Once every year, Beaufort, North Carolina, is overrun by pirates. Bedecked in eye-patches, tricorn hats, and striped leggings, bearded and intimidating figures walk the streets of the picturesque town, a bottle of grog in their hands and a peg-leg underfoot. But in the sunny glow of summer, with tourists grasping at their cameras and asking shyly for photos, it’s hard to find these gruff pirates too alarming. The Beaufort Pirate Invasion takes place annually in the seaport village (August 7, 8 in 2015), an event that celebrates the piratical history of the region, most infamously the residence of Blackbeard. But the Beaufort Pirate Invasion gains its name from a historical event, a set of similarly summery days which lost their sultry heat with the incursion of true pirates on the sleepy town.
During the mid-eighteenth century, the Spanish government granted permission to a selection of privately-owned warships (or privateers) to attack enemy shippers. In essence, these government-issued licenses allowed private ships to become tyrannical pirates—with paperwork to prove it. On June 14, 1747, one such privateer almost glided right on past the seaport of Beaufort. But the ship hesitated, and then moved forward into the secluded Beaufort harbor. The local militia, comprised of a mere thirteen men, attempted to stop the hijacking of a selection of small ships from the harbor, but to no avail. The town watched on helplessly as the privateer sailed away, towing behind it their valuable ships like toys.
But the terror was far from over for Beaufort. Sensing a weak and easy target, the greedy pirates returned just two months later on August 26. This time, however, the privateer wanted more than just ships—he wanted the town. The rogue pirates came ashore, claiming Beaufort as their own. Major Enoch Ward and his significantly larger militia (fifty-eight men) attempted to stop the ransacking and looting of the privateer’s passengers, but were overpowered instead. The citizens of Beaufort abandoned their homes and businesses to the wily raiders and fled to nearby villages, removed from the dangers of the sea, hope lost.
Major Ward, however, refused to relinquish his duties and donned the hat of a hero. He scoured the countryside, raising alarms and spirits, garnering followers and farmers-turned-soldiers to protect his little town. Within three days, Ward had gathered 100 farmers and locals and armed them with whatever weapons they could find. Major Ward, leading alongside Colonel Thomas Lorick, returned to Beaufort with his hodgepodge militia and dispelled the unwelcome visitors from the town. According to legend, several Spaniards were killed in the scuffle, their ghosts left to wander the streets of Beaufort. Soon the citizens returned to their homes—but never to forget the Beaufort Pirate Invasion and their unlikely heroes, heroes that are still celebrated today.
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