Panic of 1873

October 11th, 2008

After talking to some of the locals from town, I was able to narrow down the time frame that the pirate could have existed. Due to the lack of small non-commercial ships during the Civil War (security issues), the pirate would have had to be operating some time after the civil war. This narrowed down the field quite a bit. Furthermore through some more background research of the late half of the 18th Century I found some interesting information which could give more context to the story of this pirate if he actually existed.

In 1873, due to the United States under went a financial crisis that has similarities to the one we are currently suffering from today. The crisis began in September of 1873 with the failure of a well-known firm by the name of Jay Cooke and Company had over-extended it’s abilties and tried to invest in the Northern Pacific Railroad but failed to find sufficient funds to support it. In addition to its collapse nineteen other firms went under causing widespread panic and making credit almost impossible to obtain (sounds kind of familiar right?) Being as I am not an economics major, it’s a little hard for me to completely understand everything that the articles I read are talking about, but the gist is that the failure of the investment firms, resulted from their inability to make payments to the banks, which caused banking failures. This was followed by the plummeting of railroad stocks and deflation of prices. Property values also declined and the number of bankrupcies doubled.

The effect of the depression was felt worldwide, so this could have had an influence on the life of this pirate. He might have lost his job or his property in the midst of the depression, which could explain why he might turn to a life of crime. People do crazy things in times of need. I actually came across an article recently that talks about what people do during desperate times, in relation to our current economic situation. Here’s the link:

Here are some of the sources I looked at:

Wells, O. V. “The Depression of 1873-79.” Agricultural History 11, no. 3 (July 1937): 237-251.

Rezneck, Samuel. “Distress, Relief, and Discontent in the United States during the Depression of 1873-78.” The Journal of Political Economy 58, no. 6 (December 1950): 494-512.

Local Jargon

October 6th, 2008

Sorry it’s taken me so long to update, it’s been a busy week with papers and exams that of course were all scheduled for the same day. (Sometimes I feel like the Professors are plotting against us but that can be discussed at another time.) Before I get off topic, this weekend I took a trip down to the restaurant where I first encountered the legend of the last American pirate. I wanted to make sure I had enough time to get to the restaurant, but also to mull around the local shops and houses to see if I could find anything out.

In order to start researching I needed more information about the pirate. So my first stop was to the restaurant. Unfortunately the waitress who had handled my table the first time I visited was not in. Luckily since it’s a small town dependent on tourist traffic in the summer, business was slow, so the hostess had plenty of down time to talk to me. She told me she was from the area so she was familiar with the legend and did, in fact, know something about this mysterious man. According to her the legend is something like a bedtime story, known by locals, because they had grown up listening to their grandparents talk about it. Apparently about 150 years ago there was a man from that area who had turned to piracy after losing everything and robbed small, non-commercial boats out of necessity. When I asked her if there were any books she knew that were written expressly on the subject, or newspaper articles, she gave a sort of disinterested shrug. She told me she had never heard of any, the story was mostly a myth and the people who knew about it, paid no real interest in it. She was sure that if a book had been written that the whole town would know about it. The reason they had put the story on the menu was because it was an inside joke among the locals and it helped with the tourists. But, she told me not be discouraged. She suggested that I go talk to some of the older members of town and see if they knew more about it. Though I was a bit discouraged when I left, I was still convinced there was more to this story. I took the her advice and decided to keep investigating.

I walked up and down the street on which the restaurant is located, looking for any kind of gift shop or local business that might know something, anything about this story. Almost everything was closed because it was a Sunday. I managed to find a small plant nursery that was open whose owner was in his late seventies; he told me about as much as the hostess did, only he had always known the pirate to be regarded as a local hero because he did most of his work in Maryland. (I don’t know much about local Virginia history, but there seems to have been many a dispute among Virginia and Maryland over the waterways in between them, so that could help narrow down my time frame). According to the shopkeeper, the pirate had never been caught so he was able to evade the authorities, and he just sort of disappeared one day. The robberies stopped.

The town was pretty dead, since the summer season was over and the fact that it was Sunday did not help. So my search ended up being a lot less productive then I would have liked, but I was able to find a little more information about the pirate. At least now I have a general time frame, and perhaps I can find some events that occurred about 150 years ago that could narrow down the time frame.

F.Y.I. Pirate Facts

September 29th, 2008

Here are some fun facts about pirates. Since I’ve started this project I’ve developed a little bit of an obsession.

I ended up going to Borders and buying one of their many pirate-themed books in an effort to find out more. “Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates” seemed to fit the bill- it received pretty good reviews online.

So far I’ve just skimmed through some of the chapters, but I’ve already found out some interesting things!

A lot of the story elements in Treasure Island were actually really factual. Long John Silver as a cook totally made sense b/c it was common for the Royal Navy to hire a disabled seaman as the chef. Pirates also really did have parrots- they were fun pets and easy to sell.

A corsair was a pirate based in the Mediterranean.  Buccaneers were pirates who ‘worked’ in the Caribbean and around the coast of South America. When I looked it up online- the first result for corsairs was a six person singing group from Texas that sings sea shanties at like, renaissance fairs. Interesting. Buccaneers turned up some football team from Tampa Bay.

There were only a few known women pirates over the years- Mary Read and Anne Bonny were among the most famous. An Irish pirate named Grace “Grany” O’Malley had several ballads written about her. One of the coolest ones was the Chinese pirate Mrs. Cheng, who started as a prostitute, married a pirate leader, and ended up leading a confederation which at one point had 50,000 pirates in it! Yikes!

It’s a pretty sweet book, you should get a copy!

Enjoy :)

On Your Mark, Get Set, Go!

September 25th, 2008

In a late night epiphany (the kind that comes right as your drifting off to sleep with the lights out and the covers up…yeah that one) I decided that before I get too excited or too clouded from stress I should come up with a list of starting points, such as documents, etc, that could prove this local pirate’s existence. I took to compiling a task list of sorts, mostly of sources I plan to check up on. Aside from finding out if such a set of occurrences actually did transpire in this area, here is my annotated list of things I need to investigate (In no particular order):

First, would be to search archives to see if I can find any newspaper articles that talk of robberies in the Bay that could have been committed by this man. But I will need to confirm the time frame that he ran his operations. This will probably be the longest and most tedious task, my eyes hurt just thinking about it. I also need to look into whatever the local and social history is of Virginia and Maryland at this time to see if there are any links between this small story and the larger picture.

Second, is the identity of this pirate. Definitely the hardest part of this. It’s an essential part of the story. I will have to do some fieldwork, talking to the locals and finding more about the folk tale. If I can get a name I can look at census records and local paperwork (birth and death certificates, marriage certificates, land deeds, etc.), this information could help me find out more about his life and what would lead someone to piracy. What were the larger issues that would drive crime?

Third,  I need to find out a location. I need to know what part of the Bay he operated out of. From there I could try and pin point the type of pirating he did, what kind of targets he chose. I might be able to look into police records, maybe there was some kind of coast guard operating then, that would have reports of criminal activity on the Bay. This means I am going to need to look into crime during the time period he supposedly operated under and see what kind of system, if any was in place. If I can pin point the time I might be able to find insurance claims, or other documents that could give me more information.

Fourth, I hope to find out what kind of boat he might have used and equipment. But that will be one of the later steps in the process, since I need to have a lot of other background information before I could pinpoint that.

The story will not only have to fit into the history of local crime, but it also needs to be linked to the greater history of American Pirates. Could this man be the LAST American Pirate???…I have my doubts, serious doubts at that, but it should be an interesting journey to find out.

All Systems Go!

September 23rd, 2008

Just had a meeting with my Professor about my research project. She was still not completely convinced but she did give me the go ahead to at least investigate it. She did suggest that I not completely rely on this as my reseach topic, because it could led to a dead end. Instead she said I should write about crime in the Chesapeake Bay and then I could build the story of the Last American pirate into my paper. So the good news is I have a back up plan even if this whole thing turns out to be a fluke. Unsure of where to begin with my research, I am going to take a trip back down to the source, to check out the area’s local Historical Society to see what information I can gather.

After hitting the catalogs…

September 21st, 2008

After spending the entire day in the library, not only am I convinced that the smell of old library books is permanently embedded in my nostrils, but I am also prone to paper cuts. Despite those two facts, my trip was surprisingly successful and I was able to find several books that indicated a history of pirating on the Potomac.

One such book was, William B. Cronin, “The Disappearing Islands of the Chesapeake,” which had information on Watt’s Island. During the Seventeenth Century it served as a hideout for pirates in the Chesapeake. In fact, the infamous pirate, Rodger Makeele, used Watt’s Island as his operating base in the 1680s. The island has since then mostly disappeared, the bay claiming over 300 acres of it.

In addition I also found these books:

Shomette, Donald G. Pirates on the Chesapeake, MD: Tidewater Publishers, (1988).

Tilp, Frederick. This was Potomac River. Bladenburg, Maryland: Frederick Tilp [self-published], (1978).
Burgess, Robert H. This Was Chesapeake Bay, MD: Tidewater Publishers, (1990).

Hopefully this will be enough…

One dose of skepticism later…

September 18th, 2008

As you might expect, my Professor was more than a little skeptical about my research proposal. In fact, I’m pretty sure she looked at me like I had three heads. I guess I could understand her misgivings about letting me research pirates for a senior thesis …ESPECIALLY since the only proof I have of said pirate’s existence is a sandwich blurb (not the most academic of sources…in fact it could rival Wikipedia in the unreliability factor). Not to mention I have no idea if a story about a pirate in the Chesapeake Bay is even plausible. Therefore, the always encouraging academic, I was told by my Professor to hit the library. Well maybe not in those exact words, but essentially I need to have some kind of background, a beginning. In other words I need to come up with a stronger argument. Guess I have a date with the library this weekend.

The Sandwich that Launched a Thousand Thoughts

September 16th, 2008

My senior project began with a sandwich. And no I am not referring to “brain food,” (though who doesn’t enjoy a good meal) but quite literally, a sandwich. “The Last American Pirate Sandwich” to be exact, complete with crab, mayo, lettuce, tomato, pepper, lemon juice packed between two pieces of toasted brioche.

Now you’re probably asking yourself how a sandwich could possibly be the catalyst to a research project, but it’s less ridiculous than you might imagine. The story began this summer, while I was on a road trip with my boyfriend through Virginia. It was one of those sweltering hot July days, where the humidity is so high, that you sweat standing still. My boyfriend drives a beat up Ford pick up truck and his air conditioning had just gone and the heat was so oppressing that even with the windows all the down there was no relief. I was tired of driving so I suggested we take a break and grab a bite to eat in the next small town that we reached. We happened to be driving through the lower Chesapeake area, and came a cross a small restaurant close to the water. It was a typical small town joint, with a generic name and tacky lights hanging along the edge of the roof. The lawn was covered in white patio furniture with big red and blue umbrellas to provide shade. It was full of regulars and the familiar chatter, of “Donna, how are the kids?” and “Bob, did your dog have the puppies yet?” Our waitress was a typical bored 17 year old, decked out in denim shorts and a polo shirt, face caked with make up, eyes thick with black liner. She threw down the menus with an unenthusiastic smile and then thundered off to the aid of an elderly couple. Among the generic house salads, soups and sandwiches was a blurb claiming that the last American pirate had been from that area. They had named the crab sandwich in his honor. Now I’ve always been a huge Johnny Depp fan, and Pirates of the Caribbean to be among my top five, so naturally I was intrigued. When our peppy waitress re-emerged to take our order, I asked her what it was all about. She rolled her eyes and with an uninterested sigh said, “It’s just some local legend. Are you ready to order?”

Perhaps, it’s my closet obsession with pirates, but my first encounter with the last American pirate never left me. At this point I already knew I the topic for my Senior thesis class was Local Virginian History. And so my research began with a sandwich and the legend behind it.

Senior Project

September 3rd, 2008

Hello everyone! My name is Jane and I’m an undergrad history major and this is a blog about my senior project.

I actually started working on this project during the summer (which I’ll talk about later) and I’m really excited about it. Watch this space for details about my research, and about what I’ve learned on the “last American pirate.”