Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Good Son of a Pirate: G5 Grandfather, Stephen Brooks (1703-1775)

G5 Grandfather, Stephen Brooks (1703-1775)

The Brooks line could have gone down with father and son pirate duo Joseph Brooks and Jr., but thanks to Stephen Brooks, it didn't.  His father and brother were killed in 1718, when Stephen would have only been 15. It is unknown whether he would have joined Blackbeard's crew had he been older. I like to think he was different from them. In any case, at 15, he was the man of the house. I do not know whether his mother, Esther, had any other children, but none are recorded.

For a man living in the 18th century in the wild lands of North Carolina, much is known about his life.

He was a mariner and ship builder, and spent his life in the Outerbanks. According to another researcher, Stephen owned his own ship but it was confiscated by the King. It's unknown why, but we do know that he tried to petition to have his ship returned to him. Colonial Records of NC states that he was denied. Whether or not this proves Stephen had ties to piracy like his brother and father is unknown, but it is suspicious.

He was a landowner. According to deeds for Currituck County, on June 16th, 1763, he purchased 80 acres of land near Hatteras Bank from Thomas Robb. Earlier that summer, he purchased 200 acres from Christopher Neal. 

Incidentally, the land he owned would have had a view of the place where his father was killed in the battle with Maynard decades earlier.
This would have been what his land looked like for sure. 

He had a wife, (name unknown), and together they had at least 4 sons: Stephen Jr., Isaac, Willoughby, and Thomas. Thomas was the youngest, and would become my G4 Grandfather.

Stephen would have known various ways to survive in a hard land. He knew how to grow crops in a swamp, how to survive a hurricane (a strong storm came through in September, 1715), he might have known how trap crabs, fish, hunt whales. The Atlantic and sounds of the Outerbanks would have been as familiar to him as the lines on his own hands. I like to think about how quiet it would have been out there, how dark at night, and how he might have seen wild horses grazing on his marsh, flocks of geese lifting through the surely thick morning fog.

He died on May 16, 1775, just a month after the Revolutionary War began. He was roughly 71 years old. Though he lived much of his life in Currituck County near the border of Virginia, he is said to be buried in Hyde County, near Mattasmuskeet Lake, which is further south, just inland from Ocracoke Inlet.

My impression of Stephen was that he was born on the fringes of society, in a remote and wild place to a father much like the land. Living down this reputation wouldn't have been easy. By accumulating land, he tried to enter a higher class, thereby securing a place for his sons and future generations.

Stephen's Legacy:

Stephen II was born in 1725. In 1752, when he was 25, he married Hyde County native, Mary Farrow (1730-1795). Mary was 22. Together, they had eight children: Celia Elizabeth (1753-1818), Isaac (1754-?), William, Esther, Jacob, Charity, Stephen III, and Sally. He owned quite a bit of land, much of which he purchased from his father-in-law Jacob Farrow.

Willoughby was born next. He married a woman named Frances and they had six children: Ann, Hannah, John, Mary, Thomas, and Isaac. He owned quite a bit of land in Currituck County, some of which he inherited from his father. At the time of his death, he provided for his heirs fairly and handsomely. According to his will, he owned a black horse named Bow, and a 2 year old mare named Inna.

This is what he gave his wife:
Item I give to my Wife Frances a negro gairl named Penny and her increase, one linnen wheel, one wooling wheal, one feather bed and furniture whereon she lays, four stocks of bees, the first choice, and two cows and calfs first choice one iron pot and three barrels of pork ten barrels of corn, twenty head of hogs first choice one with mare caled quen to her and heirs for ever.

There was quite an operation to divvy up: sheep, furniture, slaves.

Not much is known about Isaac at this time. There are so many Isaac Brooks it is hard to determine who was who.

Thomas was born in 1738. He fought in the Revolutionary War, married a french woman named Angelica Riordame, and had a nine children: Thomas Jr., David, John, Christopher, Deuteronomy, Polly, Midget, Stephen, and Jeremiah. He also became a Methodist minister, as did many of his sons and nephews. Much more about him later.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Pirates? Pirates!: G6 Grandfather Joseph Brooks (?-1718)

Joseph Brooks (? -1718)

Blackbeard's Battle Flag
I don't know where Joseph Brooks came from, but I do know where he ended. He and his family, a wife Esther and at least two boys, Joseph Jr. and Stephen,  lived on the outerbanks of North Carolina at the turn of the 18th century.  It was a remote and wild area, and residents would have lived a primitive lifestyle. How they came to live in this land is unknown, though some have a theory that they were descendents of The Lost Colony and Crotoan Indians. None of this, however, has been proven. What we know is they were there, and their lives must have been very hard against the elements, storms, lack of proper nutrition, and little to do in the way of making a living. Perhaps because of the wild nature of the land, or lack of enforced law, whatever the case, this area was ruled by pirates or "bankers" from 1710-1718. Joseph and his son, Jr., were some of the pirates. In fact, they were pirates in the infamous Blackbeard's crew.

It is unknown when Joseph hooked up with Blackbeard, but it has been well recorded in every account of Blackbeard's death that Joseph, Sr, my g6 grandfather, was killed on the Queen Anne's Revenge when Leut. Maynard attacked. His son, Joseph, my 5th great grand uncle, was captured and later hung in Williamsburg, Virginia. I think he was about 18 years old, as I believe he was the oldest of the two brothers since he was named after his father. Stephen, my g5 grandfather, was born in 1703.

According to a fellow researcher, Baylus Brooks, "'Outer Bankers' were a surly sort, prone to living by beachcombing after shipwrecks and even creating disaster in order to assist the shipwrecks’ occurrence" ( One historical account states that Bankers without ships would lame a horse, hang a lantern from its neck, and force it to walk back and forth on the shore. Because of its stumbling, the lantern mimicked a ship's light bobbing on the waves. Thinking that direction was deeper water, ships would come to shore and run aground, allowing the Bankers to plunder their stores.

It goes without saying, North Carolina was wild at this time. There was little “civilized” behavior, even the Governor was in cahoots with Blackbeard. Bayless Brooks conjectures, "Imagine what the average colonist must have been like and especially the “lower-classed” Indians, for which most English had great distrust. A lawless life probably looked perfectly natural to them. But, the Colony of North Carolina was growing fast and Indian ways and Piracy could no longer be tolerated, as Joseph Brooks and his son found out in 1718" (

Apparently, England did not have a problem with pirates as long as pirates did not direct their attentions towards the English. Blackbeard and his men were not discerning with their victims and Leut. Maynard was sent to stop them. This resulted in a horrific battle.

But first, a little of what life was like for the pirates. The General History of Pyrates by Capt. Charles Johnson, published in 1724, was particularly helpful in finding facts about their actions.

In Spring 1717, Blackbeard and his men took a French ship off the coast of Barbadoes. They renamed it the Queen Anne's Revenge, and mounted it with 40 guns.
Queen Anne's Revenge
They soon took another ship near St. Vincent, plundered it, and set it on fire, setting all its men on shore without harm. They got in a scuffle with Scarbourough which lasted a great while, but won.

They sailed to Honduras, Grand Caymen, Jamaica, The Bahamas, then on to Carolina. Off the coast of Charleston, they created much havoc by attacking English ships and disrupting trade.

At one point, according to Capt. Charles Johnson, Blackbeard and his men needed medicine. They sent a crew on shore who demanded from the city a chest of medicine. They held prisoners hostage and threatened to set ships on fire if they were not given it.

They walked the streets publicly and were openly despised as thieves and murderers. Probably to rid the streets of them, the city gave in to their demands. Blackbeard let the prisoners go, after relieving them of their gold and silver.

From Charleston, they sailed to North Carolina. Blackbeard planned to break up his company, securing money for himself and his best friends, ultimately cheating the rest. He grounded his ships at Ocracoke Inlet and left many men on a deserted island to die. (They were saved a couple days later by a ship passing by.)

In early 1718, Blackbeard married his 14th wife, a 16 year old girl. According to Capt. Johnson, it was Blackbeard's custom to force his wives into prostitution to his men after his wedding night.

In June, 1718, they sailed for Bermuda. They returned to Ocracoke early that fall, and patroled the area for several weeks. Eventually, sailors and planters living near the shore tired of Blackbeard's whoring and thieving ways. They requested help from the Gov. of Virginia. The governor sent Leut. Maynard to stop him. A proclaimation was issued asking for the death and capture of all pirates.

On November 21st, 1718, Maynard caught up with Blackbeard at Ocracoke Inlet, and engaged him in battle. The Queen Anne's Revenge was fitted with guns; Maynard's ship, The Pearl, was not. Still, he came close to Blackbeard's ship and Blackbeard boarded, thinking he was getting the upper hand. It was there a close hand to hand fight ensued. Blackbeard was wounded 25 times, and shot 5 before he died. My grandfather, Joseph, was killed aboard The Pearl. Joseph, Jr. was wounded but captured. Maynard cut off Blackbeard's head and posted it on the bow of his ship. He paraded it like that along the James River for weeks on end.
Thus was the fate of Blackbeard and my grandfather Joseph Brooks. The fate of Uncle Junior was similar in kind.

In his book, Blackbeard: America's Most Notorious Pirate, Angus Konstam writes of Joseph Brooks, Jr. and the fate of Blackbeard's crew. To paraphrase:

In jail awaiting trial, 5 of the 16 pirates captured that day turned informant with the hope of remaining alive. Joseph Brooks, Jr. was not one of those men. One after the other, Joseph Brooks, Jr and the other pirates listed below were forced to stand on a cart, their hands tied behind their backs. A rope was looped over a convenient tree and the noose tightened around the pirate's neck. The condemned men would have been given a chance to speak, then a preacher should have said a short prayer. The cart and horse were led away, leaving the men kicking in mid-air (271-276).

A General History of the Pyrates, by Capt. Charles Johnson, pub. 1724

Though Captain Johnson was obviously biased against pirates, reading his account of the often brutal ways of Blackbeard and Joseph Brooks leaves me with mixed feelings. While pirates are often romanticized in popular culture, and certainly by my beloved Johnny Depp, they were in truth very cruel and crude in real life. Even after all this research, I can't say I know much about Joseph Brooks, but here's what I do know:

He knew the ocean and was well-traveled. He desired all things rich and sparkly. He drank rum in excess. He was supersitious. He knew the smell of cocoa, the particular color of indigo, the blurred lines between salt and fresh water. He was loyal, brave, and fierce. Though many say he fought on the wrong side, it may have been all he knew. No one knows where he came from, and his body was most likely committed to the sea without ceremony.