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Amelia Islander

Pirates, Scoundrels, & Bawdy Women

Jun 30, 2014 12:58PM
Pirates, pirates, everywhere! Scoundrels and bawdy women! These are the people who made Fernandina part of the Buccaneer Republic, a place where stories and legends were made. No matter where you travel on Amelia Island, you are bound to come across a historic landmark, a wizened storyteller, or even a real “pirate” bringing to light the vast and fascinating folklore of Fernandina Beach. But why are most of these stories considered legends and folklore? Why are there so few historical accounts of pirates and scoundrels on Amelia Island?

Frank Ofeldt, historian at Fort Clinch State Park, states the obvious. “If you were a pirate, carrying out illegal activities, you wouldn’t keep a journal of your endeavors,” says Ofeldt. “On a pirate ship, the only person who could read or write was most likely the quartermaster, the person who navigated the ship, read the maps, and kept notes. He would be paid very well to carry out his mission. The last thing he would want to do is record what they were actually doing.”

Pirating was hardly a glamorous occupation, although you wouldn’t think so by the way that Hollywood has portrayed its buccaneers. “I’m dishonest, and a dishonest man you can always trust to be dishonest. Honestly. It’s the honest ones you want to watch out for, because you can never predict when they’re going to do something incredibly... stupid,” says Captain Jack Sparrow in the popular movie, “Pirates of the Caribbean. But real pirates were not such brilliant conversationalists. They were desperate men, usually poor and hungry. Most pirates did not have chests full of gold coins; they generally had very little at all, and they stole things to sell for money. A pirate was simply a thief operating on the high seas.

A privateer, however, was considered a “legal” pirate. He sailed on an armed private ship licensed to attack enemy shipping. Louis-Michel Aury was one such of those privateers. He was originally in the French Navy, but, in the early 1800s, he worked on privateer ships and eventually accumulated enough money to become master of his own vessel. He decided to support the Spanish colonies of South America in their fight for independence from Spain, and, in April of 1813, he sailed from North Carolina on his privateer ship with Venezuelan letters-of-marque to attack Spanish ships. He eventually sailed into the port of Fernandina, where he overthrew the Spanish and raised the Mexican flag on September 21, 1817, just one of the eight flags that have flown over Amelia Island.

Other pirates and privateers who were thought to have spent time in Fernandina include William (Captain) Kidd, Jean LaFitte, Gregor MacGregor, and Captain Edward (Blackbeard) Teach. Any pirate or sailing vessel that sailed along the east coast was bound to make a stop at the port of Fernandina, since it was a bustling seaport and the perfect place to load up on supplies while having a drink (or ten) at a local watering hole. During the early nineteenth century, Florida was still under Spanish rule, putting it outside the America embargo on foreign shipments. Cargo was unloaded and loaded freely here, then sent out onto the high seas filled with “riches” and pirate booty.

Thea Seagraves, the Amelia Island Museum of History’s volunteer coordinator, has come to know Fernandina’s pirates and scoundrels quite well. “Louis-Michel Aury was a privateer, who came here to the island, we know that for sure,” says Seagraves. “But his bastard son was the real criminal. His name was Luke, and he was a rapist and murderer. He was due to be hanged for his crimes, but then he slit his own throat! He lived through that injury, and, indeed, was hanged after all. It’s a grisly tale. Many people believe that his ghost is the one that haunts the museum today, which used to be the old jail.” Seagraves goes on to say that there are many tales of ghosts and buried treasure in Fernandina, but nobody knows the exact stories because they are still considered folklore and myth.

In a paper filed at the museum written by local writer Alice P. Youngblood, Youngblood tells a tale that she heard from former Nassau County Commissioner John T. Ferreira. “Old Mrs. Lasserre, mother of Captain Tom Lasserre, pioneer pilot and citizen of Old Town, lived during the pirate days,” writes Youngblood. “It seems that Old Town always put on a gala appearance when the pirate ships came into the harbor. The pirates bought freely all of the wares the citizens showed them, and they paid handsomely in gold for everything they bought. They got their supply of fresh meat and vegetables from this island. Always a dance was given. The pirates brought gifts to the citizens of bolts of woolens, silks, and brocades.”

And when the pirates came in, there were plenty of bawdy women to greet them. “From the earliest years, prostitution was very common,” states Ofeldt. “In Fernandina, in the mid-1800s, there were twice as many brothels as churches.” Ofeldt, who specializes in Civil War history, tells a tale of a fight that broke out involving Fernandina’s ‘fallen angels,’ or ‘soiled doves,’ as the prostitutes were commonly called. “In 1863, the Navy was in port,” says Ofeldt. “There were lots of warships in the area. The Navy men frequented the brothels, and the Provost Marshall was called to Fernandina about some disturbances that were going on. Apparently, these brothels were considered the Army’s territory, and fights were breaking out. One of the fights was particularly bad, in one of the brothels in Old Town on Ladies Street. There was quite a ruckus. Sailors and women were pushed through the windows of the brothel and they were lying on the street, in various states of undress.”

Ofledt goes on to say, “There are many letters and diaries we have collected that speak of these women, in which they are continually called ‘the black-haired Spanish beauties.’ Because of the eyewitness accounts of goings on in the brothels, the Christian Commission tried to close them down. The prostitutes realized that the outcome for them could be ruinous, so they attracted more customers by charging half price on Sundays, going from one dollar to fifty cents. They even handed out wooden tokens to draw customers to their houses of ill repute. That was certain to keep the men in their company, instead of going to church!”

In the early 1800s, Old Town was home to a very special woman, who was considered a witch. She specialized in herbal medicine and healing, and also fortune-telling. Her name was Felipa, and she knew everyone in town. Seagraves takes on the persona of Felipa as a first-person presenter for the museum. “Felipa could have been of Gullah Geechee decent, or perhaps an African princess, but she had special powers,” says Seagraves. “Felipa was known to say, ‘I have all the powers of my ancestors. I know this land; I know the wind.’”

Seagraves goes on to say that sailors would visit Felipa as soon as they arrived in the port of Fernandina. She would read them their fortunes and tell them whether they would get rich, or perhaps find a beautiful woman. Felipa supposedly once healed a very powerful man. Because of her ability, it was said that her good luck and power increased. But Felipa also cured the sick with herbs and spells, delivered babies, and took care of the bawdy women of Old Town.

Today, members of the Fernandina Beach Pirates Club bring back all the memories of the raucous pirate days from the early 1800s. The club has been around for forty years, and the organization is involved with civic and charitable projects on the island and in Nassau County. But the members also spend time strolling Fernandina’s downtown business district on weekend afternoons, handing out beads and shouting “Arghhh!” and other authentic pirate greetings, sometimes stealing rings from women’s fingers, and then giving them back, all in good fun.

The pirates call themselves “Amelia Island’s Goodwill Ambassadors to the World,” and their primary focus is promoting the Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival every year. In addition to their involvement with many local charity events, the club even sponsors its own annual scholarship contest for Nassau County high school seniors. They also make appearances at community and private events, and support a blood drive with the Blood Alliance on a regular basis.

Local artist Paul Massing has been enthralled with pirates since he was a young boy. Captivated by their rowdy life on the high seas, Massing and his peers formed a pirate gang when he was a teenager in the 1940s. “Pirates have always fascinated me,” says Massing. “With my teenage boyhood friends, we used to do a drama of a pirate gang. Bare-chested costumes were developed by wearing our sweatshirts as pants. Beards and faces were made using charcoal from the previous night’s marshmallow roast. The hats were rumpled, inside-out sun caps.”

Massing, who calls himself an octogenarian without revealing his exact age, says the pirate allure hasn’t left him, even after all these years. “Many years later, to add to my fascination, I found my retirement home on Amelia Island to be infested with pirate lore, and Pirate Club members who inspired me to do portraits of any who would dare to sit for me!” Massing has painted many members of the Pirate Club, and it’s by far one of his favorite projects, capturing their capricious characters and preserving Fernandina’s folklore and folly.

Perhaps our current Amelia Island pirates are mild-mannered compared to the pirates that pillaged and plundered two hundred years ago, but that’s okay. Their mission today is to help us recall those wild and lawless days of the 1700s and 1800s—here in Fernandina—when pirates ruled the seas and bawdy women ruled the nights.