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Pirates on the Delaware Bay

When we think of pirates and their adventures on the high seas, we often associate them with the Caribbean and the West Indies. We envision them sailing among the crystal blue waters of faraway lands burying untold treasures on deserted islands. We romanticize their lifestyles and epic voyages as they pillaged both land and sea as rogue privateers on the high seas.

What most of us may not realize is that Delaware - believe it or not- was once part of that world as well.

Our part of the coastline has long been associated with recreation and vacation destinations, but that wasn't always the case. In fact, the Delaware Bay and the Delaware Capes were a hotbed of piratical activity during the colonial days when constant warring with Europe created countless privateers turned pirate.

Photo Credit: PhotoStock

Daring seamen were often granted license by their governments to search out enemy ships and plunder them with only a handful of rules to keep them in check. The allure of limitless fortune would lead some to cross the lines and attack neutral ships. It was an easy task given their own ships were often well armed through their government affiliation.

The rapid growth of the American colonies attracted merchants looking to improve trade opportunities. Their unfamiliarity with the coast made them easy targets and in great supply. French and Spanish ships were known to prey on merchants sailing the bay during a time when the fur trade was in high demand. When their looting would stall the shipping industry, they would simply lurk into the bay and rivers and attack the local tradesmen.

Even more devious, were the moon spinners. Groups of land pirates who build bonfires along the coast of areas like the Indian River. Bonfires were an international signal that you were in trouble. Ships that would see the fires would approach to help only to be lured into the low tides and grounded where the moon spinners would attack the ships, often times killing the crews and making off with the ship's cargo.

Creativity was in no short supply for pirates. It was common for them to hijack pilot boats used to guide larger ships into port. When they became positioned in areas where the ships couldn't navigate, they would turn on them and plunder them of their goods. in other instances, they would guide the boat into the waiting guns of pirate vessels hidden in the many coves of the bay and rivers.

The first recorded acts of piracy in our area took place in what is now Lewes, Delaware in 1672. A large party of pirates assailed the local community and inflicted so much damage that taxes were placed on liquor sales for a year to offset the costs. Lewes became a prime location for attacks and eventually led to the government calling for large man-of-war vessels to sit off of Philadelphia and the Delaware Bay to serve as protectors of the area.

Photo Credit: PhotoStock

The Earl of Bellamont, Governor of New York sent a massive galley ship called the Adventure, to set out for the Indian Ocean as a pirate hunting vessel. Despite his best of intentions, the Scottish captain turned pirate himself during the execution of his orders. His name was William, the son of Captain John Kyd - more famously known as Captain Kidd.

Overtime, Kidd was captured and sent to England to be tried as a pirate. In a last ditch effort to bargain for his life, Kidd offered up the location of buried treasure he claimed to have hidden in what is now Cape Henlopen. His offer was denied and Kidd was hung. His treasure - if it truly existed- has never been found. The town of Kitts Hummock outside of Dover, Delaware is rumored to be named after him, although this is highly speculated.

Photo courtesy: wikimedia commons

Kidd was not the only famed pirate known to lurk along our shores. There are reports that even William Teach, the infamous pirate Blackbeard, was known to frequent the area. He was known to hang out in Marcus Hook and had a relationship of sorts with Swede woman who lived in the Lewes area. Blackbeard was eventually killed in North Carolina where he spent most of his times, but reportedly buried treasure along the coast, including Assoteague.

As the Revolutionary War took shape, the presence of naval ships and newly outfitted pirate hunting vessels turned the tides on piracy, forcing the majority to seek their fortunes in the Caribbean. During the War of 1812, naval officer Stephen Decatur made a name for himself defending American merchants against pirate ships working in the Mediterranean.

Piracy eventually faded into obscurity, resurfacing briefly after the Civil War. It was a time when the oyster dredging in Delmarva was a lucrative industry. The Oyster Pirates as they were called, were known to wage violent attacks on merchants when efforts to privatize the industry on the Chesapeake Bay took place.

But one of the more peculiar and documented acts of piracy rose from antiquity in 1948 when a letter was discovered written by Charles Wilson to his brother detailing the location of treasure he had hidden in Chincoteague. Little is known about Wilson, who tried to stay secretive about his exploits as opposed to most pirates who openly bragged of their endeavors. The letter was authenticated and posted in papers around the world, attracting treasure hunters from across the globe. A handful of jewels were unearthed, but no real booty was ever found. It was surmised that the letter had been written in the event of his capture to be used as a bargaining chip, or the treasure had been discovered long ago and obviously unreported.

Today, you can experience the world of pirates at and find yourself aboard a pirate ship armed with water cannons. You can attend the Bowers Beach Bucaneers Bash May 26-27. Or with the help of metal detectors and a little luck, you might stumble upon remnants of days gone by among Delaware beaches. What an amazing thing it would be if those artifacts could talk and the stories they could tell.


University of Pennsylvania Press, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The Delmarva Almanac


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