When my family first moved to Southport, NC from Northern Virginia, I quickly heard many a story of this regions’ rich history with piracy. I knew that some famous pirates had made their way around the Carolina’s. I already knew that allegedly, Blackbeard’s treasure was buried somewhere nearby. I must admit, I had dreams of going on an adventure and finding trunks filled with gold and jewels. I guess I watched the movie The Goonies one too many times in my youth! All jokes aside, I had no idea of just what a large role our beautiful coastline had played in the time of the swashbuckling buccaneer!
As mentioned before, I was already aware that the infamous Edward Teach, aka, Blackbeard, had roamed the surrounding waters. I did not know that even more prevalent in our area was Stede Bonnet.
A little history on Bonnet, also known as the Gentlemen Pirate, was born into a wealthy English family in Barbados. He inherited all of his father’s lands in 1694. Despite his inherited wealth, Bonnet still turned to a life of crime. He purchased a ship, named it, The Revenge, and along with a paid crew, began capturing ships up and down what is now the US Eastern Seaboard.
On a trip to a known pirate haven in the Bahamas, Bonnet met and befriended the infamous Blackbeard.
Together, they sailed all around the Carolinas capturing many ships and developing a fearsome reputation. No sailor wanted to see the flags of the Revenge and The Queen Anne’s Revenge in the distance!
Eventually, the two renowned pirates went their separate ways and Bonnet once again made his way back to the Carolinas. Three hundred years ago in the autumn of 1718, Bonnet anchored his ship on an estuary of the Cape Fear River to make repairs. Unknown to Bonnet, Colonel William Rhett, was leading a naval expedition against pirates all throughout the Cape Fear region. Rhett and Bonnet’s men fought for hours until it became quite apparent that the pirates were dramatically outnumbered. Bonnet and crew surrendered and were taken to trial in Charleston, SC. This fearsome exchange became known as the Battle of the Cape Fear River. Bonnet would later be hanged for his crimes of piracy.
These incredible events have left a lasting mark in our local community and folklore. There are pirate invasions re-enacted in many of the towns in the area. Re-enactors, in traditional pirate clothing, storm our sleepy coastline via the Cape Fear River. Of course, they are confronted by re-enactors in British colonial soldier uniforms. A loud and extremely entertaining gun battle ensues as the pirates invade.
After the battle is finished, the pirates and colonials set up a 18th century style camp. Guests can go from tent to tent learning directly from the re-enactors about the pirates of the time.
Another way you can learn about the history of pirates in the area is to stop by Southport’s Maritime Museum. You can take a tour for free and see many amazing artifacts from the time of Stede Bonnet and beyond. If you have little ones be sure to go on the scavenger hunt. It is a great way to keep them engaged and they will earn a price when it is completed. The museum also offers summer programs and camps for children. There is a gift shop where you can bring home your own pirate loot!
Adults can join in the fun and dress the part at the Stede Bonnet Pirate Regatta held at the Provision Company at the end of October. It officially marks the end of the season for Provision Company and has become a huge draw locally. There is a live band and the seafood is given away for free with patrons only paying for drinks. A grand time is had by all no matter if you are a Landlubber or a Seadog!
It is amazing to think that this charming little town could once have been a hub of pirate activity. You may wish to take the ferry to Bald Head Island with a metal detector in hopes of discovering Blackbeard’s treasure. Perhaps you simply want to grab a lawn chair and watch as the pirates invade or meet our own Jack Sparrow who wanders around the town. No matter your preference, one thing is certain. There is no shortage of entertaining ways to learn more about our region’s rich history in the world of piracy!