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New Jersey’s Most Famous Pirate
By Lynn Whitney
New Jersey may be known for its tomatoes and corn, but it also has a history of being fertile ground for pirates. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Raritan Bay and the waters between Sandy Hook and New York were besieged with pirates. They were actually encouraged by local politicians, businessmen and ship owners, who profited greatly by buying their plundered goods and reselling them at a greatly increased price. Although tolerated by wealthy families and merchants, these pirates pillaged and plundered and struck terror into the hearts of seafarers up and down the Atlantic coast.
Perhaps the most ferocious and feared pirate was “Blackbeard.” He was tall and ferocious looking, with a beard that covered most of his face. Known to dress in a long black cloak, he would attach pistols to himself in a sling, carry daggers in his belt and at his side was a silver cutlass in a scabbard. To further terrify his victims, he would twist burning lengths of hemp into his beard and hat, so enveloping his face in black smoke that he appeared to be the devil himself. Blackbeard’s standard pictured a horned skeleton, holding an hourglass and spear aimed at a bleeding heart. It was more feared that any “Jolly Roger.”
The fearsome pirate was born Edward Teach in Bristol, England. It seems that he began his career as a pirate with Captain Benjamin Hornigold, who gave him command of his own sloop. The two terrorized the Caribbean seas, becoming the most feared pirates of their day. In 1717, they captured a French ship called the Concorde. At that time, Hornigold decided to accept amnesty from the British Crown, and retired. Teach, wanting to continue his pirating career, made the Concorde his flagship, increased her armament to 40 guns, and renamed her Queen Anne’s Revenge.
Soon afterward, Teach encountered Stede Bonnet, “The Gentleman Pirate,” aboard his ship, Revenge. Bonnet was a wealthy Barbados plantation owner, rumored to have taken up piracy to escape an unpleasant marriage. Teach visited Bonnet on Revenge, found him pleasant and well mannered, and the two formed a partnership. It soon became apparent to Teach that Bonnet was inexperienced and rather useless, so he convinced him to give up command of his ship and become a “guest” on Queen Anne’s Revenge. The two sailed together for about one year, until Teach pirated his own partner, leaving Bonnet and his men marooned aboard Revenge on a deserted sandbar near Beauford Inlet, but not before looting Revenge of her provisions and booty. Bonnet rescued his men, renamed his ship, the Royal James, and continued his pirate career. He was eventually captured near Cape Fear, sentenced and hanged along with 30 other pirates.
Meanwhile, Blackbeard continued his reign of terror along the Atlantic coast. Local legend has it, that Blackbeard paid a visit to Burlington, NJ and buried his plundered gold and silver beneath a black Walnut tree on Wood Street under a flat stone. A wild storm was blowing with thunder and lightning and Blackbeard was heard to call out, “Who will guard this wealth?” A crazed Spanish cut-throat volunteered, was killed with a magic bullet that left no wound, and was buried standing upright with his feet guarding the stone atop the treasure. Evidently, the ship’s dog volunteered along with the Spaniard, because he was shot and buried there also. To this day, locals have reported seeing a black dog guarding the tree, then vanishing. It is said, that Blackbeard came back to claim his treasure one stormy night, but found it surrounded by a coven of witches, dancing with linked hands, guarding the Spaniard’s grave.
Blackbeard’s reign of terror ended November 22, 1718 when the Governor of Virginia enlisted two British warships and caught up with him on Ocracoke Island. During a fierce battle, Blackbeard sustained at least five gunshots and 20 cutlass wounds, but finally succumbed when his head was severed by a British soldier. The head was attached to the bowsprit of his boat. Pirate legend has it that the decapitated body was thrown in the water and swam around the ship three times before it sank, ending the bloody reign of Blackbeard the Pirate.
Is there really buried treasure to be found? Probably not. The myth seems to have originated with Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” which had a pirate character named Isreal Hands, who in reality was Blackbeard’s boatswain. Isreal was maimed by Blackbeard, who shot him in the knee to ensure that his crew remained in terror of him. He was taken ashore to treat his injury, thus missing Blackbeard’s fatal battle and escaping the gallows. Stevenson also visited a small island in the Manasquan River near Brielle, and finding it so remarkably similar to his own Treasure Island, that he carved his name in the bulkhead. Real pirate loot consisted mostly of perishables, such as sugar and cocoa, which wouldn’t have much worth today. But myths sometimes are born of reality, so if you are passing by a large old black walnut tree in Burlington, NJ, who knows. There might be a buried cache, protected by a cut-throat Spaniard and a black dog, surrounded by witches. Take your chances.