NC Maritime Museum of Beaufort

On November 21, 1996, scuba divers in Beaufort Inlet found the wreckage of what is believed to be Blackbeard’s flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, sunk in 1718. Nobody is willing to say with any degree of conviction that this is, in fact, the genuine item. However, the discovery of certain artifacts — most notably, more than two dozen cannons — has removed a large number of those lingering shadows of doubt.

Some of what has been hauled up from the deep is on display at the North Carolina Maritime Museum at 315 Front Street in Beaufort, NC. Legend has it that in 1718, Blackbeard intentionally ran two of his vessels aground in Beaufort Inlet in order to decrease the size of his crew and increase his share of the booty.

Blackbeard was killed later that same year near Ocracoke Island in a swashbuckling sword fight with Lieutenant Robert Maynard, who pursued the pirate under orders from Governor Alexander Spotswood of Virginia. In one sensational version of the story, Maynard dangled Blackbeard’s severed head from the bow of his ship as proof of his hard-fought victory and because he needed the evidence in order to collect the bounty.

To date, less than 50% of the Queen Anne’s Revenge shipwreck site has been excavated. Items continuously brought up by divers are temporarily displayed at the museum before moving on to a lab in Greenville to be cleaned and essentially warehoused. Videos run continuously in the museum chronicling the enormous effort involved to lift a cannon aloft, and one cannon has been retained for display purposes. The museum has long-range plans for expansion that will one day house the entire arsenal, along with an array of artifacts that includes coins, glass fragments, ceramic fragments, copper alloy materials, lead shot, cannonballs, anchors and gold dust.

Museum curators can only guess why so much gold dust — at last count somewhere around 4,500 granules, from the size of a grain of sand to a pinky fingernail — could have been left behind by such a profit-minded enterprise. David Moore, Curator of Nautical Archeology, has some general suspicions, based on documented evidence that the Queen Anne’s Revenge was once the slave ship Concord, captured by Blackbeard from a French trading enterprise. “The gold dust was probably from the West African coast,” he said. “We know the slave traders were trading not only for enslaved Africans but for ivory tusks, pepper and gold dust, as much as they could get hold of, and basically that’s the way it was being mined. It was essentially recovered from streams.”

Moore has done some deep diving into archival documentation, and can produce evidence that the slave ship Concord held around 20 pounds of gold dust. “Now that’s not something they would have left behind for obvious reasons,” he said, “so we suspect that one of the crew members who may have had a stash of gold may have actually hidden it somewhere on the vessel.”

One trail of clues he has been following is the proximity of the gold dust to the prolific deposits of lead shot. “Most of the gold dust is coming in and around the stern area. I have a personal theory about what possibly happened, with all that lead shot. Almost everywhere we find lead shot, we are also finding gold dust, and the lead shot would have been kept in small kegs.

“That would have been a perfect place for somebody who sees the pirates being attacked. He takes his personal stash of gold dust, turns the pouch up into a keg of round lead balls and it basically filters down to the bottom, figuring that if they ever re-took the ship that would be a fairly decent hiding place and he could have reclaimed his little stash of gold dust. And if that didn’t happen, the pirates weren’t going to get it either and they would have been looking forever for a little pile of gold sand down at the bottom of this keg.”

To Moore’s mind, the gold dust is yet another grain of circumstantial evidence that the wreck is really the Queen Anne’s Revenge. The most persuasive evidence may still be underwater — something like a ship’s bell with “Concord” on it, for example, or anything at all bearing the ship’s former name.

“We have the original muster role of the French crew on that particular voyage, and if we could find something, a medallion or something inscribed with one of those names, that would probably go a very long way in proving this is that particular ship – even one of the pirate names. We actually have the names of a number of pirates, certainly nowhere near all of them, but probably about a quarter of them or maybe ten percent of the pirates that Blackbeard had under his command, depending on which document you read.”

Discrepancies in that head count range from 300 to 700 pirates manning the four ships in Blackbeard’s fleet. Two interesting variances come from letters the Governor of South Carolina wrote to plead for England’s help when Blackbeard blockaded the Charleston Harbor. “That particular summer, they were under siege by a number of different pirate groups including Blackbeard,” Moore said. “One letter Johnson wrote said we just got blockaded by Blackbeard, who has four ships and 300 pirates under his command. Five days later he wrote exactly the same letter, probably to send on another vessel in case the first ship sank or got taken or whatever, and he changed the number to 400 pirates.” Another governor estimated 700 pirates in a letter written about a month after Blackbeard had been defeated and killed, either a general estimate or a wild exaggeration or based on new information from the hostages Blackbeard occasionally held and then released.