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

  2. Sorry to burst your bubble, but Thomas Tew the Pirate WAS NOT a son of Richard Tew of Northants England / Rhode Island, New England!

    Hint 1: Do the research; Thomas Tew was a seafarer, where did he get that experience? (Certainly not in Northamptonshire).

    Hint 2: Thomas Tew was sent to the East Indies; he was there at least 12 years before his first pirating trip from the East Indies (which initially began as a legitimate trip) - NOT from Rhode Island or New York.

    Hint 3: Why was Thomas sent to the East Indies in the first place, and from where?

    Hint 4: 2nd cousin to Richard at best, Thomas likely did not meet up with Richard until he stopped in Rhode Island for resupply AFTER his first pirating trip (if he ever met his 2nd or 3rd cousin at all).

    Hint 5: The truth is in the details and in the history; not within fanciful exageration.

    Hint 6: Neither I, nor my cousin Alan J. Tew, (both who are direct decendents of Richard's brother John), who have both done extensive research on the Tew lineages from 1066 to current date, ever came close to such a WRONG conclusion.

    Happy hunting, I enjoyed the research and I was not given any clues from the start. I found the answers because they were within in the details of the true historical events - not within wild conjecture and wishful thiking.

    C. Jack Tew

    P.S. Verify your info re the family of Richard Tew; do you truly believe that Richard's body was 'shipped' on a voyage of 'several months' from England to Rhode Island after his death? You may have the burial of his namesake son Richard confused!

    1. If you read carefully, I admitted already in this post that the lineage is a myth. Also, please see the second post by author John Tew on this same subject:

    2. Hello.. it is pretty cool looking into the history of us "Tew's" .. I myself am the grandson of Elisha A Tew from Greene. RI. And I have a geonology book by Jean Scott. "A few of the Tews from Newport RI". Very interesting.reading. my father was named Thomas A. Tew after the pirate. . ....
      Steven Tew Greene,RI

    3. Hello, I to find the research very interesting.. Jamestown town hall has a few tax records.and a map of the Island with land owners on it.. very cool. My dad was named after the pirate. Thomas A Tew. I'm the Grandson of Elisha A Tew. From Greene. . I too live in Greene.
      Jean Scott has a book " A few of the Tews of Newport RI." Very interesting. ..
      ...Steven Tew

  3. I have been told by several historical researchers that my 7th great-Grandfather a Caleb Mathews or (Kalop Mathos) was a crew member of the Amity Ship that was Captained by Thomas Tew circa: 1693-94. The only clue to this possibly being authentic is the my Great-Grandfather Caleb Mathews did come into a substantial sum of money around 1694, the time this Amity Voyage returned from the now famous pirate booty that was split up with the crew. MarcTMatt59/

  4. greetings from SOCAL!! since we are all looking at thomas tew the pirate, i have some info that might help a little about why you tews and we tews r related but dont now each other yet. my line starts with a THOMAS TEW born in 1604 in colesbach, lutterwirth, leiceshire, and died in clifton upon dunsmore, warwickshire in 1680.According to my sources, there were 2 tew brothers living in england(dont have a date) one took his family to america in the 1600's and the other(mine) waited then left for america in 1850's. most of my ancestors remained in BUBBAS HILL WARWICKSHIRE; several years ago i met a distant cousin who was visiting from england who told me that the present TEW clan all work for the british government; stating that because of the tew clan's ability to build great swords for the king, they were given some kind of dowrey for the future generations( do not know how that works). So if any of you have any information of the TEW line in england before 1604, i would appreciate it emmensly(sic). thanx. i can be reached at:

  5. I have been searching for the book by Jean Scott and could only find one copy at New England Historic Genealogical Library, any other suggestions?

  6. Darci:

    Jean Scott's book was a paperback book published privately in 1994. I corresponded with Jean in the early 1990s and made some minor contributions to her project. I obtained a copy of the book when it was published and had mine made into a hardback copy by a bookbinder in Winchester, VA who does work for the Smithsonian. Unless a copy appears on eBay or Alibris or Amazon at some point, I think the only way to get a copy of the book would be from Jean Scott's family IF extra copies still exist. If there are no extra copies left from Jean's original self-published run, her family might be willing to make a photocopy from one of their copies. [Although I do not see a designation of copyright anywhere on my copy of Jean's book, I think making copies without permission from Jean's heirs probably risks a copyright violation Jean passed away some years ago I believe but her daughter -- Judith Ann [Scott] Norton -- or her son -- James Ian Scott --might be of some assistance. Jean lived in Middletown, RI back in 1994, but I do not know where her daughter or son lived then or now. Good hunting!

  7. Thanks so much for the information, I just really want to read the book, I have been bitten by the family tree bug and am in love with this "branch" ! Wish I could get a copy, thank you!

  8. Darci, i have a copy that was my grandfathers. Unfortunately its in bad shape. The copy he passed on to me got destroyed in a fire. Email me @
    . I'll see what i can do..
    Thanks.. Steve2


  9. Thank you for your amazing work on this. A