Pirates of the Outer Banks

For hundreds of the years, pirates were frequent visitors to the Outer Banks of North Carolina and a few of the most infamous called the coastline home. The Mid-Atlantic location and isolation contributed to its popularity with pirates.

The Disappearance of Theodosia Burr


On December 31, 1812, Theodosia Burr, the daughter of Aaron Burr and the first lady of South Carolina, boarded the Patriot in Georgetown, South Carolina and set sail for New York. The Patriots, its crew and passengers were never heard from again. Numerous stories and legends of Theodosia’s disappearance tell of a shipwreck along the Outer Banks. Read the stories below and decide for yourself, which legend you will believe.

Ironically, Theodosia’s father, Aaron Burr, killed Alexander Hamilton in the legendary duel on July 11, 1804. At the time of his death, Hamilton held an avid interest in lighthouses. He believed they created good trading conditions essential for creating a prosperous economy for America. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on the Outer Banks is known as “Hamilton’s Light”.  Hamilton campaigned continuously for funding for this project. Many believe had Burr not killed Hamilton during their infamous duel, more lighthouses would have been built along the Outer Banks, and his daughter’s ship would have never been lost amongst its treacherous shores.

Which legend will you believe?

One local legend tells of the Patriot falling prey to the Nags Head “bankers”. Mistaking the pirate’s lights along the sand dunes on shore for a ship in the distance, the Patriot ran aground along the Outer Banks coastline and was captured. All the cargo was confiscated and everyone on board the ship was murdered. In relation to this story, a Mr. J.A. Elliott of Norfolk, Virginia made a statement in 1850 that in the early part of 1813, the dead body of a young woman "with every indication of refinement" had been washed ashore at Cape Charles, just north of the Outer Banks, and had been buried on her finder's farm.

According to Foster Haley, of Charleston’s News and Courier claimed documents he discovered in the State Archives in Mobile, Alabama, said the Patriot was captured by pirate captain John Howard Payne. Every person on board was killed by the pirates including “a woman who was obviously a noblewoman or a lady of high birth.” Haley’s findings were never corroborated and he never identified or cited the documents he supposedly found.

An old Indian legend in Texas tells of a Karankawa Indian chief on the Texas Gulf Coast. Legend has it, Theodosia’s ship was captured and she was taken as a prisoner. After thousands of miles and years at sea, the ship eventually wrecked and was abandoned, along with Theodosia. One evening following a strong storm, a Kawankawa Indian chief found a ship wrecked at the mouth of the San Bernard River. Boarding the vessel out of curiosity, he discovered a white woman, chained to the ship by her ankle wearing nothing but her gold locket. The women told the chief she was the daughter of a great chief of the white men, who was misunderstood by his people and had to leave the country. The woman gave the chief a locket with the words “Theodosia” inscribed on it. The woman died shortly after in the Indian chief’s arms.

Another Outer Banks legend tells of Theodosia after witnessing the murder of the Patriots crew at the hands of pirates, suffered a state of psychosis. While on board the vessel, Theodosia manically protected an oil painting of herself. Once she recovered, Theodosia could no longer remember her name, where she was from or what had happened. Feeling sorry for her, the pirates spared her life and Theodosia moved in with a local family in Nags Head. There she lived for many years, however, the strange young woman kept to herself. A doctor from Elizabeth City, who visited the area often, commented on the painting whenever he visited the home of the family where Theodosia lived. One evening, the father of the household offered the portrait to the Doctor as a form of payment. The legend says, Theodosia awoke from her sleep, stormed into the room and took the portrait off the wall. She then ran out of the house towards the beach never to be seen again. The following morning, the painting was discovered in the sand dunes along the shore, Theodosia was never found. The painting was returned to the family in who eventually passed the painting along to the doctor the next time he returned to the Outer Banks.

Blackbeard Outer Banks

Blackbeard the Pirate

The most notorious of pirates calling the Outer Banks home was Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard. For years, Blackbeard captured, ransacked and destroyed over 50 ships from the northern waters of Maryland to the Caribbean Sea and retreated to the safety and isolation of the Outer Banks following the raids. The treacherous shoals and inlets off the Outer Banks provided isolation and security for Blackbeard and his men while the constantly changing tides and drifting sands made passing the inlets almost impossible for men and ships unfamiliar with the area.

The isolation and mid-Atlantic location of the Outer Banks appealed to Blackbeard and he built a home, Blackbeard’s Castle, near the southern tip of the Outer Banks on Ocracoke Island. Blackbeard’s Castle was situated close to a deep inlet, which allowed for fast getaways should ever such a need arise. The inlet was remarkably close to a shipping channel providing easy targets for Blackbeard and his crew. Historians believe Blackbeard paid local officials handsomely to maintain safety and security for himself and his men.

On November 22, 1718 Blackbeard the Pirate met his demise at the hands of the British Royal Navy in an inlet off Ocracoke Island. Reports of the attack state it took five musketball wounds, twenty sword lacerations and near decapitation to end Blackbeard’s reign of terror

Watch for Blackbeard the Pirate in Disney's Pirate's of the Caribbean: On Stranger Ties coming to theaters May 20, 2011.

Blackbeard in the News

The ornamental sword of the Outer Banks most legendary pirate, Edward Teach a.k.a. Blackbeard, was believed to have been discovered by archeologists in Beaufort, NC during the January 2011 excavation of Blackbeard’s flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge.

Blackbeard CannonIn 1718, the Queen Anne’s Revenge ran aground on along sandbars off the coast of North Carolina and was abandoned by the crew. In 1996, the shipwreck was discovered by Intersal Inc., a Florida-based salvage company. The shipwreck sits below 25 feet below the surface. Blackbeard was notorious for his fire power and was believed to have carried 40 cannons. So far, archeologists have noted fourteen cannons and have brought two to the surface for preservation and analysis. View pictures of the sword and other artifacts discovered at the excavation site, click here.

Teach's Lights

Ask around on Ocracoke Island about Teach's Lights and you'll hear from many locals, they have seen them with their own eyes. On clear nights the waters around Teach's Hole, Ocracoke Island, possess a unique shimmer and glimmer.This is when Blackbeard swims these waters in search of his head. Supposedly anyone who follows these lights will eventually find Blackbeard's treasure and the Devil himself will be seated on top of the chest, waiting to recieve his promised booty. 

Nags Head

The town of Nags Head, located in the central beaches of the Outer Banks, received its name from the pirate residents of the area, who used misleading tactics to capture ships off the coast. At the time, pirates, known as “bankers”,  hung lanterns from the necks of Nags* and walked them up and down the dunes at night, simulating a light aboard a vessel rising and falling with the sea. Ships in the area would head towards the light, believing they were following a ship  through the treacherous shoals. In actuality, the pirates were luring ships into the breakers and shallow waters, causing them to run ashore, close enough for the pirates to board and commandeer the vessels and its cargo and kill anyone unlucky enough to be onboard. 
*Nags is an Old English term for old horse.