15 September 2010

Pirates in your past?

The lure of the sea and the treasure troves of pirates spark the imaginations of people of all ages. So it’s no surprise that when I discovered my great-grandmother was a Kidd, I wondered if we were related, however remotely, to the infamous Captain Kidd (1654?-1701). Online, I saw other people named Kidd claiming descent from William Kidd, even though he had no sons to carry on the family name.

If you’re interested in 17th century seafaring, I recommend reading The Pirate Hunter : The True Story of Captain Kidd by Richard Zacks. This nonfiction book reads like a thrilling action-adventure novel. In it, you’ll learn that Captain Kidd was commissioned by Royal Governor Bellomont as a pirate hunter to capture the infamous Blackbeard who terrorized the New England coast. In 1699, Kidd traveled to Boston to meet with Lord Bellomont to discuss his high seas exploits and trumped up charges of piracy, only to be arrested and later hanged for piracy himself.

Flying the Jolly Roger

Piracy in the New World existed almost from the time of the first settlements. New England’s first pirate, a former fur trader named Dixie Bull, turned to piracy after French pirates plundered his provisions. After a decade of piracy, Bull eluded his would-be captors and disappeared in 1633.

You’ll hear his story and other seadog tales at the New England Pirate Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. As you take the 25-minute walking tour through a dimly lit colonial seaport, board a “ship,” and meander through a dark cave at the museum, you’ll see vignettes of life at sea, bloody battles, and pirates dividing the booty, from the high-spirited life of treasure seekers to their grim endings. Led by a swashbuckling tour guide, you’ll learn facts about local pirates and legendary scourges of the sea such as Blackbeard (a.k.a. Edward Teach), Thomas Tew, Ned Low, Thomas Veal, Joe Brodish, and Jack Quelch. You’ll also hear secrets about treasure buried in the Lynn woods and along the New England shoreline, still waiting to be found. (Note: This is more of an attractionon par with other Salem attractionsand not exactly a museum.)

Treasures Found

One successful pirate, “Black Sam” Bellamy, sailed the Whyah galley to Massachusetts to show his ladylove his fully laden prize ship only to have it sink during a storm in 1717, along with himself and most of his crew. In 1984, underwater explorer Barry Clifford discovered the shipwreck off Cape Cod. The treasures recovered from the wreck are found at the Expedition Whydah Sea Lab in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Besides coins, jewels, and treasures Bellamy looted from more than 50 ships and transported on the Whydah’s final voyage, you’ll see clothing, pistols, cannons, and utensils that the pirates used. Ongoing excavation of the site, located deep in the sand less than half a mile from the shore, continues, which means that during the summer months you may see treasures being hauled from the salvage boats.

The Skull and Crossbones

Although captured in Boston, Kidd was hanged in London. It wasn’t until 1704 that the first pirate, Jack Quelch, was hanged in Boston. But he wasn’t the last. In the Boston Harbor, you’ll see a black-and-white beacon on Nix’s Mate, once a 12-acre island that has since washed away and turned into a shoal. It was here that the corpse of executed pirate William Fly and two other pirates were chained to the island as a warning to other pirates. Not everyone got the hint. Barmaid-turned-pirate Rachel Wall used her feminine wiles to lure unsuspecting ships to “rescue” her, while her husband George and his crew killed the would-be rescuers and stole their valuables. At her hanging in 1789, Rachel confessed to being a pirate, the only known female pirate in New England.

Skeletons in Your Closet?

Although my Kidd line does not descend from the Captain, it’s quite possible that my numerous sea-going ancestors encountered pirates along their shipping routes. And it’s quite possible to have a pirate in your past. After all, Blackbeard and his 14 wives did have 40 children!

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