sites near the ocean. No water, sewer, or electric hookups are available.

At the north end of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore is Roanoke Island, home of the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, where you can see the now partially restored raised earthwork of the Lost Colony. There’s an interpretive nature trail, and a play entitled THE LOST COLONY has been performed since 1937 at the adjacent Waterside Theatre, telling the story of the settlement by the Roanoke Island Historical Association. The First Light of Freedom monument commemorates the Roanoke Island Freedman’s Colony that was set up during the Civil War. The colony provided a safe haven and education for former slaves to help prepare them for a new life.

While you’re in the area, make sure to also visit the neighboring Wright Brothers National Memorial, where you can follow the path of the first powered flight.

Want more nautical National Parks? Gulf Islands National Seashore, Assateague Island, Isle Royale or Point Reyes National Seashore.

Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Cape Hatteras National Seashore – National Park Service Website

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site – National Park Service Website

Pirates and Privateers – National Park Service Website