Since his head was separated from his body 300 years ago this month, Edward Teach (or Thache), also known as Blackbeard the pirate, has served as the archetype of the bloodthirsty rogues who once roamed Caribbean and Atlantic coastal waters.
Only in the past few years have genealogists, historians and archaeologists, thanks to a combination of hard work and good luck, unearthed surprising clues that reveal the man behind the legend, one that Blackbeard himself helped spawn. In his day, merchants whispered his name in fright. Reports circulated of a large man with “fierce and wild” eyes who kept a brace of three pistols on a holster across his chest and a tall fur cap on his head. Lighted matches made his luxurious beard smoke “like a frightful meteor.”
This pirate, according to a British account written a half-dozen years after his death, “frightened America more than any comet that has appeared there [for] a long time.” But Blackbeard vanished abruptly when a British naval expedition personally funded by Virginia Governor Alexander Spotswood ambushed him and most of his men in a bloody battle off Ocracoke Island on November 22, 1718. Blackbeard’s head was stuck on a piling off Hampton, Virginia, as a warning to other lawbreakers.
The fearsome buccaneer never scared Hollywood producers, however. Blackbeard gained new notoriety in the mid-20th century, when the 1952 movie Blackbeard the Pirate proved popular. A half-dozen films centered on his exploits followed, and he emerged as the quintessential cinematic pirate. In 2006, he garnered his own miniseries detailing his search for Captain Kidd’s treasure. He even had an encounter with Jack Sparrow in the 2011 Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. These representations further embellished a legend that long ago overwhelmed historical truth. “The real story of Blackbeard has gone untold for centuries,” says Baylus Brooks, a Florida-based maritime historian and genealogist.
Even the most basic biographical details about Blackbeard have been hotly disputed. No one knows the year of his birth or even its location; some claim Bristol, in western England; others point to Jamaica. Still others insist he was from North Carolina or Philadelphia. His early life was a complete mystery. But few had attempted to trace Blackbeard’s family tree.
On a lazy summer morning in 2014, Brooks wondered if there might be records of any Teaches or Thaches in Jamaica, one of the places the pirate was said to consider home. Then he remembered his subscription to Ancestry.com and began his research there. “I expected nothing, but I got a hit,” he says. It was the baptismal record of Cox Thache, a son of Edward and Lucretia Theach (Thache and Theach were common variants of Teach), in the Jamaican settlement of Spanish Town in 1700. “This was all in about two hours over coffee in my favorite chair,” Brooks recalls.
Brooks knew that an English visitor to Jamaica in 1739 made reference to meeting members of Blackbeard’s family residing in Spanish Town, and his mother was said at that time to be still living. “My life had changed,” said Brooks. Ever since, he has been on the paper trail of the pirate’s family tree. With the help of Jamaican researcher Dianne Golding Frankson, he discovered that Edward Thache—who Brooks believes was Blackbeard’s father—was a captain and a man of status who remarried twice; Lucretia was his last wife.
The real treasure that Brooks found, however, was a yellowed 1706 document on a shelf in the parish archives retrieved by Frankson. Written aboard the 60-gun Royal Navy ship Windsor while it was anchored in the harbor of Jamaica’s Port Royal, the author was Edward Thache’s son, who bore the same name. In this deed, Thache turns his late father’s estate over to his stepmother, Lucretia, for the “love and affection I have for and bear towards my brother and sister Thomas Theache and Rachel Theache”—his half siblings.
If Brooks is right, then Blackbeard joined the Royal Navy and magnanimously turned his father’s estate, which as the oldest son he inherited by law, over to his Jamaican family. Checking the Windsor logbooks, he discovered an Edward Thache who had arrived in England aboard a Barbados merchant ship. On April 12, 1706, the young man joined the crew while the ship was anchored off England’s Isle of Wight near Portsmouth.
In Brooks’ telling, Blackbeard’s family left Bristol while the pirate was still young to seek their fortune on the wealthy island of Jamaica, where sugar was known as white gold. They owned enslaved Africans and appear to have been of high social status. Why the young Edward, likely in his mid-20s, would leave home to join a merchant ship and then the Royal Navy is not clear, but it may have been a natural step to achieve advancement as well as nautical experience.
This historical Blackbeard is far different from the rampaging maniac or Robin Hood figure of myth. Brooks’ Thache is a well-educated man of social grace, literate and capable of using complex navigational equipment. This background would explain why, shortly before his death, he hit it off so well with North Carolina’s governor Charles Eden and other leading members of the colony. The pirate might have even been upset over the demise of the House of Stuart that put George I—a German speaker—on the English throne, perhaps the reason he renamed a stolen French ship the Queen Anne’s Revenge, after the last Stuart monarch.
Other historians have recently noted that despite Blackbeard’s terrible reputation, no evidence exists that he ever killed anyone before his final battle at Ocracoke, near Cape Hatteras, when he was fighting for his life. “He likely cultivated that murderous image,” says Charles Ewen, an archaeologist at East Carolina University. “Scaring people was a better option than to damage what you are trying to steal.”
Brooks admits he cannot definitively prove his Thache is our Blackbeard, but other scholars find Brooks’ case compelling. “It makes sense and it seems credible,” says Ewen. Some are more cautious. “There is some validity,” adds historian Angus Konstam, “but it is not yet tied up.”
What drew Blackbeard to piracy a decade after joining the Royal Navy, however, is not a matter of dispute. In 1715, a fleet of Spanish ships left Havana, Cuba, for Spain filled with treasure, including vast quantities of silver. An early hurricane wrecked the ships on Florida’s Atlantic coast, drowning more than a thousand sailors. English pirates, privateers, and others—particularly Jamaicans—descended on the area to plunder the vessels, sparking what Trent University historian Arne Bialuschewski calls “a gold rush.”
Blackbeard first appears in the records as a pirate at this moment.
His career, like so many of his colleagues, was short-lived; within two years he was dead. “People have this romantic notion of piracy, but it was not a cushy lifestyle,” says Kimberly Kenyon, field director for excavation of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, which went aground outside Beaufort, North Carolina, and was abandoned shortly before Blackbeard’s death.
Kenyon’s team has hauled more than 400,000 artifacts to the surface, from two-dozen massive cannons to a fragment of a page from a 1712 travel book—Blackbeard was known to plunder books as well as commodities. The pirate may have had a fondness for good food too, since records show that he kept the ship’s French cook. The archaeological team has also found remains of wild boar, deer, and turkey, a sign that the crew hunted fresh meat. And the team has only excavated half of the wreck—the world’s only pirate wreck to be scientifically studied.
But if Blackbeard was loath to use violent means, he certainly was ready to do so. The ship was heavily armed with 250,000 bits of lead shot, 400 cannonballs, dozens of grenades, and many muskets, as well as a total of 40 English and Swedish cannon. Disease likely posed a greater threat than the Royal Navy, however, as evidenced by the urethral syringe found by archaeologists still bearing traces of mercury, a popular treatment at the time for syphilis.
The recent archaeological finds coupled with Brooks’ research may make Blackbeard “even more enigmatic,” says Kenyon. He is no longer the cardboard villain of the past, but his personality and motives are still unclear. “He continues to be so elusive. There are so many facets to this person. That’s what makes him fascinating.
Editor's note, November 20, 2018: This story has been corrected to indicate that Blackbeard joined his crew near Portsmouth, not Plymouth.