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North Carolina: A Pirates' Safe Haven

Students will examine written records regarding the presence of pirates off the coast of the North Carolina colony. Using primary source documents, the students will discover that North Carolina did not discourage pirates from living along the coast. Economic and social reasons for harboring pirates will be explored.

Grade Level 4th grade

Learning outcomes

Students will:

Teacher Planning

45 minutes


North Carolina Colonial Records Vol. 1 pg 534 (Letter from the Lords Proprietors of Carolina to [Seth Sothell])

North Carolina Colonial Records Vol. 1 pg 517-519 (Letter to Henderson Walker)


Ask students to think about pirates. What do they know about pirates? From what sources have they learned about pirates? (Most students will think of current movies and Peter Pan). Ask the students what pirates did? (They would rob ships and steal supplies.) Pirates were criminals. Show students the two documents on an overhead or Smart board. The first document is a letter explaining that all pirates found along the shore needed to be apprehended. After they are apprehended they need to tell the King and wait until they were told what to do with them. The second document is a letter explaining that three pirates who were sentenced to be hung have escaped. The letter goes on to explain if these pirates are found a reward will be provided after they are apprehended.

Pirates lived off the coast of North Carolina in colonial times. There were several reasons pirates liked the North Carolina coast. If you look at a map of North Carolina you can see the outer banks, a row of small islands off the coast. These islands provided safe harbors for pirates. North Carolina did not have a large harbor so the pirates would mainly come to sell their stolen goods, rest and spend their money. The pirates would bring the stolen supplies to North Carolina and sell them for a lower price. North Carolinians were able to get supplies at a cheaper rate. Since North Carolina did not have a large harbor the pirates did not upset the government and actually provided a benefit to the citizens of North Carolina. But North Carolina pirates would terrorize ships entering South Carolina and Virginia harbors. The governors of South Carolina and Virginia were upset that North Carolina would not apprehend pirates and ignored their presence along the coast. The two letters read earlier were sent as reminders that if they knew pirates were on the coast they needed to arrest them. If pirates were caught they would be tried by a court. Once they were found guilty they would be hung. Pirates knew if they were apprehended this is what would happen. However for fun pirates would hold mock trials, they would dress up as the judge, jury and pirate. They made fun of the whole process.


Have students consider whether North Carolina should have let the pirates be safe along their coast or should they have worked hard to apprehend them. Consider the benefits and consequences of each decision. If pirates were allowed to rest along the shore of North Carolina they spent their money there, sold supplies at a cheaper rate and generally did not bother anyone. However, because North Carolina did not work hard to apprehend pirates the governors of South Carolina and Virginia were upset because their colonies suffered by the actions of the pirates. It is also against the law to steal.

Have students choose a side and write a journal entry explaining why they though North Carolina should or should not have allowed pirates to stay along the coast.

The students could host a mock trial. If students were familiar with Blackbeard (see additional lessons) they could put Blackbeard on trial. Blackbeard had actually been pardoned by the governor of North Carolina but it was the Virginia governor who sent the Navy to apprehend/kill him.

NC curriculum alignment

Social Studies
4th grade Social Studies

3.01 Assess changes in ways of living over time and determine whether the changes are primarily political, economic, or social.

3.02 Identify people, symbols, events, and documents associated with North Carolina's history.

3.05 Describe the political and social history of colonial North Carolina and analyze its influence on the state today.

4.05 Identify and assess the role of prominent persons in North Carolina, past and present.

Lesson plan created by Lara Willox