Chasing Pirate Lore Through Seven Rocks: An Historical Squint at the Isles of Shoals
This article originally appeared in ReDiscover New England, November 2014.
Seven spits of rock sit off the salty-aired coast of New England by nearly 6 miles, awkwardly straddled between the boundaries of Maine and New Hampshire. With names like Star, Smuttynose, and Appledore, they sound more like a law firm than a collection of islands. But despite their dated names and locational puberty, the Isles of Shoals are considered quite the sea-fancier’s dream, having been immediately snatched by Captain John Smith upon his arrival in 1614 and bombarded by roughly 600 white-skinned residents by 1623. The windswept Shoals were like something out of a fairytale: quaint and beautiful, yet teeming with mariner opportunities from fishers to sailors to merchants.
Well, okay, that’s how the legends go. The Shoals have been rife with lore regarding piratical activity—ranging from Captain Kidd to Blackbeard—for as far back as documents can take us. But many historians have pointed out a lack of proper evidence regarding many of these claims, having since cut down the biggest names due to the presumed perpetuation of idle gossip. It’s a sad, sad moment to realize this truth, and it can feel like some of the fun of the Shoals’ history has been removed. But the good news is it’s been replaced with something far more entertaining.
When it comes to the myths of the Shoals, a great example is the lore of Blackbeard. While the man did indeed exist, his life as a pirate only lasted two years from 1716 to 1718, and he largely stuck around Charleston, South Carolina. Shoalers sometimes like to tease tourists with the myth that Blackbeard stopped through the Isles with his special lady friend, Martha Herring. When he had to leave suddenly—being on the run and all—he gave some treasure to Martha and promised he’d return. He never did, causing her ghost to roam the Shoals to this day, whispering something along the lines of, “He’ll come back. He’ll come back.”
Talking ghosts aside, this legend raises a few eyebrows. Several historical accounts have since uncovered that Blackbeard, drunk one night in Charleston, decided he was bored with his mistress and passed her off to the entirety of his crew for what can only be assumed was a night of gang rape. He departed in the morning without her.
Basically, Blackbeard wasn’t a very nice guy. And it’s unlikely that he ever traveled so far north as to pass through the Shoals. The man liked his warmer waters, as did most pirates. Warmer waters assured there were more merchant ships to tackle and less threat to becoming frozen in winter seas, which helps answer the mystery to the popularity of the white-sanded Caribbean.
It’s been further rumored that numerous pirates favored the Shoals for burying their treasure. Indeed, everything from silver bars to gold doubloons has been found in the rocky land masses over the centuries, but it’s extremely likely these treasures simply washed up on shore. The Shoals, being numerous, small, and comprised primarily of stone, were shipwreck magnets before the dawn of the lighthouse. Vessels would crash, sink, and eventually have some of their sunken goodies hit the tides toward land.
Captain William Kidd, for example, very likely passed through the Shoals, but the rumor that he’d buried any treasure there is complete bunk. For starters, there is no evidence to this day that pirates ever buried their treasure. They rather squandered it as soon as they got it, spending it primarily on alcohol and sex workers, according to such pirate buffs as Angus Konstam and David Cordingly.
Second, although Kidd indeed claimed in 1701 that he’d recently buried treasure, he also said it was on Gardiners Island of New York. And since he was awaiting a hanging in Boston at the time and was insistent that only he’d be the one to find the treasure again, it’s likely he was lying in a last-ditch effort to save his neck. (There’s also the debate as to whether or not Kidd was ever actually a pirate versus a privateer, but that’s for another day.)
If that weren’t argument enough, the very act of stashing treasure on the Shoals is damned near impossible.
“These rocky islands, for one, have almost no topsoil to bury things under and there was even less 300 years ago than today,” said historian J. Dennis Robinson. “Most of what could be called ‘caves’ are below the water line and subject to the pounding surf. And although no one lives on the Shoals year round today, the population of fishing families peaked back in the golden age of pirates [roughly 1690 to 1730]. It’s hard to imagine a pirate worth his salt secretly stashing treasure on a busy and highly visible island.”
So that’s the disappointing news, but here’s the good bit: Not only did some piratical frivolity actually happen on the Shoals, but it may have contributed to the very foundation of American history. Enter Captain John Quelch, one of our only sure things. He frequented the Shoals in the late 17th century with his hulking, 80-ton brigantine, the Charles. Or, at the very least, he’s been proven to have briefly frolicked on Star Island at the end of his one-year piratical career in 1703.
Originally privateers for England, Quelch’s prospective crew soon mutinied their ailing Captain John Plowman upon the water, thereafter electing Quelch as the new head of the ship. They moved on to rob a single vessel quite successfully, rumored to have gathered gold dust, coins, hides, and other items of value worth about £1 million today.
Taking a rest at Star Island after their victory, Quelch and a few of his men were caught by none other than Samuel Sewall, the famed, ruthless judge for the Salem witch trials. With nothing but a fishing shallop and no cannon, Sewall successful overcame the suspected pirates with the element of surprise by rowing up behind the Charles and climbing aboard. (It hasn’t been documented as to why or how the pirates, outnumbering Sewall, gave up so easily. Perhaps Sewall’s reputation was terrifying enough.) In the hands of such a man, it wasn’t long before Quelch and the others were hanged, the deed done in Marblehead, Massachusetts in 1704.
But Quelch’s story doesn’t stop there. Despite his lack of flash and movie-worthy script, his short-lived escapades noted something quite important: the potential aid in sparking New World unrest. Quelch’s trial was the first to be conducted by Englishmen upon American soil without a jury. He was sentenced to death without the option of peer representation. Based on England’s own laws, what they’d done was illegal. And it ticked off quite a few New World residents. Ideas began to spread about overthrowing the clutches of England, the manner of Quelch’s death having been added to the list of events that would soon lead to the American Revolution.
The story of Quelch is a great example of celebrating history as it is, by not having a need to bombard it with stereotypes or glitter. Quelch’s adventure and demise carry as much of an epic quality as buried treasure and talking parrots. Only his is even more impressive because it’s true.
Amongst cheers and jeers from the large crowd of onlookers at the gallows of Marblehead on that cooling June day, Quelch has bowed to them, remained unrepentant, and reportedly shouted his final words: “They should also take care how they brought money into New England, to be hanged for it!”