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Library employee dressed as a pirate in a Water Festival Parade, with cutlass, black hat, red sash and golden-colored coat
Library employee dressed as a
pirate in a Water Festival Parade

Pirates of the Lowcountry
Dennis Adams
Information Services Coordinator

Piracy was one reason the Spanish first came to what is now Beaufort County in the 1500s.

Walter Edgar, in South Carolina: A History, wrote that buccaneers, rival navies and hurricanes were the biggest threat to Spain's treasure ships in the Caribbean and the Bahama Channel. The excellent harbor of Port Royal Sound was seen as a possible haven for the Spanish fleet and the end of a foreseen overland route for mule caravans carrying treasure from Mexico.

Sign on the step of John Cross Tavern depicts a pirate with cutlass and peg leg pointing the way upstairs   In The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina: Volume 1, 1514-1861, however, Lawrence S. Rowland, Alexander Moore and George C. Rogers wrote that "the need for a land-based installation at Port Royal Sound naturally diminished" after 1585, when Spain established a successful guarda costas (coast guard) system of galleys to protect Florida from pirates.

Risks increased for Port Royal Sound as the Caribbean grew more secure for the Spanish, French and British fleets. The British royal navy drove pirates northward to the less-protected Carolina coastlines. In 1718, Edward Teach (Blackbeard) held several wealthy South Carolinians hostage and anchored outside Charleston harbor, threatening not only to kill the hostages, but to attack the city if the governor did not deliver medical supplies. The governor gave in, thus avoiding certain bloodshed and pillage.
Sign at John Cross Tavern
(812 Bay Street, Beaufort)
Photograph by Dennis Adams
December 2, 2006

For the quarter of a century after the city's founding in 1690, however, the citizens of Charleston enjoyed a much cozier relationship with the pirates. Pirates spent lavishly while in port, and the townspeople could buy stolen goods from the freebooters at irresistibly low prices. Although local officials saw these shady dealings as good for the local economy, the royal government eventually began removing governors who worked too closely with the pirates.

Governor Landgrave Thomas Smith openly started to suppress the pirate trade in 1694, and the Charlestonians themselves finally realized that secure sea lanes were more important to their growing trade than bargains in the black market. Six pirates were hanged in Charleston in 1700, and after Blackbeard's insolent threats of 1718, the Colony was even more resolved to end the menace. British ships defeated a pirate ship off Charleston even as Stede Bonnet and his pirate crew awaited trial in the city. Bonnet and 48 others were hanged in November and December of 1718.

According to the Dictionary of World Biography Supplement, Blackbeard was beheaded off the North Carolina coast (on November 22, 1718) congratulating the man who struck him down with a hearty "Well done, lad!"

"The character of the privateers authorized to prey upon enemy commerce," wrote David Duncan Wallace in The History of South Carolina, was "indicated by the common usage of the words 'privateer' and 'pirate' as synonymous." Spanish privateers had stopped trade in Port Royal during the War of Jenkins' Ear in 1739. At the start of the French and Indian War in 1756, the British commissioned a galley in Charleston and another in Port Royal Sound to defend the coast against privateers. In 1757, runaway slaves reportedly piloted a French privateer off the Georgia coast, causing fears that the rich plantations of Port Royal might be plundered.

An English privateer stayed at Port Royal for a short time in September 1758. Spanish captain Don Martin de Hamassa captured a brigantine off Port Royal in 1763 and later sunk a schooner in St. Helena Sound. Don Martin also seized the schooner "Tybee," upon which Beaufort merchant John Gorgon had depended for his trade, and brought it to St. Augustine. This was, said The History of Beaufort County, the "last significant naval action among the sea islands of the Beaufort District during the colonial era."

John Cross Tavern
John Cross Tavern has been legendary in Beaufort as the hangout for Blackbeard and the other pirates who came noising through the town. According to A Guide to Historic Beaufort by the Historic Beaufort Foundation, however, "perhaps no site in Beaufort illustrates the frustration caused by the scarcity of pre-Civil War records," which were lost to accident and neglect."

The Foundation added that "local folklore has long held that John Cross built a tavern (in Beaufort) in the early 1700s" Existing records show that tabby concrete building was constructed by Captain Francis Saltus around 1796 and that it did not house a tavern until the 20th century. Historians believe that the building had many commercial uses up to the early 20th century, including a dry goods store and a fruit stand.

  The shuttered windows on the second floor look out from the current tavern
According to Foundation executive director Evan Thompson (cited by Sandra Walsh in "John Cross Tavern: The End of an Era," Beaufort Gazette, February 22, 2007), a  
The former John Cross
Tavern (812 Bay Street, Beaufort)

Photograph by Dennis Adams
December 2, 2006

previous tavern named for a certain John Cross did exist, but was located on Scott Street. It was in business sometime between 1800 and 1820, well after the Age of Piracy.

In 1935, Harry Chakides opened the Ritz Café in the building. His son, also named Harry, renovated the structure in 1960 and opened Harry's Restaurant on the ground floor. He established John Cross Tavern on the second floor in 1973. The downstairs restaurant closed in the late 1990s, and the Tavern shut its doors on February 28, 2007.

Whatever the case of the building on 812 Bay Street, what is sure is that pirates once rumbled into town just a cutlass-throw from the site.

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