Legends of Eastern Shore Pirates

by Dana Kester-McCabe

Not all the tales of Delmarva's legendary pirates are true - but they have filled the imaginations of storytellers for centuries.

Up and down the Atlantic beaches of the Delmarva Peninsula you can see beachcombers with their metal detectors searching for bits and pieces of fortunes that were lost long ago. They have heard legends of shipwrecks and pirates who may have buried their treasures here. Not all the tales are true - but they have filled the imaginations of storytellers for centuries.

Not long after the European invasion of North America, seafaring scoundrels began plaguing ships in the region. Every new coastal settlement was surrounded by long desolate stretches of barrier islands with countless unguarded inlets and hidden coves. These were an excellent place from which to ambush passing merchants vessels loaded with new world plunder. Quite a few of the colonials had been brought here as indentured labor after convictions for all manner of criminal behavior. With little government oversight the Atlantic seaboard became the perfect environment for piracy to flourish.

Lewes was a hot bed of pirate activity for almost one hundred years. In 1672, pirates raided the town so often the price of liquor was raised to offset the losses. In 1698, Canoot, a French pirate with fifty crewmen, captured a Philadelphia sloop near Cape May, sailed it to Lewes and picked the town clean of anything they could carry including the clothes in the cupboards.

Lewes was an ideal place for pirates to hijack the pilot boats that were used to guide larger ships through the shoals of the lower Delaware bay toward Philadelphia; and then relieve them of their riches and slaves. This trick was also popular near Cape Charles on the southern end of the peninsula. You didn't need a large ship to be a pirate on Delmarva. A few well placed lanterns along the beaches were enough to put ships off course in foul weather causing them to run aground and fall prey to thugs waiting on shore to rob them.

Often colonists gave pirate captains safe haven and bought black market goods from them. A few residents, again in Lewes, were charged twice with aiding the notorious Captain William Kidd. They had bragged of seeing thirty tons of gold in his cargo hold. They got off with a warning to behave themselves, but Kidd was tried and hung for his crimes in London. Before he went to the gallows he tried to bargain for his life promising to reveal the location of his treasure which he supposedly buried near Cape Henlopen. Not one lump of his golden cache has ever been found.

Some think that Kitts Hummock near Dover, Delaware was named for him. Another town not too far away, Blackbird, is said to be a variation on the alias of the notorious pirate captain Edward Teach, Blackbeard. He commanded his own small navy of ships dedicated to separating people from their money. He is usually associated with the outer banks of North Carolina because that is where he was finally caught and executed. But there are many stories of him working in our area and burying his booty up and down our coast including on Assateague.

On the Chesapeake side, by the middle of the seventeenth century Virginia and Maryland colonists had begun to try and settle their territorial disputes by attacking each others' ships. Though he was never successfully prosecuted one William Clairborne was branded a pirate for capturing a more or less innocent merchant vessel in retaliation for attacks on his own ships and settlements on Kent Island.

Piracy became such a problem that the colonial governments requested protection from the royal navy, but it never arrived. That's because the crowns of Europe were busy trying to out-pirate each other. The English and Dutch hunted down Spanish and French cargo vessels and they returned the favor. And they all hired their own mercenary pirates called privateers to do their dirty work. Though they were not publicly sanctioned, privately their sovereigns showed their gratitude by letting the privateers keep a portion of their ill gotten gains and gave them amnesty from prosecution. Other criminal elements took advantage of the confusion.

Colonial proprietors and merchants pressured their governments to protect them. In 1745 the ship the Pandour was commissioned and built in Philadelphia for just this purpose. Coastal communities like Lewes were sick of the situation too and began keeping watch themselves, firing on any suspicious vessels.

These efforts and the American Revolution eventually forced the pirates to move southward to concentrate on the Caribbean. While the tide had started to turn against pirates here, privateering continued especially during war time. Ships of opposing flags were often commandeered and their crews were pressed into service for their captors. This was a common occurrence along the coasts of Delmarva during this period.

In 1776 Lambert Wickes and his brothers were successful merchant captains from Kent County Maryland. When the war broke out Lambert became a privateer for the rebel cause. A secret congressional committee commissioned him to attack British vessels to raise money for the revolution and disrupt the enemy economy. Though he managed to capture a number of ships there was not much profit in it. He was also given the task of delivering Benjamin Franklin to France for his famous diplomatic mission.

Even though the French were essentially on the side of the Americans, they did not want to appear to sanction piracy. So they detained Wickes and his crew. They were finally released only to perish in a gale off of New Foundland on their way home, taking any prize they had captured to the bottom of the ocean.

During the war of 1812 Berlin, Maryland, native Stephen Decatur made a name for himself defending American merchant ships from attacks by pirates and the British navy in the Mediterranean Sea.

There isn't much more to say about pirates on Delmarva until after the Civil War when conflict over oyster dredging rights in the Chesapeake Bay escalated into violence. Boats caught dredging in disputed waters were called Oyster Pirates, but that is a story for another time.

Let's get back to buried treasure. The most credible story of pirate treasure on Delmarva is related to Charles Wilson a lesser known but very successful pirate who worked the Atlantic coast in the early 18th century. He tried to remain anonymous unlike the stereotypical pirate who boasted freely about his conquests. None the less in 1750 he was captured, taken to London, found guilty and executed for his crimes. Almost two hundred years later in 1948 a letter he had written to his brother was discovered which described a treasure he had buried here near present day Chincoteague.

The letter was authenticated as having been written by Wilson, and then published in newspapers around the world bringing all sorts of treasure hunters to the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Wilson did indeed work in this area but was this letter actually a ruse by Wilson to bargain for his life the way Captain Kidd did? Since then several new inlets have formed in the area generally thought to be where Wilson hid his plunder. Though a handful of jewels have been found near Chincoteague it is believed that if there were any treasure the wooden chests have probably rotted and fallen apart allowing currents to distribute their contents unpredictably under shifting sands. It is also likely that the note was intercepted and the treasure retrieved long ago. Six organized searches have yielded no significant finds related to Wilson's letter.

Today pirates are still a problem in certain parts of the world. But if there is any money to be made in pirating on Delmarva it is all done legally. You can pretend to be a pirate on the Duccaneer in Ocean City or the Pirates of Lewes Expedition. Battles are fought with water guns - so it is all good clean fun. Pirate themed mini golf courses dot the resort highways and there are pirate themed events throughout the year. As for treasure hunting the most popular place to look for the remnants of ships lost to the sea or pirates is on the beaches of Delaware between Indian River Inlet and Fenwick Island. The area is sometimes referred to as "Coin Beach". Otherwise looking for pirate treasure is a little like trying to win the lottery. It's fun to think about how you'll spend the money, but the odds are it will never happen.

Charter Boat Rides with water gun battles and other kid friendly fun:
Ocean City Duckaneer -
Pirates of Lewes Expedition -

Books You Can Read
These were all found at the Worcester County Library and were used as reference material for this article.

Delmarva Legends & Lore
by David Healy - The History Press - Charleston South Carolina 2010

Shipwrecks of the Delaware Coast, Tales of Pirates Squalls & Treasure
Pam George - The History Press - Charleston South Carolina 2010

Buried Treasures of The Atlantic Coast
W.C. Jameson - August House Publishers Inc. - Little Rock Arkansas 1998

Lambert Wickes - Pirate or Patriot?
By Norman H. Plummer - Chesapeake Maritime Museum, St. Michaels, Maryland - 1991

Pirates & Patriots - Tales of the Delaware Coast
by Michael Morgan - Algora Publishing - New York, New York - 2005