As you head south toward warmer, more tropical waters, stories begin to appear all along the sandy shores. Some speak of red Xs on stained parchment maps and hills of golden booty. Others talk of men with smoldering black beards and curved steel blades. Even more still whisper of midnight sails adorned with skulls and crossbones. Savannah, Georgia, is no stranger to such legends. It has quite an impressive nautical history, with no shortage of seafaring vessels across the nation bearing the port city’s name. With such a history, a lore has developed in and around the city over the centuries, boasting of pirates and buried treasures hidden along Georgia’s coastline. Quite mysteriously though, there are only a few documented records in Savannah, detailing what we would recognize today as pirates, most of which tend to live on in old fishermen’s tales from the shipyard.
Can Savannah’s pirates be written off as fiction, or is there truth to at least some of these tales of the high-flying Jolly Roger? It depends on who you ask.
“I’m not aware of any specific incidents of piracy on the coast of Georgia, either before or after the colony was founded in 1733,” says Buddy Sullivan, a specialist in Coastal Georgia history. “Most of the piracy was in the Caribbean Sea region, although there was some—largely by Edward Teach (Blackbeard)—along the coasts of South and North Carolina in the early 18th century.”
Sullivan raises a valid point. Most people exclusively connect pirates with the tropical waters of the Caribbean, especially when considering the fame of the fictional Captain Jack Sparrow, from the Pirates of the Caribbean film series, and his beloved vessel, the Black Pearl. Yet, piracy stretched up the entire Atlantic coast, even as far north as Boston and Newfoundland. While this well-documented, golden age of piracy from the 1650s to the 1730s doesn’t explicitly tether pirates to the Savannah ports, it does place pirates, such as Blackbeard, in the region during that time.
Perhaps purely by geographical proximity, Georgians have adopted Blackbeard’s escapades from their sister states to the north. “It is widely believed that Blackbeard also used the Georgia coast,” writes Richard Lenz in Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Georgia Coast & Okefenokee. Blackbeard, having been a member of the Royal Navy before he turned to piracy, knew how to disrupt and cripple battleships.
He and his crew were said to have often stowed away in the murky channels, waiting to strike naval frigates. As battleships passed by, Blackbeard’s Jolly Roger would appear flying high along the coastline with rows of cannons poised to kill. The ambushes were swift and devastating, leaving no time for the Royal Navy to counter or flee. Blackbeard’s crew would sack dozens of ships this way, hauling the precious stolen cargo back to the island shores to be hidden or buried.
“The best-known connection to Blackbeard in Georgia is, of course, Blackbeard Island,” says Sullivan. “It’s 50 or so miles south of Savannah and adjacent to Sapelo Island, and it’s where he allegedly buried some of his treasure. None has ever been found, and there is no proof that Blackbeard ever visited the isolated island that would later bear his name.”
“I am afraid I don’t have much to add,” says Wendy Melton, curator of exhibits and education at the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum. “The reports of pirates in this area have been greatly exaggerated, especially after colonization. According to current rumors, prior to colonization, Blackbeard had a hideout somewhere on the coast—but we have little proof.”
With such a wide spectrum of uncertainty, Blackbeard remains a topic of debate to this day, and his treasure trove still remains undiscovered. Sullivan goes on to explain that Blackbeard was killed in a battle with the Royal Navy in 1718 in Ocracoke Inlet, North Carolina. The Golden Age of Piracy ended soon after, and when Oglethorpe founded Georgia in 1733, the Royal Navy had nearly eliminated all piracy in the Southeast.
“Royal officials intensified the naval campaign against piracy with great and gruesome effect,” writes Marcus Rediker in the essay, “Under the Banner of King Death: The Social World of Anglo- American Pirates, 1716 to 1726.”
“Corpses dangled in chains in British ports around the world ‘as a Spectacle for the Warning of others.’ No fewer than four hundred, and probably five to six hundred, Anglo-American pirates were executed between 1716 and 1726,” Rediker writes. Pirates became a dying breed, no longer the predators but rather the prey. It appeared as if the pirates of the Georgia Coast did not exist at all.
“The only report of pirates that I am aware of,” says Melton, “came from the first colonists aboard the ship Anne.”
Anne was a British ship making the trans-Atlantic voyage to the New World. The 144 colonists aboard, led by James Oglethorpe, would be the first to settle the colony of Georgia. The journey took 61 days before the three-mast frigate reached land. They stopped first in Charleston, South Carolina, where the ship was replenished and restocked with a wide variety of goods and materials for the settlement. A few days later, on Feb. 1, 1733, Anne set sail for Georgia.
What the colonists did not realize, though, was the Anne had been followed. As the frigate neared the end of its voyage, a dark ship appeared on the horizon behind them. With the wind in its favor, the ship was quickly gaining on the Anne. Everyone began to panic as the crew instructed all women and children to retreat below the deck. The crew and the men aboard armed themselves and lined the perimeter of the Anne. The dark vessel did not waver from its course, only confirming its ill intentions. The pirates saw a lonely ship brimming with precious valuables and much- needed supplies.
The captain of the Anne gave the order for cannon shots to be fired off. Both shots missed the pirates, but the warning rang clear. The pirate ship lowered its sails, turned sharply and fled to deeper waters, leaving the colonists to peacefully complete their voyage. This documented encounter puts pirates directly off the coast of Georgia in the year 1733, when piracy was believed to be almost extinct in the region. Why, then, did the Anne encounter sea-faring thieves during the final stretch of their voyage?
While the majority of piracy had died off by this point, a handful of rogue ships still remained. Lost. Wandering nomads. Nowhere to go, no home, no family. The days of prosperity and piracy had come to an end. With nothing to offer and bounties on their heads, pirates remained adrift and always on the run. “We see in the end that the pirate was, perhaps above all else, an unremarkable man caught in harsh, often deadly circumstances,” writes Rediker.
“It was a survival thing,” says Anne Bonny, a tour guide at The Pirates’ House, a popular restaurant among visitors to Savannah. “We’re trying to paint a more vivid picture of pirates. When you’re poor and you need money but there are limitations on what you can do legally, you start robbing people’s ships.” Bonny explains that there were a lot of small-time pirates here in Savannah, but defined the coastal pirate culture as more “quantity over quality.”
Savannah’s pirates were pirates indeed, but perhaps not the ones of legend. They didn’t loot mountains of gold, but rather desperately tried to scrape together what little money they could. There were those who lived out old age in somber seclusion. Refugee pirate havens and hideaway pirate nests would often appear in new colonies, such as Georgia, where no one yet knew who they were or what they had done. Governments were still in their infancies and hadn’t established clear and consistent communication with surrounding colonies. Pirates on the run could disappear here and start over.
Only years later, when the port of Savannah began to prosper and flourish, would these pirates resurface. Old sailors would share their stories with one another along the dark underpasses and alleyways of River Street, in the dive bars, taverns and saloons like the Herb House (known today as The Pirates’ House). Amid the bottles of rum and clouds of pipe smoke, they would reminisce together and share their tales of a life at sea—tales of gold and plunder.
Those stories would be passed down for generations until Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson published the world-renowned novel Treasure Island in 1883. Its opening is set in a Savannah that bustles with wandering sailors and pirates alike. The book is believed to have given way to a cultural explosion, creating the modern portrait of pirates and starting a wave of intrigue in the early 20th century. With its ties to the port city, Savannah soon became cemented as a destination for pirate enthusiasts, drawing in millions of tourists each year.
Who is to say where the line can be drawn between fact and fiction when it comes to pirate history? Were nautical nightmares like Blackbeard roaming the Georgia shores? Are there really millions of dollars in gold doubloons buried among the islands surrounding Savannah? Or are these just the romanticized ramblings of men in the slums? After all, these are fisherman’s tales. Unless, of course, their rum accidentally lets the truth spill out and bubble to the surface.