By Kimberly Brown, Family Historian
September 19th marked the fifteenth International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Some of these notorious swashbuckling fellows that we regard with grudging admiration can actually claim pirates as their ancestors.
The golden age of "Pirates of the Caribbean" style smuggling was from about 1560 to about 1730. During this time, Spain was amassing a worldwide shipping empire, with Britain as its chief competitor. Both nations were bringing home ships loaded with New World gold and silver across the Atlantic, and they made great targets for pirates who attacked ships, took command, and confiscated the treasure.
Privateers operating during this time were essentially the same as pirates, except that they possessed commissions or letters of marque from their sovereign nations authorizing the capture of merchant ships of enemy nations. (Of course, corruption still abounded, since many privateers held back loot for themselves or pirated ships outside their authorized territory.) One of the most famous privateers of all time was Sir Francis Drake, favorite of Queen Elizabeth and captain of the Golden Hind, who captured dozens of Spanish vessels and was instrumental in Britain's defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.
Privateers played a key role in the American Revolution, since the colonies had no official navy and were up against the British Royal Navy, which was at that time the most powerful in the world. During the Revolution, about 55,000 American sailors served aboard privateer ships, and they successfully captured 2,283 British vessels. Pirates and privateers also helped greatly in the War of 1812. Jean Lafitte, for instance, was a notorious pirate who played a vital role in America's victory in the Battle of New Orleans.
If you happen to be descended from one of these controversial buccaneers, there are genealogical membership societies you can join. Along with descendants of horse thieves, army deserters, and other criminals, pirate descendants are welcome at blacksheepancestors.com. You can also join the Order of Descendants of Pirates and Privateers at piratesprivateers.org. This society is open to descendants of pirate ship officers and crew, American privateer ship officers and crew, and those issuing letters of marque. Avast there, yellow-bellied milksops, get to work and research your pirate ancestors, or by my bones I'll see ye walk the plank!