A pirate’s life

“Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718,” by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. Is that Thomas Lacy drawing his cutlass between Blackbeard and Lieut. Maynard? Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A year or so back, I was contacted by a favorite cousin of mine asking for help with questions his nephew had regarding our family tree. His nephew, a serious-minded young man (and a very typical teenager), was curious about any infamous or otherwise notable kin among our branches. And, since I’ve managed to somehow insinuate myself as the family’s alleged expert on such things, well, I guess I’d become their “go-to” guy for an answer or two. (I know, hard to believe, right?) I should mention that the young man who would be asking any of these questions was only thirteen years old!

As you might have guessed, I was only too happy to have a captive audience. Like many of you, I’ve learned to curb my genealogical enthusiasm in family discussions, and to avoid those “ice cream” stares that can come when mentioning what might be an interesting point or person in our family’s history. Yes, I’ve come to understand that my passion for genealogy doesn’t always line up with a dinner table conversation about NASCAR or how to cook a chicken fricassee. So this was a real chance for me to communicate “the cause” – and perhaps bring a young neophyte into the fold. I knew I’d better not mess up this up!

However, instead of playing it safe (and letting the young man get a word in edgewise), I immediately fell back on recounting tales of my old favorites. I conjured up our ancestral Salem witches. I extolled our virtuous Revolutionary War patriots and our Civil War heroes. I reached in deep, explaining the lineage behind our sole known Gateway Ancestor, and our very distant ties to Princes William and Harry. Heck, I even moved onto Hollywood, explaining possible ties to “movie star this” and “movie star that.” But I have to tell you, even with all of this I was only getting the radio silence equivalent of a blank stare – and I was getting nowhere fast.

In the end my young cousin and acolyte had just one question for me:

“Do we have any pirates in our family tree?”

Pirates? Ahoy, matey! Well, honestly, I’d never thought to look for, well, pirates!? However, I knew that if I was going to keep my young cousin’s interest, I was going to have to make his family history relatable. I needed to find myself a pirate among our boatloads of Puritans, Quakers, and Dunkards.[1] There was no way this was going to be an easy task.

I searched and mulled through our various branches, but, ahoy! I feared I would be walking the plank on this one. However, in the midst of all of my meanderings, one name did come to mind, that of Thomas Lacy, a distant great-grandfather to both myself and my young student. I couldn’t recall exactly what (if anything) was notable about Thomas Lacy, but then I remembered something about “Thomas” more akin to myth than any truth I might be able to verify. What I remembered was a name associated with Thomas’s that might nonetheless serve me very well, and that name was Blackbeard.

Quite simply though, the story has come down that one of these fine progenitors named “Thomas” was at one time captured by the pirate Blackbeard…

While our family ties to Thomas Lacy (ca. 1684–ca. 1727) seem quite certain, the stories around Thomas Lacy and his entanglements with Edward Teach, a.k.a. Blackbeard, are murky at best. These stories co-mingle the lives of both an elder Thomas (the father) and a younger Thomas (the son) into one. Quite simply though, the story has come down that one of these fine progenitors named “Thomas” was at one time captured by the pirate Blackbeard, but was excused from walking the plank because Blackbeard found him to be “too fine a looking fellow not to be a pirate” – and, ultimately, spared his life.[2] Amazingly enough, the story continues that our fair Thomas escaped the pirate’s hands, only to return and assist in Blackbeard’s capture,[3] and, in the end, drawing the fatal cutlass against him.[4]

This story, based on family lore and without any proof, was told in various forms during the early part of the twentieth century and usually credited to the younger Thomas Lacy. However, recent discoveries of what look to be the circumstances of the elder Lacy’s life and as investigated vis-à-vis a collection of “Survey Reports” found in the Virginia Colonial Records Project indicate that the story may have some basis in fact. Indeed, there just might be some truth in the old tale after all.[5]

Now, I still have a long way to go in learning my way around any Virginia records, so I can only report on the tale of our Thomas Lacy as I have found it to be. Perhaps someday a researcher far better than me will be able to cull the entire truth (if any) about our poor Thomas’s escapades with old Blackbeard. For me, the voyage has proven a salty one, enough so in verifying my family’s ties to both of these Thomases, and in making me comfortable with our share of the Lacy pedigree. And while I haven’t been able to deliver a pirate ancestor to my young cousin, I can rest easy knowing that he will at least be able to espouse a youthful tale of perhaps the next best thing – the tale of his ancestor, a man who may have drawn a cutlass against, and defied, the terrible pirate Blackbeard.


[1] The Dunkard Brethren was a Protestant movement that began in Germany about 1708. My great-great-grandmother Martha (Lacy) Ginder (1839–ca.1885) was likely associated with adherents of this movement.

[2] Hubert Wesley Lacey, The Thomas Lacey III family of Hanover and Buckingham Counties, Virginia: With forebears, descendants and some allied families (Baltimore: Gateway Press, 1983), 22. “As taken from a copy of an old paper written by William Sterling Lacy (1842–1899) son of Rev. William Drury Lacy…”

[3] Peyton Harrison Hoge, Moses Drury Hoge: Life and Letters (Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1899), 15–16.

[4] Hank Burchard, “Digging Up a few Good Pirates,” The Washington Post, 13 May 1988, as viewed on WashingtonPost.com: “Wearing three brace of pistols and wielding a cutlass, the pirate fought hand-to-hand with Maynard and was about to land what might have been the fatal stroke when a British seaman’s blade caught Blackbeard across the throat.”

[5] From the Colonial Records Project – Library of Virginia, as viewed on www.genealogy.com/forum and also at ancestry.com: “Conclusion (as drawn by Gene Lacy): Thomas Lacy was listed as a sailor from one of the ships that was captured on the 28th of April 1699. Of the three ships captured, only the Nicholson was reported as leaving crew behind in its attempt to escape from the pirate. The above report makes it clear that Thomas Lacy served on the Shoreham during the battle. Thus, we conclude that he was a seaman aboard the Nicholson, was left in port in the hasty departure, volunteered to serve on the Shoreham and received his reward for this service.”

About Jeff Record

Jeff Record received a B.A. degree in Philosophy from Santa Clara University, and works as a teaching assistant with special needs children at a local school. He recently co-authored with Christopher C. Child, “William and Lydia (Swift) Young of Windham, Connecticut: A John Howland and Richard Warren Line,” for the Mayflower Descendant. Jeff enjoys helping his ancestors complete their unfinished business, and successfully petitioned the Secretary of the Army to overturn a 150 year old dishonorable Civil War discharge. A former Elder with the Mother Lode Colony of Mayflower Descendants in the State of California, Jeff and his wife currently live with their Golden Retriever near California’s Gold Country where he continues to explore, discover, and research family history.

20 thoughts on “A pirate’s life

  1. It is good that you provided no conclusion to your intriguing tale. THIS might be the hook that pulls your young relative into genealogical study. Aha! You have a captive, matey!

  2. The un-heros are so interesting and help make family stories interesting for relative who aren’t as enthusiastic as those of are who read this blog! My 3rd gr-uncle dabbled in the bootlegging trade on the Canadian side of the St Lawrence river with the help of his buddy Frank James, brother of outlaw Jesse. Frank was on the lam from the US & made the local Canadian papers.

  3. Would love it if your family lore could be verified! I never expected to find a pirate in my tree and there was never any family lore concerning one, but I did find an ancestor who was. Josiah Raynor, 7th great-grandfather, of Southold, Long Island, was a mariner and a pirate for a short time with Captain Thomas Tew. Very cool that you’ve found a “hook” to pull the young lad into the world of genealogy.

  4. “Ice cream” stares: I call it the descent of the reptilian second eyelid. Their eyes are open, but the expression clearly indicates that they couldn’t care less about what you’re telling them! I hope your young relative was duly impressed. I know that I was super excited to read two different newspaper accounts from 1720 than one of my sea captain ancestors survived an encounter with the legendary John “Black Bart” Bartholomew… AKA “The Dread Pirate Roberts.” Best wishes in finding more evidence!

  5. Jeff, I learned long ago that uttering “genealogy” or “family history” was the fastest way to get rid of guests who lingered too long of an evening. Also, my children’s version of the “ice cream stare” was a most unsubtle eye roll, but one eventually did develop an interest.

    No known pirates, but with proven ancestors from the coasts of Dorset and Cornwall, I’ve no doubt I’ve a smuggler or two in my tree. Also a French sailor who jumped ship in London in the 1400s and beat feet for a specific part of Somerset, the only place in all of England that branch appears for the next 200 years. What was he was hiding from!

  6. Fascinating stuff! I have no pirates (that I’m aware of), but my Irish grandfather was fond of claiming his uncle stowed away on a ship from Liverpool to Australia. No indication as to why he may have felt the need to leave England so hurriedly. However, my grandfather’s favorite line was “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”, said with a wink.

    1. Hi Debra, – I couldn’t agree with your grandfather more – especially if we can get that story to interest them enough in finding out the truth! I sometimes think as family historians all of us started out in this very same place, that of a place called “a good story” – and went in search of the truth from there…Gee, have I been looking for awhile now or what!? 🙂

  7. Thanks for sharing this story, Jeff. Your readers know just what you mean! I hope the interest of your young cousin will continue to grow.
    A Thomas Lacy is mentioned in the account of Juan de Alarcon (fl. 1684) in Pirates of the Americas by David Marley, https://books.google.com/books?id=bU6ML_VnXTwC&pg=PA7. Could he be the father of the Thomas Lacy who encountered Blackbeard?
    Here is some pirate information that may help some others facing a similar question to that of your young cousin.
    Descendants of Handley Chipman, great grandson of Mayflower passengers John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley, have a privateer/pirate in their ancestry in the person of Handley’s grandfather, Thomas Handley. Note that one nation’s privateer is often another nation’s pirate.
    For those searching for a privateer or pirate active during the second half of the seventeenth century, I suggest looking at Un dictionnaire biographique de la flibuste (1648-1688) by Raynald Laprise, online at http://membre.oricom.ca/yarl/Proue/proue.html. (Also see the explanations and links here, http://membre.oricom.ca/yarl/menua.html.)
    Here is my first genealogy rejection story. One of my early grade school teachers read our class the story about Mayflower passenger John Howland being swept overboard into the Atlantic during a storm but clinging to a rope and surviving. At lunch, when my mother asked about what we learned in school that day, I recounted the story. Her response was, “Oh, I think he is your great great great great great great great great great grandfather.” When I returned to school and told my teacher that the man in the story was my great great great great great great great great great grandfather, my teacher told me that I shouldn’t make up stories.

  8. Having been born and raised in Tidewater Virginia, one of my favorite excursions has always been driving down North Carolina’s Outer Banks — barrier islands similar to so many along North America’s Atlantic coastline. Up until recent years, the towns along the stretch between Kittyhawk and Hattaras were quaint little villages, with few businesses other than screen-doored, sandy-floored motels, general stores, a smattering of weather-beaten seafood restaurants, and the occasional fishing pier. Nowadays, it’s as if you’re driving through Virginia Beach — what with all the Sun-Sations, and other beach shops, Mega-theater complexes and national chain eateries. BUT…if you take the ferry to Ocracoke Island, all the charm of the heretofore quaint Outer Banks awaits you — in spades. It was at eighteenth century Ocracoke where Edward “Blackbeard” Teach met his grizzly end at the hands of the crews of Lieutenant Maynard’s two armed sloops, which had been sent by Virginia’s Governor Spotswood to bring an end to his piratical terrorism. The town of Bath, Ocracoke Island, and the inlet and sound that separate them, were once a haven for pirates that ranged the entire North American Atlantic coast. In fact, a pirate that I’m assaying to add to my family tree — Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy — was once a shipmate of Teach; both of them sailing aboard Benjamin Hornigold’s vessel, until Blackbeard got his own gig, and Sam — the gentlemanly “Prince of Pirates” — was voted Captain of Hornigold’s ship when the crew mutinied (due to Hornigold’s unpopular ways). In the span of one year, Sam became the most successful pirate of all time — capturing 54 ships and amassing a King’s ransom in treasure. After viewing the Whydah exhibit at Norfolk’s Nautilus naval/maritime museum many years ago, I was intrigued, and began my genealogical search. Sam — as all New Englanders are aware of — met his watery end near Cape Cod, while attempting to meet/abscond with his teenage lover Maria Hallett during a raging nor’easter. As the storyline goes, Maria watched the Whydah — with Sam aboard — break apart on a sand bar and sink; all within easy sight of her. She was, at the time, heavy with Sam’s unborn child. Overly romanticized? Maybe. But still, it’s worth a trip to the Whydah museum to take another gander at the chest full of Pieces of Eight, and all of the other intriguing relics of the shipwreck; including a new addition — or so I’ve heard — that of a piece of Sam’s legbone. Perhaps a DNA project will finally connect me with the “Robinhood of the Seas”.

    1. Jon, my young acolyte cousin and I are officially jealous! What an incredible story and an even greater connection. I mean honestly, how do you go wrong with a story like this, “In the span of one year, Sam became the most successful pirate of all time — capturing 54 ships and amassing a King’s ransom in treasure.”

      Maybe not the stuff that heroes are made of by today’s protocol – but oh my, a salty tale to tell in any generation. Really cool, Jon!

  9. I got started in genealogy due to a pirate story. My great-grandfather left a memoir stating that our first ancestor in this country had been a pirate. Supposedly, his ship had been captured and he was preserved because he could read and write and the pirates needed someone to count their plunder. I fascinated and decided to try to find proof. The ancestor, Thomas Minor, turned out to have come over in 1629 or 1630 as part of the Great Migration. However, his descendants were PRIVATEERS on Long Island Sound during the Revolution. I think someone confused the two words, and lo – we had a pirate!

    1. Karen, this is awesome! I also have a small connection to Thomas Minor if only by marriage.So cool to know the “rest of the story” about Thomas. – Many thanks for this!

  10. Hi Cousin – this was a very interesting story, and great to see some recent activity in our family. Are you still actively researching the Lacy side? I’m trying to connect with cousins on similar paths (Thomas Lacy a 7th ggfather of mine). Carolyn Lacey

  11. I love reading about this story! I am also a descendent of Thomas, and his story has been one of the most interesting ones I have found in my family tree thus far. Thanks for sharing!

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