PIRATES AND PRIVATEERS
AMONG the many hardships with which our forefathers had to contend in the early colonial period were the incursions and depredations of pirates, freebooters and privateers. As soon as they succeeded in building their quiet little townships along the coast, and, through their thrift and energy, established themselves in comfortable homes ready to start out in life in the New World, they fell an easy prey to pirates, allured by the comfortable and frugal appearance of their homesteads. They suffered not only at the hands of strangers and foreigners, but frequently adventurers would go out from their own midst, disappointed or dissatisfied with American soil, and, in collusion with friends who remained on shore, would make regular attacks on the habitations of their former friends. A vast quantity of material is in existence bearing on this phase of colonial life, to be found chiefly in the depositions of witnesses before the Councils of the Governors, the regulations passed in the colonies or the instructions sent from England with a view to suppress these nuisances. But notwithstanding the interest attaching to it, the matter has not as yet received the careful attention of historians, and writers have thus far preferred to use the subject as the basis of romances and fabulous tales of adventure such as are pleasing to juvenile tastes.
As early as 1653 we find accounts of the piratical excursions of Thomas Baxter, a resident of New Amsterdam. Holland and England were then at war, and it was Baxter's plan to pillage the Dutch vessels and towns and then take refuge in the harbors of the English settlers, who protected him from his Dutch pursuers. Others followed the example of Baxter, and the condition of affairs was such that acts of piracy could be committed with absolute impunity. The Dutch retaliated on the English and offered their ports as places of refuge for those who had plundered the English. The region about Long Island and the shores of the East River finally became so infested with these robbers that both the English and the Dutch found it to their advantage to take measures to suppress them. Stuyvesant raised a force, a part of which was always on guard. Yachts were kept plying along the coast keeping a vigilant watch for pirates, and severe penalties were inflicted on those who offered protection to suspicious characters; and it was only after these measures were rigidly enforced that the New Netherlanders were relieved of the excesses practiced by these freebooters.
Being thus driven from the scene of a profitable occupation, they were forced to find a new field in which to carry on their daring operations, and it is doubtless due to this interruption that we find them a few years later perpetrating their outrages along the coast of Delaware.
Delaware being then a part of Pennsylvania, it is, therefore to the records and archives of the latter State that we must look for information and light upon this subject. The earliest appearance of pirates off the coast of Delaware, of which we have any definite knowledge was about 1685, but for the first two years they were not aggressive, and satisfied themselves with occasional sallies, accompanied by no great damage. In 1687, however, they suddenly became bolder and more audacious, and their hostile exhibitions were so frequent and devastating as to demand the attention of the government in England. Deeming it best to deal with them mildly at first, James II. issued an order requiring the colonial authorities to use every precaution to check the abuses and sent a fleet to aid them in the work; but he authorized the pardon of any pirate who, having been captured within twelve months of the date of the instructions (August 21, 1687), should give security to keep the peace in the future.
This last provision of the order had an effect that was little expected or still less desired. The colonial officers used their newly-acquired prerogative of pardon for the most venal purposes, and the most notorious pirates, who were able to purchase their immunity, went free and unmolested, while those whose booty had not been sufficient to satisfy the avarice of the officers suffered the full penalty of the law. Moreover, they were extremely careless in the legal processes which the less fortunate freebooters were compelled to undergo, and many were convicted unjustly, through a desire of those in power to seem zealous in their enforcement of the King's commands. But complaints soon reached the ears of those in London, and a second letter was written, this one addressed to William Penn himself and dated October 13, 1687. The King requested his servants in the colonies to remedy the abuses named, mentioning particularly the unfair trials. He went further, however, and removed from them all original authority in the case of captured pirates, who were henceforth to be imprisoned until His Majesty's will should be known. In addition to this, Sir Robert Holmes was appointed a commissioner whose duty it was to decide in what cases pardon should be granted in pursuance of the first letter of instructions. In November the Privy Council met, published an order against pirates, and placed Sir Robert Holmes in command of a squadron to be sent out for the defense of the colonies, and as a reward for his services he was granted all property which might be taken from pirates within three years of the date of his commission. Early in the following year the King issued a royal proclamation condemning the pirates in the most severe terms and urging their hasty extirpation, commanding that those who, in contempt of His Majesty's orders, continue their abominable practices, be pursued "until they and every one of them be utterly destroyed and condemned."
Through these precautions the outrages perpetrated by the rovers of the sea were almost entirely abolished, and for a few years the inhabitants along the coast were able to manage their affairs in peace and contentment. Still, there was always cause for anxiety, and in the commission creating Benjamin Fletcher Governor of Pennsylvania, in 1693, he was given authority to raise forces to protect the colonists against pirates. Later in the same year the Governor recommended the erection of a fort on the Delaware River near New Castle for the security and defense of trade and the inhabitants, to which the Council readily assented.
When once the surveillance was relaxed, however, pirates again made their appearance. At a meeting of the Council held at Philadelphia in 1697, the Governor, William Markham, presented a letter from Penn, who was then in London complaining of certain rumors which had reached England, to the effect that the colonists had not only been lax in their opposition to the pirates but had even harbored and protected them. The Council submitted this to a committee for investigation, and it was reported that these rumors were without foundation, that several of the crew of a pirate ship commanded by Avery (one of the most famous pirate captains) had been imprisoned and escaped to New York, but beyond this there could be no cause for complaint.
During the two years following, the audacity and impudence of the pirates continued to increase. On a September afternoon in 1698 there appeared off the cape at the eastern extremity of Sussex County a small sloop, which, although it had been noticed by the inhabitants, was not suspected of having evil designs upon the village. Early the next morning, however, it suddenly bore down upon Lewistown and landed fifty men well armed and thoroughly equipped for sacking the place. They plundered almost every house, using force to secure an entrance, and battering to pieces every chest and box, after they had once obtained admittance All money or valuables of whatever nature were carried off, and one of the townsmen remarked, in his plaintive wail before the Governor's Council, that they were left with "scarce anything in the place to cover or wear." They killed a number of sheep and hogs and forced a number of the chief men of the town to assist them in carrying their booty on board, and even took the village carpenter prisoner. After having thus terrified and ruined the people they quietly sailed out into the bay and lay at anchor without fear of being attacked until a small brig appeared and tempted them to offer chase. The particulars of this occurrence were reported to the Council by four of the prominent citizens of Lewistown Luke Watson, John Hill, Thomas Oldman, Jonathan Baily who explained the dangers to which the town was exposed and asked for greater protection. The Council investigated the matter further, and it was learned that the sloop had been taken from John Redwood, of Philadelphia, as he was coming out of Cinnepuxon Inlet, by a pirate named Canoot, who abandoned his own vessel for a fleeter one. Many other crimes of similar nature were traced to Canoot and his pirate ship, and the Council at once empowered the Lieutenant-Governor to muster such forces as should be required to defend the coast towns and pursue their enemies. The expense required for this work was ordered to be raised by provincial tax, but the daring Canoot made good his escape. Nevertheless, several convictions of other pirates soon followed these new prudential measures, one of the most noteworthy being that of David Evans, who was accused of belonging to Avery's crew. This conviction was due largely to the efforts of Robert Snead, who industriously sought to secure any evidence attainable against men suspected of piracy. On one occasion, however, his zeal carried him too far, and he was summoned before the Council for having advised the English authorities that Pennsylvania had become the greatest refuge for pirates in America, and that the officers refused to seize them, even when an opportunity presented itself. Although Snead promptly denied having written such reports, it appears that they were not altogether unwarrantable, or, at least, the precautions taken were not such as would be in accord with more modern ideas of guarding prisoners. The cases of Robert Brandingham and William Stanton will furnish an apt illustration. These two men were imprisoned in the county jail of Philadelphia under suspicion of piracy, and the Lieutenant-Governor having heard that they were allowed too great liberty, demanded an explanation from the sheriff. That functionary admitted that the prisoners were allowed to stroll about the town, but never without his leave and a keeper, and added, by way of apology, that he thought this might be allowed in "hot weather." Notwithstanding, the stern Lieutenant-Governor was not to be moved by humanitarian scruples, the sheriff was instructed to keep his prisoners in close confinement thereafter.
About the same time the Council delivered a severe reprimand to one of the Admiralty judges, Quarry, who had on his own account apprehended two pirates and sent them to West Jersey his only excuse being that he was extensively engaged in trade, and acted purely in self-defense.
Toward the close of the year 1699, the inhabitants of the county of New Castle, presented a petition to the Council setting forth their grievances, from which many points of interest regarding the pirates may be gleaned. They mention the plundering of Lewistown in the preceding year, and also the capture of the brigantine "Sweepstakes," belonging to Col. Webb, a former Governor of Providence. This vessel, already laden and prepared for a voyage to England, was lying off the town of New Castle. On the night previous to the day set for her departure she was attacked by thirteen pirate ships, and carried off, with crew and cargo. The petition went on to mention the unfortunate situation of the town, the inability of the citizens to protect themselves from these onslaughts, and finally, the insufficiency of the fortifications. But despite all this, they met with little sympathy. The board laid all the blame for the delay in the construction of a fortress at the feet of the inhabitants themselves, they having long since secured permission to build it. As for a militia, they considered this a matter to be considered by a general Assembly, and they refused to grant even a hearing to their request for such aid, since the people of New Castle had neglected to send representatives to the last meeting of the Assembly, which would have been the proper place to discuss matters concerning the good and safety of the government. Besides, the Council did not regard the prosperity of the colony as sufficiently great to warrant a large expenditure, and they had learned that in the neighboring and more flourishing colonies of Maryland and Virginia, where extensive fortifications had been erected and ships-of-war were continually plying, the pirates continued in their nefarious work, apparently unconscious of the presence of any opposition. In fact, the pirates would not infrequently attack the men of-war with a vigor greater then usual, and seemed to find special delight in murdering His Majesty's marines. Consequently, with the exception of one or two new laws on the statute-books, the citizens of New Castle secured very little redress or satisfaction.
In April, 1700, the famous Capt. Kidd honored the people of Delaware with a brief visit. He doubtless considered that the spoils to be gathered from an attack on the towns would not repay the trouble requisite, and therefore did not molest them. He had, earlier in his career, made many attacks on the colonists, and Captains Kidd and Avery were the only men exempted from the privilege of pardon in the instructions sent from London some time previously. Although on this occasion he satisfied himself with anchoring at some distance from the coast, his visit was nevertheless the means of involving a number of the inhabitants in serious difficulty. Kidd had just returned from the East Indies, where he had been eminently successful in his depredations, and brought back a vessel heavily and richly freighted with the choicest products of the East. The importation of these goods into the colonies was strictly prohibited, but in direct antagonism to these laws, Wm. Orr, George Thompson, Peter Lewis and two others, all residents of Lewistown, boarded Kidd's vessel and purchased a large quantity of his plunder. They were successful in eluding the vigilance of Lowman, the collector at Lewistown, and had already managed to dispose of their goods before any information reached the ears of the authorities. Penn, who was at the time both proprietor and Governor, immediately on the discovery of the facts, secured their apprehension as accessories to the pirates and promoters of illegal trade. These cases attracted so much attention that once more the colonists received instructions from England regarding the suppression of piracy. This led Penn to call a special meeting of the Assembly to prepare a bill against pirates. He also appointed a committee of Council consisting of Edward Shippen, David Lloyd, Phineas Pemberton, Wm. Rodney and Caleb Pussey, who, in conjunction with an Assembly committee, were to draw up a bill, and after debating for three weeks it was finally passed. This law was undoubtedly the most stringent that had yet been enacted. It was followed by a proclamation requiring all strangers traveling in the colony to show passes, which could only be secured after the identity of the person had been established beyond a doubt. All inn-keepers were required to give notice to a magistrate immediately upon the arrival of a stranger, or in case there happened to be no magistrate near by, "two housekeepers of the neighborhood" were to be notified. Even the ferrymen on the Delaware River were not permitted to transport a stranger or suspicious character, and were forced to give security, pledging themselves to abide by this provision. The Council also treated New Castle with less severity, paying for boats and liquors sent to that town when it was reported that French pirates threatened the town. The colonists had at last thoroughly awakened to the enormity of the offenses committed around them, and the jeopardy by which they were surrounded. They accordingly demanded appropriate legislation. The measures above mentioned were soon followed by an order making it the duty of the magistrates of Sussex County to keep a constant watch on the cape near Lewistown, and as soon as any vessel should appear off the capes, which, on any reasonable grounds, might seem to appear suspicious in its movements, they were forthwith to report to the sheriff of the county with an accurate description of the vessel. The sheriff of Sussex was to forward this information to the sheriff of Kent County, and it was to pass by special messenger from sheriff to sheriff through every county, until it reached the Governor at Philadelphia, who directed what action should be taken. The sheriffs were empowered to use horses for the messengers, and to avoid delay, the magistrates were to attend to these dispatches in the absence of the sheriff, and any expenses thus arising were to be paid by a provincial tax, levied for the purpose.
These several laws, proclamations and orders grew more salutary in the results produced by them, than any that had preceded. During the first eight years of the eighteenth century, the coast of Delaware remained unmolested by the pirates, while the people, undisturbed by their old oppressors, increased and prospered. In 1708, however, the troubles were once more renewed. The character of the water thieves had slightly, although not materially, changed, but the burden was, if anything, more difficult to bear. The dangers now to be guarded against were chiefly from French privateers, but the Dutch, Spanish and other nations were also engaged in similar occupations. In the year just mentioned, the masters of three vessels were taken by a privateer of great boldness named Castrau. They were Captains Philips, of Boston taken on his way homeward from North Carolina; Moody, of Pennsylvania; and Young, of London, who was captured within sight of land as he was sailing for the coast of Sussex County. Castrau and six other privateers spent their entire time sailing between Egg Harbor and Sinnepuxent, and navigation between those points was soon rendered so dangerous that it became necessary to appeal again to England for assistance. The Governor of Pennsylvania called a joint session of the Council and Assembly, and presented in writing his views on the new sources of peril. The misfortunes with which the people were now beset exceeded anything they had experienced in the past. The coast of what is now Delaware, furnished the theatre for the most violent of these excesses. Navigation became almost impracticable, and the bravest sailors dared not leave or approach the coast and trade was, as a natural consequence, brought to a complete standstill. The Governor stated his opinion to be that, while the laws were quite rigid enough to suppress the evil, the officers through whom they were enforced were not sufficiently numerous to properly carry them into execution, and he warmly appealed to the Assembly to increase the number, and grant money supplies for any action that it might be necessary to take at once. The Assembly, however, were slow in levying a new tax, and remonstrated with the Governor, charging him with being derelict in his duty for not having reported the matter to the admiral before they came to their present deplorable condition; moreover, they insinuated that the taxes had not been applied as economically or as wisely as might have been possible. These complaints they forwarded to the Lieutenant-Governor, John Evans, who in turn submitted them to the Council. To this the Lieutenant-Governor prepared an elaborate reply, in which he showed that the only hope of relief rested in what the colonists were willing to do for themselves. Governor Seymour, of Maryland, the vice-admiral of the province, had no forces at his command which he could send to the assistance of his neighbors, nor was there any reason to suppose that aid might be expected from the Governors of any of the adjoining colonies. A detailed explanation of the manner in which the funds were disposed of was also incorporated in the response, and after again picturing the seriousness of the situation, a second appeal was made to the members of the Assembly. The letter elicited from the Assembly by this was based on a new line of argument. While admitting that the jurisdiction of the proprietary extended over a wide stretch of territory, they asserted that the legislative powers of the Assembly were limited to that portion of the province bounded by the Delaware River, and "goes no further down than twelve miles on this side New Castle." Moreover, they cited decisions in the English Court of Exchequer, by which they attempted to prove that all authority on the high seas was in absolute possession of the crown, and the colonial officers had no power to encroach thereon. In their opinion, the only proper course to be pursued by the Governor was to communicate with the vice-admiral, who was not Governor Seymour, as he had stated, but Lord Cornbury, Governor of the Jerseys, who had always willingly granted them all the assistance in his power. This controversy between the Governor and the Assembly continued for three months, and was not terminated until it had resulted in causing an irremediable breach between the contending parties, and precipitated the retirement of Governor Evans. The importance of this dispute is of chief interest in so far as it widened the breach between the province and the counties comprising Delaware. New Castle, Sussex and Kent were, on account of their situation, more directly concerned in these conten( )ions than those situated north of them. The continual recurrence of these quarrels produced no other effect than an irritability between the counties on the coast and those in the interior, and they may be considered an important factor in the events which brought about the final separation.
The unsettled condition of affairs which existed during the close of Governor Evans' administration was only made worse by a projected war against Canada by the English. Taking advantage of this, the pirates and privateers were more frequent than ordinarily in their visits, and at this time (1708-9) records are to be found of many attacks on both Lewistown and New Castle. Penn's secretary, James Logan, wrote to him in June, 1708, that the "coasts begin to be intolerably infested," and has "become a nest of privateers." He reported that in four days three vessels had been burnt and sunk in the river or off the capes. Three French men-of-war were stationed at Port Royal, one of fifty, one of forty-five and a third of twenty-six guns, with orders from the King to ply along the coast. They had brought over one hundred families with which to settle a French colony, and whatever booty they gathered in their cruises, from the British colonists, was used for the support of the new settlement. Logan humorously complained that "we have now four English men-of-war on these coasts, but they very exactly observe the late practice of the navy, that is, carefully to keep out of the enemy's way. They always see the privateers, but always something happens that they cannot fight them." The condition of affairs was at this time such that advices were sent to England to send no vessels direct to the Delaware, but first to Maryland, until it is learned whether it would be safe to enter the bay. Lewistown was again plundered in 1709, this time by about one hundred men sent on shore by a French privateer. Additional troubles were caused by these attacks, owing to the refusal of the Quakers to bear arms, even in defense, which naturally caused the other inhabitants much displeasure.
Fortunately, Governor Evans' successor, Governor Charles Gookin, was not long in ingratiating himself with the people, and soon succeeded in inducing the Assembly to grant a liberal sum for the protection of the coast. Almost immediately after the Assembly had taken this action, tidings were received that the Queen had dispatched a number of men-of-war to assist in the work of saving her colonies from the grasp of pirates and privateers. The co-operation of these two forces proved for a time an effectual blow to the plundering incursions and thieving attacks which the early settlers of Delaware continually suffered, and for nearly a decade the coast was undisturbed and free from hostile invasions.
In 1717 we again find the pirates forcing their objectionable presence upon the attention of the colonists. The renewal of their predatory atrocities necessitated the enactment of further measures of defense. On the recommendation of Lieutenant-Governor Keith, the Council willingly concurred in publishing a proclamation with a view of diminishing the number of their old tormentors. A tempting reward was offered to any person who should furnish the Governor or any magistrate with information leading to the conviction of any pirate or other person who had interfered with the people in the peaceful pursuit of their affairs. Rewards were also offered for the capture of accessories and suspicious characters, and the Governor promised to exert himself to the utmost to secure the pardon of pirates who would surrender themselves or their accomplices. The proclamation had hardly been issued, when five pirates from the sloop "William's Endeavor," appeared before the Council, surrendered themselves, and demanded the pardon offered by the proclamation. The prisoners were John Collison, Hance Dollar, John Rennalds, Benjamin Hutchins and John Bell. Strangely enough, instead of remanding the prisoners to jail, until they were proved worthy of immunity, they were ordered not to be prosecuted until it might be learned that the crimes which they had acknowledged were such as to exempt them from the benefits of the proclamation. Such evidence was never procured, and the pirates were consequently not prosecuted.
In July, 1718, particulars reached the Council of far more serious piratical work. A number of mariners now appeared before the Governor and asked his protection. They had been employed in the merchant service, but had recently escaped from a pirate ship in which they had been held captives. When summoned to appear before the Council, they gave their names as Richard Appleton, John Robeson, William Williams, John Ford, Benjamin Hodges, John Barfield, James Mathews, Samuel Barrow, Gregory Margoveram, Renold Glorence, Walter Vincent and Timothy Harding. Appleton acted as spokesman, and narrated the trials and sufferings they underwent before they escaped, making an interesting and thrilling story of adventure. They had sailed from Jamaica early in the year in a ship fitted out for working wrecks. Death soon deprived them of their captain, and they met with little luck in their expedition. Meeting with another sloop, they willingly listened to the importunities of its captain, one Greenway, to mutiny, and place themselves under his command. They took Captain Greenway on board their own sloop, which was the better of the two, and put their own master on the other. Greenway had also brought his crew with him, and the arrangement had scarcely been completed when they informed their new associates that they were pirates, and had no other object in view in making the change than to secure additional men to assist them in their robberies. The men thus betrayed, were forced to serve their pirate masters in spite of all protests. This lasted several months before an opportunity was presented to escape. Their sloop had attacked an English vessel, and Greenway and several of his old crew boarded it to secure the booty. Those of the old crew who remained on board were drunk, and it was an easy matter to bind them and set them adrift in a boat. Once freed, the captives hastily put out, and although Greenway made a desperate attempt to overtake them, they escaped unhurt, and at length reached the hospitable shores of the Delaware, where they put in for refuge. After hearing the story, Governor Keith ordered an inventory to be taken of whatever was found on their vessel. Captain Hardy was deputized for this work, and reported the sloop well equipped with powder, shot, guns, pistols, muskets, blunderbusses, cutlasses and other materials and implements necessary for the ocean encounters in which Greenway had been engaged, as well as a numerous collection of articles promiscuously gathered from his victims. Whatever was perishable was immediately sold and used for the protection of the people against pirates, while the rest was held subject to the order of the Admiralty Courts, and the men were suitably rewarded.
Other cases were continually reported, and the depredations again began to excite much alarm. It was reported that the famous pirate Teach, also known as Blackbeard, was in the vicinity, and the Governor at once issued a warrant for his arrest, but the rumor proved to be without foundation. It nevertheless became necessary to take special measures for the protection of the lower counties. Captains Raymond and Naylor were sent out with two sloops to clear the capes of the pirates, and did their work very effectually, while many prosecutions against the pirates were conducted in the courts.
After these attacks a respite was secured from the piratical invaders, but it was more to the gradual increase of the population than to the Governor's proclamations that the termination of the excesses was due. As long as the pirates were leniently dealt with, and allowed to go free on little more than their own promises of future repentance, they amused themselves by hoodwinking the officials, and without any scruples of conscience continued in their old trade. They either re-engaged in it by taking an active part themselves, or else kept their former comrades thoroughly informed of whatever action was taken against them, and furnished them with advice as to the best time to pounce upon their prey. The authorities finally discovered that they must deal summarily with the culprits, and promptly hung them as they were convicted. After the first quarter of the eighteenth century the visits from the pirates were few and desultory, but more trouble was suffered at the hands of the privateers. In 1732 the pirates were evidently reappearing, as the Council was obliged to furnish extra clothes during the winter for some who were lodged in gaol, but that they had lost the boldness which characterized their former exploits is quite clear.
By 1739 the privateers had begun to make their raids at regular intervals on the coast, and the Assembly of the lower counties took the matter in hand. The Governor was empowered to appoint two well qualified persons or officers to keep a constant watch at Lewistown. Each inhabitant was required to keep himself armed with a musket, cartridge-box, twelve charges of gunpowder and ball, three flints, and a worm and priming-wire, and every one was instructed to yield absolute obedience to the commands of the officers in everything pertaining to the watch or defense, under penalty of a fine of five shillings. The officers called together all the inhabitants once a month between the 1st of April and 1st of October, and once every three months during the remaining period, for the purpose of drilling them and examining their arms and ammunition. The firing of three guns successively and the beating of a drum was the signal for calling the people together in the market-place with their muskets, ready to defend the town at the command of the officers. The Quakers were exempted by special provision, as were also all persons under fifteen and over sixty-three. Pilots were prohibited from boarding an inward bound vessel without a permit from the Governor, to prevent their possible assistance to an enemy or pirate. In the province, the appearance of privateers in the bay brought on the old trouble with the Quakers, who controlled a majority in the Assembly. In 1740, Governor Thomas urged them continually to decrease the dangers of navigating in the Delaware, and a long controversy resulted. The Governor was greatly enraged, and in a message to the Assembly indignantly asked them: "If your principles will not allow you to pass a bill for establishing a militia, if they will not allow you to secure the navigation of the river by building a fort, if they will not allow you to provide arms for the defense of the inhabitants, if they will not allow you to raise men for His Majesty's service, and on His Majesty's affectionate application to you for distressing an insolent enemy, if they will not allow you to raise and appropriate money to the uses recommended by His Majesty, is it a calumny to say that your principles are inconsistent with the ends of government at a time when His Majesty is obliged to have recourse to arms, not only to protect the trade of Great Britain and its dominions, but likewise to obtain redress for the injuries done to his subjects'" But with the exception of raising seven small companies, there was nothing further done at the time.
The wars in which the mother country became involved shortly after this gave an impetus to privateering expeditions on both sides. George II. issued a special proclamation, praying his subjects to fit out privateers for action against his enemies, which was read throughout the British Empire. Governor Thomas announced it in Pennsylvania, and earnestly requested the people to exert themselves to the utmost in maintaining as many privateers as possible and promising his personal assistance whenever it would avail the least. As was to be expected, the French and Spanish retaliated, and the American coast swarmed with them, the people suffering the insults and gibes of their enemies, as well as losing their property. These outrages assumed their worst form on the Delaware during the summer of 1747. It became necessary late in June to place vessels bearing flags of truce under rigid restrictions before they could come up the bay, in order to guard against every possibility of surprise. Pilots were not permitted to conduct any ship up the Delaware River or Bay without a permit from the Council, and any ship coming up without obeying the regulations fixed was subject to capture. But it was impossible to keep the privateers out of the way. On July 12th a company of about fifteen or twenty men, either French or Spaniards, landed near New Castle and plundered the houses of James Hart and Edmund Liston, carrying off most of their property and slaves. About one o'clock in the afternoon the party came on shore in an open boat and landed about four miles above Bombay Hook, near Liston's house. They ran to a place where his daughter and a negro girl were crabbing and seizing the negress, bound her and put her in the boat; they then went up to Liston armed with guns, cutlasses and pistols, and admitting they were privateers, demanded his negroes, money and keys. He quickly complied, and they went through the place, taking clothes, bedding, furniture and whatever else they discovered, as well as a negro woman and two children. Having put these in the boat, they placed their pistols against Liston's breast and compelled him to lead them to Hart's plantation, about a half a mile distant. Hart saw them coming and closed his house and bolted the doors. They first chased a negro girl until they caught her, and then called out to Hart that unless he admitted them they would fire the house. He still refused and they commenced to bombard the house. A bullet struck his wife in the hip, and she bled so profusely that he surrendered and opened the doors. He was securely bound and the marauders then plundered the house, taking away the negro, all the wearing appeal, some gold buttons and other articles, valued in all at about seventy pounds. They forced Hart to return with them to Liston's, and after packing up all the booty gathered at both places they set out again for their boat. Liston and Hart at once informed Messrs. Jehu Curtis and John Finney of the affair, and the particulars were dispached to President Anthony Palmer and the Council. Several members of the Assembly of the province were summoned, including Messrs. John Kinsey, the Speaker, Thomas Leech, Joseph Trotter, James Morris and Oswald Peele. A conference was held between these members and the Council and measures necessary for defending the inhabitants were taken under discussion. As the Assembly controlled the funds, the Council was powerless to take any step incurring expense without their assent, and they had been summoned to state what measures they were willing to take. But the scruples of the Quakers again proved a stumbling block. The members of the Assembly at first refused to act at all, asserting that as they were then without authority from their Assembly, it would be useless to act in their private capacity, and on being pressed by the members of the Council, only gave the vaguest notions of what they might be willing to do. The privateers continued in their work without meeting with sufficient opposition to inconvenience them in the least. One of them manned a Cape May pilotboat and sent it up the bay as far as Bombay Hook, plundering several of the best plantations in the lower counties on its trip.
Governor Reading, of New Jersey, was requested to give the New Jersey pilots instructions similar to those issued in Pennsylvania respecting the license required by vessels bearing flags of truce, and accounts of the troubles were also sent to the proprietaries, with a request for assistance. In the mean time the enemy continued plundering the colonists. The party who had robbed Hart and Liston, in sailing out of the bay, met a valuable ship bound for Philadelphia from Antigua, and carried her off. The Council continued to ask assistance from the Assembly of the province, as it was feared that at any moment the enemy might sail up to Philadelphia and sack the town. In their messages to the Assembly they pictured the effect of such an event in the most vivid manner, reminding them of the ruin and bloodshed that would follow; but the Assembly was not easily moved. They admitted that the enemy had been bold and ruthless in its actions, but thought it would "be difficult, if not impossible, to prevent such accidents." The length of the river and bay they considered ample guarantee against the destruction of Philadelphia, and they reminded the Council that their continuing to spread abroad reports of the "defenseless condition of the province," by sending messages to the Assembly, would have a great tendency to induce the enemy to attack them.
But no measures which the Assembly or Council or proprietaries took could prevent the pilots from refusing to earn a fee by objecting to conduct vessels into the bay, whether they were enemies or not. These pilots were, in fact, more willing to serve the enemy than the British, since the former were always willing to pay a larger sum for being led through the capes. In September the watch at Lewistown was kept busy for several weeks expecting an attack, and on one day they reported two sloops putting up the bay, each attended by a pilot. Sometimes, however, even the well-intentioned pilots were deceived by the false colors of the privateer, and by the British seamen on board, some of whom were always ready to turn traitor for money. Several cases of this sort came under the notice of the Council. In one instance they learned of the particulars through the deposition of William Kelly, late in 1747. Kelly had been taken from the sloop "Elizabeth," off the coast of North Carolina, by a French privateer, "Marthel Vodroit," Captain Lehay. The vessel was of about ninety or a hundred guns, and after Kelly's capture, took six English prizes, one a sloop, about fifteen leagues off the capes of Delaware, and two ships in Delaware Bay, commanded respectively by Captains Lake and Oswald Eves. The privateer put into Cape May, and hoisted the English colors. There were Englishmen, Irishmen and Scotchmen in the crew, and when they were met by Pilot William Flower, the captain sent one of the Englishmen to give instructions. The pilot was naturally deceived, and obeyed his instructions, taking them into Cape Henlopen. Kelly informed him that the vessel was a privateer, but it was then too late, in the mind of the pilot; but nevertheless he promised to take the ship so near to the shore that Kelly might make his escape by swimming to land. When coming around towards Cape Henlopen they were boarded by another pilot, Luke Shields, who proved to be quite a different character. He and Flower were jointly placed in command of the privateer, but he refused to go near enough to shore to let Kelly escape, declaring that he proposed to take the vessel where she could capture the most prizes, since that was the purpose for which she had come, and no persistence on the part of Kelly could induce him to desist from this. It would therefore appear that to the venality of their own pilots the colonists could attribute much of their annoyance by the privateers. The pilots were no doubt doubly rewarded for leading the vessels clear of all opposition to those points most likely to contain a prize, and least apt to be defended.
During the summer of 1747 these attacks continued, keeping the inhabitants in the lower counties in a constant state of dread and terror. One or two incidents occurred to show the barbarous cruelty of these scoundrels, who spared no man's feelings and left nothing behind which it was possible to carry off. John Aris, a Philadelphia pilot, was coming up the bay one evening, having taken a ship beyond the capes, when he was hailed by some one on board a pilot-boat, when about ten miles below Reedy Island. A boat soon came alongside, and a number of Spaniards came on board, and, with little ceremony, took his ring from his finger, his buckles and over three pounds in money. They also carried off his clothes, all the food on board, and all the sails belonging to the boat. They left him some mouldy bread and greasy water, and then retired, firing at him as they left. It was a curious coincidence that nearly every one who reported having suffered at the hands of the privateers reported that while a majority of their assailants were usually foreigners (Spanish or French), yet there was always some one in the party who used good English. It was concluded from this that there were many of the colonists, or perhaps British sailors, who were acting with the enemy, a fact which might also have accounted for the successful manner in which their expeditions usually terminated. These cowardly and traitorous proceedings were carried on to an alarming extent, as the experience of the ship "Mary," of London, will illustrate. The captain, Bernard Martin, was just entering the Delaware capes, when he was hailed by a privateer of ten guns. He managed to elude her, however, but was met by a pilot-boat, which he knew, as well as the captain, who had often taken him up the bay. Martin allowed her to come alongside and threw him a rope, seeing no one on board except three or four Englishmen. But suddenly about thirty five Frenchmen and Spaniards sprang from the hatches, where they had been concealed, and boarded the ship, driving the crew before them at the points of their pistols. Martin offered some resistance, but they at once opened fire on him, wounding him in the cheek, in the arm and side and then knocked him down. They took command of the vessel, cruised off the capes for a few days and then placed Captain Martin and seven men on the pilot-boat and abandoned them.
As the winter of 1747 approached, the stress of weather put a check upon the privateering operations for a brief season. Most of them sought shelter in the West Indies, but reports continually reached the Delaware that a great raid was being planned for the opening of spring. The Philadelphians were especially alarmed at this. Associations were formed to defend the city, and application was made to secure cannon to be placed at proper places along the river. But the Assembly remained inexorable. Several companies were formed within the province and the lower counties and the construction of batteries was begun at different points on the river.
In April, 1748, the pilots of Sussex County sent in a petition to the Council, asking them to repeal the orders issued as to pilots conducting inward bound vessels, in order to enable them to earn a legitimate living in competition with the traitors who refused to obey the proclamations. This was signed by William Field, Luke Shield, Samuel Rowland, Samuel Rowland, Jr., William Rowland, Simon Edwards, John Baily, John Maul, John Adams, all pilots at Lewistown. They also requested that influence might be brought to bear on the Governor of New Jersey to prevent the Jersey pilots from carrying on the same abuses. Both of their requests were complied with, but the restrictions in New Jersey remained loose and inoperative. As spring approached the privateers reappeared, and for three months their incessant attacks rendered matters worse than they had been on any previous occasion. As early as the 15th of May, Captain Pyramus Green was chased off Cape Henlopen by a French privateer, mounting fourteen carriage and sixteen swivel guns, and with a crew of one hundred and seventy-five men. His schooner, the "Phoenix," was laden with bread and Indian corn, and after the privateer had captured him they took the bread on board their own boat and threw the Indian corn overboard. They then placed about ten Frenchmen on board the schooner and sailed up the bay, stopping to attack a brigantine. While the men were boarding this the ropes gave way, and Captain Green was left in charge of his boat and made his escape. An account of this was sworn to before John Finny, David Bush, James Armitage and Wm. Patterson, of New Castle County, and sent to the Council. On this the Council made another attempt to secure assistance from the Assembly, but for a reply that body quietly stated that they did "not see what prudence or policy could be done in the present emergency. To send a vessel in pursuit of a privateer supposed to be at the capes, a late example may convince us that the privateers might and very probably would be out of reach before any vessel could get thither. And to keep a vessel constantly at our capes to guard our coast must be introductive of an expense too heavy, as we conceive, for the province to bear." And so they did nothing. About the middle of May His Majesty's sloop, the "Otter," arrived under Captain Ballet, with instructions from the Admiralty to cruise off the Delaware capes and protect the coast from the privateers. On his voyage, however, he had encountered one of the enemy in a four hours' engagement and was so much disabled that it required some time to make the necessary repairs. In the mean time the outrages continued. Toward the end of May a privateer captured the sloop "Three Brothers" off the capes. They took off all but the captain, George Porteous, his wife and son and an old man, and put on board three Frenchmen. They steered for the capes, accompanied by the privateer, but were separated from her in a storm. Porteous, his son, and the old man managed to secure the Frenchmen, and put into Lewistown for a pilot, bringing the three prisoners up the bay with them. Soon afterwards New Castle was threatened with destruction by the arrival of a Spanish privateer brig of fourteen guns and one hundred and sixty men. She had anchored off Elsenburg, about ten miles below New Castle, giving an English prisoner, George Proctor, an opportunity to escape by swimming to shore. He proceeded to New Castle, and informed the authorities that the captain of the brig, Don Vincent Lopez, had entered the river with the intention of capturing the large ship then lying near New Castle, and afterwards plunder and destroy the town. He had already been cruising off the capes and had captured several vessels and a pilot-boat, but was now in pursuit of larger prey. The privateer came up under English colors, within gun-shot of New Castle, but the people were prepared and opened fire from several guns. Lopez finding that his reception would be rather warm if he ventured nearer, slipped his cables and dropped down the river, huzzaing as he left, and hoisting the Spanish colors in place of the English. But this was not the last that was heard from Lopez. Captain Nathaniel Ambler reported shortly afterwards meeting with the Spaniard, that resulted more favorably for the latter than his New Castle expedition. On May 25th Ambler was anchored off Reedy Island, in company with three Boston sloops, which had been driven in by the privateers. Late in the evening three boats, from the Spanish privateer, approached them and captured all four sloops, stripping the crew and taking off all their clothes, only leaving each captain a pair of breeches. Captain James White also had an encounter with Don Lopez's men, about thirty of whom boarded his schooner off the high land of Bombay Hook, with pistols and cutlasses, plundered her and took the captain and his men on board the privateer. The long list of outrages of this character was daily increased by reports of others more daring and impudent. About the 1st of June, Abraham Wiltbank, a pilot of Lewistown, was appointed to command an intelligence boat. He plied up and down the river and bay from the capes to Philadelphia, reporting the force and movements of all privateers within sight. At New Castle there was, to be sure, a fort, but there were only four guns to be raised in the whole town. This number was increased by four six-pounders from Philadelphia, where they could ill be spared. The defenseless condition of the coast can therefore be well understood, and it is not to be wondered at that the privateers entertained no fear of whatever opposition might be offered.
In July a whole fleet appeared off the southern coast of the American colonies, under the leadership of Don Pedro, and for a time navigation was completely at a standstill. A part of the British squadron in New England was sent down and captured several of the privateers, and manned them to oppose their old allies, and in this way the robbers were once more dispersed. At Wilmington preparations to meet them were made by the erection of a bomb-proof magazine and battery on the rocks of Christiana. In a note to President Palmer, of the Council, from David Bush, John McKinly and Charles Bush, they state that the battery had been viewed by many, and the universal opinion was that it equaled, if not exceeded, "any on the continent for strength and beauty." But to the two men-of-war, the "Hector" and "Otter," was really due the credit of finally clearing the bay and capes of Delaware of the privateers. They captured a number and disabled others, so that before the close of the year 1748 those that remained unhurt had sought more hospitable regions and the people were once more relieved from the strain incident upon the almost continuous presence of their enemies for two years. This was the last of the attempts, either of pirates or privateers, to make any concerted attack on Delaware, practically blockading the mouth of the bay. At rare intervals thereafter they would apparently spring out of the bosom of the waves and sweep down on an unsuspecting vessel; but they no longer acted with their former audacity, and scarcely ever came within reach of shore. As late as 1788 we learn of James McAlpine being convicted of piracy on the Delaware, but with this the curtain falls on this romantic and interesting phase of the history of Delaware.
SOURCE: Page(s) 99-108, History of Delaware, 1609-1888, Volume
One by Scharf, Thomas J., Philadelphia; L.J. Richards & Co.,