The Regional Review

Volume II - No. 6

June, 1939


How the News Was Carried from Ocracoke to Boston in 100 Days

By Hugh R. Awtrey,
Associate Recreational Planner,
Richmond, Virginia.

sketch of pirates

Wounded by five pistol balls and 20 "dismal Cuts" from swords, a savagely fearless, cruel, whimsical giant, breathing liquor fumes and strong language, staggered drunkenly and fell to the deck, dead at last. Eager hands hacked off the great hairy head, worth 100 English pounds, and tied that grim trophy to the bowsprit; the burly frame was tossed unceremoniously overboard. Thus the brief but horrific career of Captain Edward Teach (1), known to every sea-farer of the Atlantic coast as Blackbeard the Pirate. The spectacular finish was not an inappropriate climax to a lurid record of crime beside which the mightiest deeds of a modern Dillinger appear as the petty mischief of a village rowdy. It happened November 22, 1718 --221 years ago-- in Ocracoke Inlet where the waters of Pamlico Sound mingle with the Atlantic and form the southernmost boundary of the 100-square-mile area authorized for inclusion in the proposed Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The reckless life and dramatic death of the murderous, over-married sea rover, who took a showman's pride in his preposterously plaited black whiskers, offer a romantic chapter of Colonial America which the National Park Service well may relate some day to its visitors on the North Carolina Banks. But that is taking the story by its heels.

How Blackbeard first appeared in the West Indies as an apprentice privateer under Captain Hornigold and soon after became a forthright buccaneer who hoisted the black flag on the mast of Queen Anne's Revenge, captured many rich prizes, brought sudden death to scores of innocent voyagers, brazenly blockaded the port of Charleston, connived with the terrorized (or venal) Governor Eden of North Carolina, took some 14 wives in doubtful legal circumstances resulting from the exigencies which arise from the determination of a strong-willed man for expeditious matrimony, and buried his blood-begot treasures along the lonely creeks and inlets of Pamlico - all those facts, some of them weighted with the accretions of two centuries of legend, have been recited by more than a score of chroniclers of Atlantic piracy. Yet, one interesting aspect of that famous marauder's two-year history of ruthless depredations apparently has been neglected. It is Blackbeard's role in the press as America's Public Enemy No. 1.


The Bristol pirate was a leading figure in the colonists' news of the day during many months before his fateful meeting at Ocracoke with Lieutenant Robert Maynard, officer of the royal navy commissioned by Governor Alexander Spotswood of Virginia to bring an end to the rogue's high-handed pilferings off the Carolina Capes. His defiance of South Carolina and his demoralization of coastal and West Indian shipping had brought his name frequently into the meagre columns of America's first -- and at the time only -- regularly issued newspaper, The Boston News-Letter, a weekly publication established April 24, 1704, by John Campbell, postmaster of Boston (2). Altogether aside from the historical interest which attaches to his heroic exit as a significant episode in the decline of New World piracy, Captain's gory departure at Ocracoke affords an arresting exhibit to illustrate, with a certain grisly humor, the record of laborious progress achieved during the infantile struggles of America's press. The belated and postponed manners of The News-Letter in reporting to the public the exciting particulars of Blackbeard's nefarious comings and goings, and of the climactic reaping of his wild piratical oats, provide a diverting contrast with the customs of 1939 when nothing is so outmoded as yesterday's newspaper.

The News-Letter, a two-columned single sheet about 6x10 inches printed on both sides and charged with an obligation "to carry on the Threed of Occurrences as methodically as it will admit of," (3) informed its readers as early as June 16, 1718, of some of Teach's deviltries. Quaintly punctuated and containing a heavily freighted 385-word sentence, the account is a noteworthy example of the early American reportorial interview:

Boston, On the 31st of May last, arrived here the Sloop Land of Promise Thomas Newton Master, who says that about the 5th of April last at the Island Turness he was taken by Capt. Edward Teach Commander of a Pirate Ship of 40 Guns, and about 300 Men, and a Sloop of 10 guns. Capt. Teach told Capt. Newton after he had took him, that he was, bound to the Bay of Hundoras to Burn the Ship Protestant Caesar, Commanded by Capt. Wyer who had lately fought the abovesaid Sloop, that Wyer might not brag when he went to New England that he had beat a Pirate.

map of Cape Hatteras

In the same Sloop came also Capt. William Wyer late Commander of the Ship Protestant Caesar burthen about 400 Tuns, 26 Guns Navigated with 50 Men, who on the 28th of March last about 120 Leagues to the West ward of Jamaica, near the Latitude 16, off the Island Rattan, espyed a large Sloop which he supposed to be a Pirate, and put his Ship in order to Fight her, which said Sloop had 10 Guns and upwards of 50 Men, and about nine a Clock at night came under Capt. Wyer's Stern, and fired Several Cannon in upon the said Ship and a Volley of small Shot, unto which he returned two of his Stern Chase Guns, and a like Volley of small Shot, upon which the Sloop's Company hail'd him in English, telling him that if he fired another Gun they would give him no Quarter, but Capt. Wyer continued Fighting them till twelve a clock at Night, when she left the Ship, and so he continued his Course to the Bay of Hundoras where he arrived the first of April last, and the eighth day he had got on board about 50 Tuns of Logwood, and the remaining part of the Ship's loaden lay ready cut to be taken on Board, when on the Morning of the said Day, a large Ship and a Sloop with Black Flags and Deaths Heads in them and three more Sloops with Bloody Flags all bore down upon the said Ship Protestant Caesar, and Capt. Wyer judging them to be Pirates, call'd his Officers and Men upon Deck asking them if they would stand by him and defend the Ship, they answered if they were Spaniards they would stand by him as long as they had Life, but if they were Pirates they would not Fight, and thereupon Capt. Wyer sent out his second Mate with his Pinnace to discover who they were and finding the Ship had 40 Guns 300 Men called the Queen Anne's Revenge, Commanded by Edward Teach a Pirate, and they found the Sloop was the same that they had Fought the 28th of March last, Capt. Wyers men all declaring they would not Fight and quitted the Ship believing they would be Murthered by the Sloops Company, and so all went on Shore. And on the 11th of April three days after Capt. Wyer's Ship Protestant Caesar was taken, Capt. Teach the Pirate sent word on shore to Capt. Wyer, that if he came on Board he would do him no hurt, accordingly he went on Board Teach's Ship, who told him he was glad he left his ship, else his Men on Board his Sloop would have done him Damage for Fighting with them; and he said he would burn his Ship because she belonged to Boston, adding he would burn all Vessels belonging to New-England for executing the Pirates at Boston (4). And on the 12th of the said April Capt. Wyer saw the Pirates go on Board of his Ship, who set her on Fire and Burnt her with her Wood, and Capt. Wyer took his passage hither in Capt. Thomas Newton's Sloop, taken from him by Capt. Teach the Pirate unto whom he gave back his Sloop again, because she belonged to Rhode-Island. Capt. Wyer, Capt. Newton and three others have attested upon Oath to the Truth of the above Account (5).

If Editor Campbell, a cautious Scotsman, appeared to lack enterprise in accelerating the publication of news while his information still was youthful enough to merit that definition -- he once fell 13 months behindhand in his reports from Europe -- he compensated in a measure by turning that failing into something of a virtue. His modest columns were exemplars of journalistic conservatism and his "stories" bear evidence of verifications which possibly were as thorough as the circumstances permitted (6). He received letters from his correspondents in all the colonies, and the sea captains who passed in and out of Boston harbor served not only as his messengers but, in many cases, as reporters also.

The postmaster-editor generally let each report stand on its own bottom, so to speak, and apparently made little effort to coordinate intelligences emanating from different quarters even when they concerned the same topic. An entertaining instance of that casual editorial habit occurred in the issue of June 30-July 7, 1718, when he published the news from South Carolina (dated June 6) that Blackbeard had blockaded Charleston, set its business at a virtual standstill, and exacted a chest of medicines from the city (7). The item ends with a portentous notice to the shipping of eastern ports: "We hear they are bound to the Northward and Sware Revenge upon New England Men & Vessels." Yet on the same page, separated by unrelated materials, is a letter from Philadelphia, dated June 26, reporting the grounding of Teach's flagship at Topsail Inlet, North Carolina. The latter incident was described in greater detail the following week by a report from New York, dated July 14, "that Capt. Teach the Pirate and his Crew of about 300 Men were ashore and had surrendered to the Government, and that on purpose they Run their Ship ashore at Topsail Inlett, and also a Sloop which are lost, the other two Sloops they carried up into the Country as far as Pentlico." (8)

For the next four months Editor Campbell printed no news of Blackbeard and his reading public was left in doubt concerning the activities of the ocean rover who, according to the recent warning, might be planning an incursion into New England waters. Although The News-Letter contained during that period many reports of piratical operations by Yeatts, Worley and other freebooters of lesser magnitude, it was not until November 10-17 that Teach reappeared in its columns. Then a Rhode Island item dated November 16 provided the news of disquieting developments:

Arrived here one Isaac Freeman . . . a Passenger on Board the Brigt Elizabeth, who . . . also Informs, that Teach the Pirate has brought in a Ship to Oackrycook Inlet and Unrig'd her, and suffer no man to go on board except a Doctor to cure his wounded Men, and is gone up the Country to Pimlicoe to Kill Beef for a Voyage, but knows not where he is designed to go. (9)

In the next issue of the paper, November 17-24, buried in the middle of a long report from Philadelphia (dated November 13), appears more definite news of the event which had been suggested the week before: "They say Capt. Teach alias Blackbeard is out on the Pirating account again." (10). That and nothing more. Then, in the number of December 22-29, published five weeks after the death of Blackbeard, there appeared the information that a reward of 100 pounds would be given for his destruction:

Boston, . . . . By a Gentleman from Virginia we are informed that the Assembly there for Encouragement to destroy the Pirates, have granted the same reward that His Majesty's most gracious Proclamation gives, viz. L.100 for the Captain, L.50 for the Lieutenant, L.30 for other Officers, and L.10 for each Sailor. Capt. Teach the Pirate who took and burnt Capt. Taylor and Wairs Ships, made his escape with four of his Men, and they were in hopes of catching him: His Quarter Master and the rest of his Men being apprehended, the Quarter Master is condemned to be hanged, and hung up in Chains at Point Comfort. (11)

Besides being badly in arrears in spreading the already stale news, the editor was in error here in most of the details reported by the confused "Gentleman from Virginia." The royal proclamation of September 15, 1717, provided a reward of 20 pounds for sailors, and the allowance of 100 pounds for captains was to be doubled in the event of conviction. (12) The "Quarter Master" was William Howard, who once had been an aide of Blackbeard, but Howard's seizure in Virginia had no connection with the expedition to Ocracoke. It is possible that the execution of Major Stede Bonnet in Charleston, an event described in the same issue of The News-Letter, led to some confusion in identities. Bonnet, who reputedly took to piracy to flee the managerial naggery of a tireless-tongued wife, also had served for a period as an officer of Blackbeard. Howard was spared by royal amnesty, while Teach's "escape" is altogether a fiction (13). Yet, despite its historical discrepancies, the item deserves a golden page in the dog-eared scrapbook of American journalism. It is entirely possible that it contains the only sentence on record in which a proper but unforced distinction is drawn between "hanged" and "hung".

The News-Letter disclosed somewhat apologetically in its issue of January 19-26, 1719, that a speech made on the preceding December 1 to the Virginia Assembly by Governor Alexander Spotswood had been omitted by the editor the week before because, "finding it too long, . . .we reserved it to begin our second Sheet." It is a question whether Campbell, up on his first examination of the speech, which dealt chiefly with governmental affairs in Virginia, noted a significant statement tucked away near the conclusion:

I must not part with you without rendering thanks for your ready compliance with my Proposition of giving Rewards for Suppressing Pirates, and I may now tell you that I have fitted out two Sloops, and taken such measures against those in North Carolina, that I am pretty confident of soon destroying that wicked Crew there, and by a letter received last night from thence, I expect that Notorious Pirate Teach is seized. (14)

Fourteen days later, some 11 weeks after Blackbeard's spectacular passing, Campbell's news hinted something might be piratically afoot in the South. The issue of February 2-9 reproduced an item written January 12 in New York: "It's variously reported that Teach the Pirate is taken at North Carolina by some Vessels fitted out from Virginia. . ." (15) The editor stepped backward into his own tracks the following week, however, when he published a proclamation (dated December 24) by William Keith, "Governor of the Province of Pinsylvania and of the Territories upon the Delaware," which itself reproduced "in the same words as it has been issued" the proclamation of Governor Spotswood (of November 25), offering rewards for Blackbeard and his plunderers (16). At long last, in the next issue, the unhurried purveyor of public intelligences began to get down to cases. Said he:

Boston, By Letters of the 17th of December last from North Carolina, we are informed, That Lieutenant Robert Maynard of His Majesty's Ship Pearl (Commanded by Capt. Gordon) being fitted out at Virginia, with two Sloops, manned with Fifty Men and small arms, but no great Guns, in quest of Capt. Teach the Pirate, called Blackbeard, who made his escape from thence, was overtaken at North Carolina, and had ten great Guns and Twenty one Men on board his Sloop. Teach when he began the Dispute Drank Damnation to Lieutenant Maynard if he gave Quarters, Maynard replyed he would neither give not [sic] take Quarters, whereupon he boarded the Pirate and fought it out, hand to hand, with Pistol and Sword; the Engagement was very Desperate and bloody on both sides, wherein Lieutenant Maynard had Thirty five of his Men killed and wounded in the Action, himself slightly wounded. Teach and most of his Men were killed, the rest carried Prisoners to Virginia, by Lieutenant Maynard to be tryed there; who also carrys with him Teach's Head which he cut off, in order to get the Reward granted by the said Colony. (17)

Finally, in the number of February 23-March 2, exactly 100 days after Blackbeard had gone to his doom at Ocracoke, the harassed Boston editor distributed to his subscribers the printed details of the death of the most redoubtable pirate afloat. The belated story, although containing here and there a few of Campbell's favorite rhetorical infelicities and orthographical peculiarities, conforms roughly to the historical account. It reads:

Rhode-Island, February 20. On the 12th Currant arrived here . . .Humphry Johnston in a Sloop from North Carolina, bound to Amboy who sailed the next Day, and informs that Governour Spotswood of Virginia fitted out two Sloops, well manned with Fifty pickt Men of His Majesty's Men of War lying there, and small Arms, but no great Guns, under the Command of Lieutenant Robert Maynard of His Majesty's Ship Pearl, in pursuit of that Notorious and Arch Pirate Capt. Teach, who made his escape from Virginia, when some of his Men were taken there, which Pirate Lieutenant Maynard came up with at North Carolina, and when they came in hearing of each other, Teach called to Lieutenant Maynard and told him he was for King GEORGE, desiring him to hoist out his boat and come aboard, Maynard replyed that he designed to come aboard with his sloop assoon (18) as he could, and Teach understanding his design, told him that if he would let him alone, he would not meddle with him; Maynard answered that it was him he wanted, and that he would have him dead or alive, else it would cost him his life; whereupon Teach called for a Glass of Wine, and swore Damnation to himself if he either took or gave Quarters: then Lieutenant Maynard told his Men that now they knew what they had to trust to, and could not escape the Pirates hands if they had a mind, but must either fight and kill, or be killed; Teach begun and fired several great Guns at Maynard's Sloop, which did but little damage, but Maynard rowing nearer Teach's Sloop of Ten Guns, Teach fired some small Guns, loaded with Swan shot, spick Nails and pieces of old Iron, in upon Maynard, which killed six of his Men and wounded ten, upon which Lieutenant Maynard, ordered all the rest of his Men to go down in the Hould, himself, Abraham Demelt of New-York, and a third at the Helm stayed above Deck. Teach seeing so few on the Deck, said to his Men, the Rogues were all killed except two or three, and he would go on board and kill them himself, so drawing nearer, went on board, took hold of the fore sheet and made fast the Sloops; Maynard and Teach themselves two begun the fight with their Swords, Maynard making a thrust, the point of his Sword went against Teach's Cartridge Box, and bended it to the Hilt, Teach broke the Guard of it, and wounded Maynard's Fingers but did not disable him, whereupon he Jumpt back, threw away his Sword and fired his Pistol, which wounded Teach. Demelt struck in between them with his Sword and cut Teach's Face pretty much; in the Interim both Companies ingaged in Maynard's Sloop, one of Maynard's Men being a Highlander, ingaged Teach with his broad Sword, who gave Teach a cut on the Neck, Teach saying well done Lad, the Highlander reply'd, if it be not well done, I'll do it better, with that he gave him a second stroke, which cut off his Head, laying it flat on his Shoulder, Teach's Men being about 20, and three or four Blacks were all killed in the Ingagement, excepting two carried to Virginia: Teach's body was thrown overboard, and his Head put on the top of the Bowsprit.

(How many of Lieut. Maynard's Men were killed in the Action besides the first six, we know not, only his Letter to his Sister in Boston, which mentions 35 killed and wounded). (19)

news article
Fragment of News-Letter of March 2, 1719

The most scrupulous research probably never will bring to light the identity of the patient gentleman who made careful marginal annotations, in an elderly penmanship, on those pages of The Boston News-Letter which are preserved photostatically in the Library of Congress. In many issues of 1718 and 1719 there are notes in an ancient calligraphy which direct attention to such matters of public interest as "Thunder and Hail," or "Venice Monies," and, in No. 775, "Teach the Pirate." A concluding note was written at the top of the last page of No. 776, shown at the left, when the annotator indited on the margin: "Nov. 22. 1718. Teach pirata Succiditur." It is placed above the column which contains a report from North Carolina that supplements and rectifies in several particulars the story from Rhode Island, published in an adjoining column. It said:

Boston, . . . Besides what we gave you in our Last and this, of the taking and killing of Teach the Pirate by Lieut. Maynard, we have this further account of it by a Letter from North Carolina of December 17th to New-York, viz. That on the 17th of November last, Lieut. Maynard of the Pearl Man of War Sail'd from Virginia with two Sloops, and 54 Men under his Command, no Guns, only small Arms, Sword and Pistols, Mr. Hyde Commanded the Little Sloop with 22 Men, and Maynard had 32 in his Sloop, and on the 22d Maynard Engaged Teach at Obercock in North Carolina, he had 21 Men, Nine Guns Mounted, Mr. Hyde was killed, and one more, and Five wounded in the little Sloop, and having no body aboard to Command them they fell a Stern and did not come up to Assist Lieut. Maynard till the Action was almost over, Maynard shot away Teach's Gibb and Fore-halliards, and put him ashore, then run him aboard, and bad 20 Men killed and wounded, Teach Entered Maynard's Sloop with Ten Men, and he had 12 stout Men Left, so that they fought it out Sword in hand. Maynard's Men behaved like Hero's, and kill'd all Teach's Men that Entered without any of Maynard's dropping, but most of them Cut and Mangled, in the whole he had Eight killed, and Eighteen wounded, Teach fell with five Shot and 20 dismal Cuts (20), and 12 of his Men kill'd, and Nine made Prisoners, most of them Negro's, all wounded, Teach would never be taken had he not been in such a hole that he could not get away.

And that is how the news, always a bit garbled and never fully corrected, was carried in fourteen weeks and two days from lonely Ocracoke Inlet to the office of America's only newspaper.

(1) Also Tach, Tache, Thach, Thack and Thatch. The Dictionary of National Biography (edn. of 1921-1922, London), XIX, 4 81-482, admits Thach and Thatch to its reputable pages and cites them (erroneously) as the only names appearing in official papers; but it cautions against the acceptance of either spelling . Teach is the orthography which has gained widest currency, although some writers advance the opinion, without conclusive substantiation, that Drummond was the true family name of the notorious Bristol sailor. Cf. Philip Gosse, The History of Piracy (Longmans, Green and Company, London, New York, Toronto, 1932), p. 193.

(2) Willard Grosvenor Bleyer, Main Currents in the History of American Journalism (Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1927), 47 et seq.; James Melvin Lee, History of American Journalism (Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1917), 17 et esq.

(3) The Boston News-Letter, May 10-17, 1708, cited by Bleyer, op. cit., 51.

(4) Presumably Simon van Worst and five companions, hanged November 15, 1717, "within flux and reflux of the sea." See John Franklin Jameson, editor, Privateering and Piracy in the Colonial Period: Illustrative Documents (The Macmillan Company, New York, 1932), pp. 303-306.

(5) The Boston News-Letter, No. 739, June 9-16, 1718, p. 2, col. 1

(6) In the issue of April 26-May 3, 1708, (cited by Bleyer, op. cit., p. 50), the editor regretted that in a description of a Plymouth fire, published in the preceding number, "whereas it is said that Flame covering the Barn, it should be said Smoak."

(7) Blackbeard's "dictatorship" at Charleston and other episodes of his career are described by the noted piratographer, Captain Charles Johnson, in his authoritative A General History of the Pirates, which appeared in many editions from 1724 to 1736. Probably the most useful is the third edition, dated 1725, edited by Philip Gosse (The Cayme Press, Stanhope Mews West, 1925) pp. 21-35. Cf. also Philip Gosse, The Pirates' Who's Who (Dulau & Company, London; Charles E. Lauriat Company, Boston, 1924), pp. 291-296; S. Wilkinson, The Voyages and Adventures of Edward Teach, Commonly Called Black Beard, the Notorious Pirate (Book Printing Office, Boston, 1808); John S. C. Abbott, Captain William Kidd, and Others of The Pirates or Buccaneers Who Ravaged the Seas, the Islands, and the Continents of America Two Hundred Years Ago (Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, [c.1874]; C. Lovat Fraser, Pirates (Robert M. McBride Company, New York, 1922); Charles Ellms, The Pirates Own Book (Boston, /c1836/, reissued as Publication No. 4 of the Marine Research Society, Salem, Mass., 1924); Charles B. Driscoll, Doubloons, the Story of Buried Treasure (Farrar and Rinehart, Ne, York, [c1930]); Lloyd Haynes Williams, Pirates of Colonial Virginia (Dietz Press, Richmond, 1937).

(8) The Boston News-Letter, No. 744, July 14-21, 1718, p. 2, col. 2.

(9) Ibid., No, 761, November 10-17, 1718, p. 2, col. 2.

(10) Ibid., No. 762, November 17-24, 1718, p. 2, col. 1.

(11) Ibid., No. 767, December 22-29, 1716, p. 2, col. 1.

(12) Cf. Williams, op. cit., 133-135. Actual payment of the rewards was not authorized until May 2, 1719. See Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia (published by the Virginia State Library, Richmond, 1928), III, 501.

(13) Cf. Driscoll, op. cit.

(14) The Boston News-Letter, No. 771, January 19-26, 1719, p. 1; Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1712-1714, 1716, 1718, 1720-1722, 1723-1726 (H. R. McIlwaine, ed., Richmond, 1912), 233; cf. also The Official Letters of Alexander Spotswood, Lieutenant-Governor of the Colony of Virginia, 1710-1722 (R. A. Brock, ed., 2 vols., Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, 1882), II, 272-276; 305-306.

(15) The Boston News-Letter, No, 773, February 2-9, 1719, p. 4, col. 2. The paper had added two pages, not, perhaps, as a result of prosperity, but because Campbell had been superseded as postmaster and probably devoted more time to his editorial functions.

(16) Ibid., No. 774, February 9-18, p. 1.

(17) Ibid., No, 775, February 16-23, 1719, p. 4, col. 2.

(18) Bartholomew Green, Campbell's printer, who succeeded to the editorship in 1722, was a careful typographer. This error is one of the few observed in the pages of The News-Letter.

(19) Ibid., No. 778, February 23-March 2, 1719, p. 4.

(20) Virtually all writers agree that Blackbeard received 25 wounds. A notable exception is Ellms, Op. Cit., who said there were "20 cuts, and as many shots." Samuel Odell, one of the prisoners acquitted at the Williamsburg trial because he had been forced to join Teach on the eve of the battle, is said to have suffered 70 wounds. Cf. Johnson, op. cit., p. 32.

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Date: 04-Jul-2002