Friday, November 4, 2011

Thomas Tew, the Rhode Island Pirate

This pirate flag is attributed
to the pirate Thomas Tew of Rhode Island

A Halloween genealogy myth?

I was reading about Thomas Tew (about 1649 –about 1695), the Rhode Island pirate, and when I saw some of his genealogy I compared it to my family tree.  I was surprised to see that according to one account I was his 8th great grand niece (at least according to the kinship report on my Family Tree Maker software!)   If I can believe this lineage then I am descended of his sister, Seaborn Tew.  

According to most sources, Thomas Tew is not recognized as a son of Richard Tew and Mary Clark (see Savage's Genealogical Dictionary of the the First Settlers of New England).  Richard Tew's will does not name Thomas, but then again, would you include an outlaw son in your will? In the meantime, Rhode Island claims him as a locally bred pirate son, and there is even a rum made in Newport named after Thomas Tew.

Many New Englanders earned their living as mariners and sailors, and of course, when it was profitable, some of these mariners turned to privateering.  A privateer was a completely legal enterprise, during times of war or aggression.  However, I’m not surprised that a few privateers became out and out pirates.  It was a slippery slope to slide, but the difference is small between them.  A privateer sailed under government papers (Letters of Marque) to commit acts of reprisal or protection.  It was up to the captain to determine who they could attack, and what they could confiscate.  A pirate could just be considered a privateer fighting for the other country!

Thomas Tew was a privateer turned pirate.  He held letters of marque from the governors of Bermuda and New York against French ships, but ignored the limits stated in those documents and sailed off to the middle east to search for booty.   In the Red Sea he captured a ship from India and stole a treasure said to be worth over 100,000 pounds in gold and silver.   On a second voyage he attacked the Mughal ship “Fateh Muhammed” and he was captured, yet later freed.  Some accounts say that in June 1695 he was killed robbing the Indian Mogul's ship. 
There are many more myths also surrounding Tew.  It is said that Captain William Kidd, was inspired to follow in Tew’s footsteps as a pirate.  The mythical pirate island Libertalia was supposedly founded by Tew.   The only known pirate treasure chest with provenance is Tew’s chest in the “Pirate Museum” in the Florida Keys.  Tew's friendship with the Royal Governor Thomas Fletcher of New York, who gave him a coveted Letter of Marque, led to Fletcher's dismissal by the king. 

Of course, a Google search of the mythical land of Libertalia came up with over 100,000 hits, most of them of dubious quality research.  They mostly mentioned it as a communal colony of pirates which existed for about twenty five years off  the coast of Madagascar.  The inhabitants were English, Dutch, French and African pirates, runaway slaves and other miscreants.
My Pirate lineage - do I believe it or not?!

Generation 1:  Richard Tew, born 15 February 1606 in Maidford, Portsmouth, England, died 20 March 1673 at St. Leonard’s, Shoreditch, London, England (while on business), buried at the Homestead Cemetery in Middletown, Rhode Island; married on 21 October 1633 in Providence Rhode Island to Mary Clark, daughter of William Clark, born about 1618, died about 1687.   Nine Children:
  1. John Tew, born 1636, medical doctor
  2. Richard Tew, born 1638, died 3 October 1660
  3. Seaborn Tew, born 4 June 1640 at sea; married to Owen Higgins.  My ancestors
  4. Sarah Tew, born about 1642, died 12 November 1660
  5. Elnathan Tew, born 13 October 1644 at Newport, Rhode Island, died 11 January 1719 at Providence, Rhode Island; married on 3 November 1665 at Providence to Thomas Harris.
  6. Mary Tew, born 12 August 1647; married on 8 December 1670 to Andrew Harris
  7. Thomas Tew, born about 1649 in Rhode Island - the pirate?
  8. William Tew, died 1652
  9. Henry Tew, born about 1654 in Newport, Rhode Island, died 26 April 1718 in Newport; married about 1678 to Dorcas Paul. Was the Deputy Governor of Rhode Island in 1714.
For more information:

The book A General History of the Most Notorious Pirates by Captain Charles Johnson, published in 1724 is thought to have been penned by Daniel Defoe (the author of Robinson Crusoe)   It has a description of the island of Libertalia. It is considered to be a mix of fact and fiction.

The Pirates of the New England Coast by George Francis Dow and John Henry Edmonds, Marine Research Society, 1923 - see chapter 6 about Thomas Tew and his Rhode Island family.

Newport Distilling Company, and their Thomas Tew rum

Copyright 2011, Heather Wilkinson Rojo

1 comment:

  1. Related or not - you'll find the researching of this topic fun!