BATH, N.C. -- In a pirate-worthy broadside on conventional history, a Raleigh, N.C., author claims that Blackbeard and many of his henchmen weren't rogue Englishmen, but sons of North Carolina landowners.
Most historical accounts contend that the notorious pirate known as Edward Teach or Thatch was from Bristol, England. But Kevin P. Duffus said his review of archives and genealogical research indicates that Blackbeard was probably Edward Beard, son of a landowner in Bath in Beaufort County.
"There's never going to be a smoking gun to determine who he really was," Duffus said of the pirate. "My version is a lot more plausible than what's been foisted upon us for nearly three centuries."
The writer also claims that several of Blackbeard's crew members were not hanged as earlier accounts said and at least three returned to North Carolina to respectable -- and wealthy -- lives.
With the help of genealogists, Duffus has found a descendant of one of Blackbeard's known crew members, Edward Salter. Under prodding by Duffus, state officials are investigating whether a skeleton kept for years in a state archeology lab in Raleigh is that of Salter, who lived out his life near Bath.
The bones were recovered in 1986 from a crypt near the Pamlico River. If DNA tests show that the bones are Salter's, the identification would establish that at least one of Blackbeard's men had family roots in Bath.
Steve Claggett, the state archeologist, said such a scenario could be true.
"I think there's a pretty good case for it," he said.
The state already claims the wreckage of Blackbeard's flagship, the Queen Anne's Revenge. Hundreds of artifacts, including cannon, ship rigging and even traces of gold dust, have been recovered since 1996 from Beaufort Inlet, where historians say the pirate ran the ship aground.
Duffus is bracing for a backlash from historians and Blackbeard buffs. He admits he doesn't have conclusive proof of his assertions, but he thinks they are more plausible than versions that have been around for generations.
"Blackbeard followers revel in retelling their favorite Blackbeard fable over the years," he said. "I realize they will not let go of them easily."
The pirate is largely known for his exploits late in his life, before troops from Virginia tracked him down and killed him at Ocracoke in 1718. His ties to Bath have been documented and some have become the stuff of legend, but there is scant evidence of his early life.
Duffus' theory is that Blackbeard was the son of Capt. James Beard of the Goose Creek area near Charleston, S.C., who owned about 400 acres on the west bank of Bath Creek as early as 1707. He says Beard's son Edward, born in South Carolina in 1690, came to eastern North Carolina with his father but was also taken to Philadelphia, where he learned his sailing skills.
Duffus suggests that Edward Beard sported a black beard and used "Black" as a nickname, much like fellow pirate Black Sam Bellamy. By his account, Thatch or Teach was an alias, and the pirate's moniker was actually Black Beard, later condensed to Blackbeard.
Most accounts of Blackbeard's early years stem from references by Capt. Charles Johnson in A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, an 18th-century bestseller. "Edward Teach was a Bristol man born," he wrote.
But Duffus says there is no documentation of a Teach or Thatch in Bristol, and no one knows for sure who Johnson was or where he obtained his information.
"They (skeptics) can accept seven words written by an author whose true identity remains a mystery," he said -- "or a preponderance of circumstantial evidence."
David Moore, curator of nautical archeology at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, agreed that the link to Bristol is tenuous. But he also said the link to Bath is speculative.
"I find it extremely hard to believe if there was an association we wouldn't know it now," he said.
Moore, who has researched Blackbeard's career, said new claims will spur more interest in the legends -- not that pirate lore has been lacking.
"Pirates and piracy have held a fascination with the general public since piracy began," he said.
Another pirate researcher, Charles Ewen of East Carolina University, said Duffus' theories about Blackbeard and Edward Salter are plausible, but he maintains his skepticism. He said it may be difficult to ever find a definitive answer.
"The onus is on the naysayers," he said.
In his self-published book, The Last Days of Blackbeard the Pirate, Duffus recounts his search for answers to the mysteries surrounding Blackbeard's link to eastern North Carolina. He says he found documents that earlier researchers either overlooked or ignored.
For instance, he cites a document in British archives that says two vessels that cornered Blackbeard at Ocracoke approached from Pamlico Sound. Earlier accounts indicated they came from the ocean. That is a significant difference, he said, because it explains why Blackbeard was surprised in waters he knew well.
"If history could make this error, what other errors could have been made in telling the Blackbeard story?" he asked.
Traditional accounts also said that 15 men suspected of being part of Blackbeard's crew were tried in Williamsburg, Va., in 1719. Thirteen were reportedly convicted and hanged, one was pardoned for his testimony, and the other was not a crew member and was acquitted.
According to Duffus, nine were either pardoned or acquitted, and only six were executed. Three with ties to Bath, including Edward Salter, were not hanged, he said, adding that Salter became a merchant and gentleman who owned substantial property.
Some of Duffus' findings are not new. He credits genealogy research on Beard and Salter by Allen Hart Norris, John H. Oden III and Jane Stubbs Bailey that was published in a journal in 2002. But he has also traced Salter's line to a possible living descendant.
State officials are reviewing Duffus' request for DNA testing on the skeletal remains in Raleigh. Claggett, the state archeologist, said the studies could cost up to $6,000. He said other researchers are considering facial reconstructions that would show what the man looked like.
Duffus is challenging other myths and legends about Blackbeard, including the fanciful tale that Blackbeard's headless body continued to swim after being tossed overboard. He says Blackbeard's body is probably buried at Ocracoke along with those of the slain pirates and Royal Navy sailors.
-- The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.).