Documenting the World of Outlander #6: The Frasers and the Gentleman’s Pirate

[This post was written by Alison Thurman and Josh Hager, Reference Archivists]

This blog is intended as a “bonus feature” for fans of Outlander who want to explore the world of Jamie and Claire through original documents housed at the State Archives of North Carolina. SPOILERS for all episodes of Season 4!

Outlander, the hit series from Starz, has officially arrived in colonial North Carolina. Starting In Season 4, Jamie and Claire traversed the state from Wilmington to the mountains. The State Archives of North Carolina has joined them on this journey as we showcase documents that provide a window into their world. Welcome to our biweekly series, Documenting the World of Outlander, wherein each new entry in our series will focus on one topic that appears on screen in Outlander.

The time has come to mourn the end of Season 4 of Outlander, but our journey sharing records from the State Archives that document Jamie and Claire’s experiences in North Carolina is far from over. This week we would like to focus on piracy; a topic that was introduced in Episode 1 and was intertwined with the story throughout the entire season. As you will remember, Jamie and Claire began their journey in the coastal city of Wilmington and, for many history buffs, there can be no discussion of coastal, colonial North Carolina without examining the rich history of the “golden age” of piracy.

What would a good drama be without a colorful and sinister villain? This season, pirate Stephen Bonnet was introduced as that villain; he has been a nemesis to the Frasers since their first meeting in Wilmington. His presence follows them throughout the rest of their journey as they travel westward from Wilmington, to Cross Creek and Fraser’s Ridge.

Many fans have speculated that the character of Stephen Bonnet in Outlander is inspired by the historical pirate, Stede Bonnet, a scourge of the seas in 1717-1718. They are certainly both colorful characters. Stede Bonnet was a unique figure in the pirate world as evidenced by his nickname the “Gentleman’s Pirate.” He abandoned a prosperous plantation and respectable family in Barbados while experiencing one of the most interesting midlife crises in nautical history. He ordered a ship built to his specifications, hired a crew with money from his own pockets, filled the captain’s cabin with a library of books worthy of a gentleman and, with no seafaring experience, sailed off on his ship, Revenge, to live the life of a pirate. Bonnet was a contemporary of the fearsome buccaneer, Blackbeard, a name that many along the North Carolina coast and the towns of Bath, Wilmington and Edenton knew well in 1717 and 1718. Bonnet sailed alongside Blackbeard off and on during this time and he became familiar with the hidden inlets and creeks of the Cape Fear River and the various shallow waterways and sandbars that make up the dangerous waters off the Outer Banks. He was a part of Blackbeard’s flotilla of ships when his flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, was grounded in what is now Beaufort Inlet. He and Blackbeard shared a complicated professional relationship and parted ways in 1717. Bonnet led a very intriguing life which you can read more about at  https://www.ncpedia.org/, the Blackbeard 300 Anniversary blogs, and many other published secondary sources.

Have you ever visited the quaint town of Southport or taken the ferry to Bald Head Island? If so, you have traveled through the waterways that were the site of the Battle of the Cape Fear River in 1718. Bonnet, who was using the aliases Edwards and Thomas at the time, had anchored his ship, Royal James, off the mouth of the Cape Fear River to make repairs. When the governor of South Carolina, Robert Johnson, heard that Bonnet was close by, he sent Col. William Rhett, commander of two sloops, to confront him. After several hours of battle, Bonnet and his crew surrendered, were taken prisoner and sent to Charleston, South Carolina for trial.

MC_167_C237_1798ps

Map of Cape Fear River and its vicinity from the Frying Pan Shoals to Wilmington MC.167.C237.1798ps

The sites involved in the Battle of the Cape Fear River in 1718 were included in a map prepared by Jonathan Price and John Strother at the request of the commissioners of the port of Wilmington, published in 1798. It portrays Frying Pan Shoals and the Cape Fear River from its mouth to Wilmington. Soundings are given, and the depth of the water is also indicated by shading. Tributary streams are shown and named. Smith’s Island is present day Bald Head Island. Can you see on this map the point of land where the Elizabeth River and Dutchman’s Creek meet? On the Moseley Map of 1733 this land was called Bonnet’s Point.

The map reveals that the topography of the land has changed very little, although the shifting sands and varying depths of the waterways make this area one of the most dangerous areas for vessels to navigate. To learn more about the battle of the Cape Fear River and the history of piracy in the Cape Fear and southern coastal North Carolina regions, be sure to visit the Maritime Museum in Southport, NC.

Very few original records pertaining to Stede Bonnet and piracy off the North Carolina coast survive at the State Archives of North Carolina.  Most of the relevant documents are found in a collection of records called the British Records. The British Records consist of photocopies and microfilm of documents at the Public Records Office in London, as well as other European repositories, which contain information about colonial North Carolina. They are drawn primarily from the papers of the Admiralty, Board of Trade, Colonial Office and Treasury Board, among many others in the Public Records Office and include a wealth of information on a variety of topics such as trade, shipping, correspondence between colonial NC government officials and crown officials, military matters, Native American relations, immigration and others. A concerted effort began in 1969 by the Colonial Records Project to collect these records for use at the State Archives. We are fortunate to have them today because, even though they are not original records created by the people of NC, they contain information critical to North Carolina history and culture. There are finding aids for them in the Archives Search Room, including paper files and card files. They are arranged by series or chronologically. Much of the information in the finding aids is in the MARS online catalog, but not all. The paper finding aids have been scanned and are available on our website at https://archives.ncdcr.gov/records-foreign-collections#british-records  One thing to keep in mind is that they are available for viewing and research only. No reproductions of them for publication are possible without the permission of the Public Records Office in London.

Most of the information we have today on Stede Bonnet and his pirate activities came from the testimony given at his trial and those of his crew. The trials took place in Charleston, SC and the original records are not in North Carolina. However, for those of you interested in the Battle of the Cape Fear River and the fate of Bonnet, there is information in the Treasury Board records at the State Archives that might be helpful to you. One such document representative of the collection is included here. Located in the Treasury Board, Admiralty’s Sessions records, it is a document describing the “Minutes of proceedings in trial of Stede Bonnet, alias Edwards, alias Thomas, for taking sloops FRANCIS and FORTUNE. 28 Oct. – 12 Nov. The FRANCIS taken at “Cape James alias Cape Inlopen”, and the FORTUNE, Thomas Read, commander, taken at Cape Fear. Details of Cargoes taken, etc.”

The document records the proceedings of the trial of Stede Bonnet, alias Edwards, alias Thomas. It includes not only the charges, but also lists the names of the crew members, their pleas and testimony about their activities not only in North Carolina, but all along the Atlantic coast. Most of his crew were convicted and hanged. Bonnet did escape while in captivity in Charleston, however, unlike Outlander’s fictional villain, Stephen Bonnet, who escaped the authorities with the help of Jamie and Claire, the historical Stede was recaptured, tried, convicted and hanged on December 10, 1718.

The demise of Blackbeard off the island of Ocracoke in 1718 ended the “age of piracy” in colonial North Carolina. The legacy of piracy has remained strong, especially with the discovery of the Queen Anne’s Revenge in Beaufort in 1996. For information about the Queen Anne’s Revenge Project you can visit  https://www.qaronline.org/ For those interested in underwater archaeology, there is also information about the conservation lab dedicated to the artifacts recovered from the ship’s site located at East Carolina University.  As one of several institutions displaying the ship’s artifacts and interpretation, you also should not miss a visit to the Maritime Museum in Beaufort.

We sometimes romanticize pirates like Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard, but the notion of Outlander’s Stephen Bonnet as a charming rouge quickly faded for the Fraser family in Season 4. Will he reappear in seasons to come or have the Fraser’s escaped his hold on them? Time will tell.

As the Droughtlander begins, we hope to help fill the gap by continuing our blog series, Documenting the World of Outlander. We will now be posting a new blog monthly, showcasing documents focusing on a topic that was covered on screen during Season 4. We hope you will continue to share with us in the fun of exploring the world of Jamie and Claire Fraser through documents at the State Archives of North Carolina.

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