Thursday, February 16, 2012

Pirate Thomas Tew ~ Guest Post

The Genealogical Mystery of Thomas Tew, 
the Rhode Island Pirate
Copyright 2012, John D. Tew

The meeting between Thomas Tew and the Royal Governor
of New York, Benjamin Fletcher, as imagined by American
 illustrator Howard Pyle (1853 – 1911) 
from the Time-Life Seafarers volume, The Pirates (p. 68).

            When Heather’s Nutfield Genealogy blog became the first “Featured Blog” in The Weekly Genealogist newsletter of NEHGS, I took a gander and found, to my surprise, a November 4, 2011 piece on the Rhode Island Pirate, Thomas Tew.  It is rare enough to find information on my Rhode Island Tew family, but anything potentially relating to the genealogy of Thomas Tew, the pirate, always grabs my immediate attention.  It was the possibility of being related to a pirate that first sparked my interest in family history back in the early 60s when I was not yet a teenager.  I recall how I discovered Ol’ Thomas was from Newport, Rhode Island and how I became really excited because I knew I was a direct descendant of Richard Tew and his wife, Mary (Clarke) Tew, who came to Newport from Maidford, Northamptonshire, England.  I have ever since been on the lookout for anything that might confirm a family relationship to an actual and hugely successful pirate.

          Heather mentioned the possibility of Ol’ Thomas being the brother of her ancestor, Seaborn Tew, and so I immediately contacted her to ask about any source material she might have.  We corresponded on the subject and the result was her very kind invitation to provide a guest piece about Thomas Tew, the pirate, for her blog.

            The BLUF (“bottom line up front) is that I am sorry to report after literally decades of searching many leads about Thomas Tew’s parentage and possible descendants, I cannot confirm for Heather or myself any relationship to Thomas Tew.  But then, as presented below, others might be closer to descent from Ol’ Thomas than I or anyone else with the last name Tew.  A summary of a partial collection of references to Thomas Tew and his family history will demonstrate why.

Much has been written about Thomas Tew and his brief but fabulously profitable exploits as a pirate.  The most consistent and salient points are worth brief mention.
            •  He lived in Newport, Rhode Island. 
            •  In 1693-94 he had one of the most successful pirating voyages in history and returned with booty worth more than £100,000 [approximately $16,168,000 today].  Each crew member’s share was worth about $195,157 in today’s dollars.
            •  He obtained a privateering commission from the corrupt Royal Governor of New York, Benjamin Fletcher.
            •  He died on the voyage of his ship, Amity, to the Red Sea in September 1695 during an attempt to board another Indian merchantman.
This 150 pound painted metal chest is said to have belonged to Thomas Tew.
It is located in St. Augustine, Florida at the Pirate & Treasure Museum.

There is no authoritative or definitive genealogy for Thomas Tew the pirate, but various writers about pirates have opined on the family history of Thomas Tew.  In almost all cases the explanation is brief and frustratingly lacking in specific source citations for assertions about Ol’ Thomas’s parentage and progeny.

            »   The Genealogical Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England (James Savage, 1860-62) states that Richard Tew, son and heir of Henry Tew, came to Rhode Island with his wife, Mary Clark, in 1640.  Mary gave birth to their daughter on June 4, 1640 during the voyage from England.  The baby was appropriately named Seaborn. According to Savage, Richard and Mary had two additional children after arriving in Rhode Island – daughters Elnathan and Mary and “perhaps others.” Savage mentions no sons.

»   John Osborne Austin states in his One Hundred And Sixty Allied Families      (1893), “There was a Thomas Tew [described as the privateer turned pirate],who was perhaps brother of Henry [the Deputy Governor of Rhode Island in 1714].” BUT, Austin names only four children of the parents of Deputy Governor Henry Tew.  In agreement with Savage, Austin states that Henry’s parents, Richard Tew and Mary (Clarke) Tew, came to Rhode Island from Maidford, Northamptonshire, England in 1640.  Austin names their children as: Seaborn, born during the voyage in 1640; her sisters Elnathan and Mary, born in 1644 and 1647 respectively; and Seaborn’s only identified brother, the future Deputy Governor, Henry, born in 1654.

            »   Austin further states equivocally, “There was a Henry Tew of Boston, mariner, who died in 1712 . . . It becomes a matter of conjecture whether this Henry Tew was not a son of Thomas the pirate, and a nephew of Deputy Governor Henry Tew, of Newport.”

            »   The Time-Life series, The Seafarers: THE PIRATES (1978), tells the story of Thomas Tew, but without any specific source citations for the genealogical “facts” in the narrative.  It is stated that in April 1694 Tew docked his ship, the Amity,  “in his native Newport, Rhode Island.”  Thomas is described there upon his return from his 15-month voyage to the Indian Ocean and back as “a man of modest reputation, suddenly the cynosure of all eyes, lionized by the gentry in their handsome frame houses on the hill overlooking the harbor.” Following the reception in Newport, it is said that, “Tew and his family traveled to New York.  There he was feted and dined by the Royal Governor,Colonel Benjamin Fletcher. . . Mrs. Tew and the two Tew daughters attended gala functions at the Governor’s mansion, dressed in rich silks from    the Orient and glittering with diamond jewelry that the captain had brought back with him.  The Tews, in short, were the cream of East Coast society, prominent  (if recently arrived) members of a colonial aristocracy of wealth and accomplishment.”  There is not a single mention of any children other than two unnamed daughters – and no mention of Thomas’s parentage.

            »    A 1995 book by British writer David Cordingly, “the world’s foremost expert on pirates,” continues the narrative that Thomas Tew had only daughters.  Mr. Cordingly states authoritatively,  “As far as can be gleaned from the meager information on the subject, very few of the pirate   captains had wives and families.  Henry Morgan was married but had no children. Captain Kidd had a wife and two daughters who lived in New York.  Thomas Tew was married and also had two daughters.”  (Under The Black Flag --- The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates, p. 71.)  There are no specific citations to the meager information supporting this statement about Ol’ Thomas.

»   Citing to S.C. Hill’s “Notes on Piracy in Eastern Waters” in Indian Antiquary  (Jan. 1923 – Oct. 1928), the author Alexander Boyd Hawes writes of the lineage of the pirate Thomas Tew, “[He] came from a respected Rhode Island family.  Richard Tew, native of England, settled early in Newport.  He was named in the Colony’s Charter of 1663.  His son Henry became Deputy Governor of the Colony in 1714.  The pirate Thomas Tew was probably son of an earlier Thomas, a mariner who lived in Newport and was probably     Richard’s brother.  So the pirate was probably Richard’s nephew and Henry’s cousin.”  (Off Soundings – Aspects of the Maritime History of Rhode Island, p.23)

            »   And finally, without citation to any specific source for the assertion, author Douglas R. Burgess, Jr. stated flatly in his 2009 book The Pirates’ Pact – The Secret Alliance Between History’s Most Notorious Buccaneers and Colonial America, “Thomas Tew was a gentleman.  His grandfather was Richard Tew, a Northampton man who settled in Newport, Rhode Island in 1640 and soon   became an administrator for the colony.”  Since most genealogical sources assign only four children to Richard Tew and his wife Mary -- and only one of  them was a son, the future Deputy Governor of Colonial Rhode Island, Henry Tew – this author is asserting the pirate Thomas Tew was the son of the one time Deputy Governor of Rhode Island!  I have never seen any source document to support this assertion. 

As the above examples demonstrate, the information available on the lineage of Thomas Tew the pirate is far from consistent and so far lacks any specific, hard sources for the various assertions in writings on genealogy or about pirates.  Various claims are made about the parentage of Thomas.  He is at times the brother of Henry Tew, the Rhode Island Deputy Governor, or at other times Henry’s son.  And then still at other times he is the son of a brother of Richard Tew who is also named Thomas. [1]   The one repeated assertion seems to be that the pirate had two daughters.  Only one conjectural reference is made to a son of Ol’ Thomas and that is Austin’s question about whether the Boston mariner, Henry Tew could be a son of the pirate Thomas Tew.  So, until some reliable evidence comes to light to support the existence of a son of Thomas Tew the pirate, the bad news for those of us bearing the surname Tew is that if Thomas Tew only had daughters he would have, as some in genealogy say, "daughtered out" and no one living today with the last name Tew would be descended from him -- unless a female descendant later reacquired the last name Tew via marriage to a male Tew.  
This is a bottle of Thomas Tew Rum
produced by the Newport Distilling Company,
Middletown, Rhode Island

[1]   One problem with this particular assertion is that available evidence only supports a single brother of Richard Tew of Maidford, England who immigrated to Rhode Island in 1640.  According to Austin, Richard Tew had only one brother that he mentioned in his Will --  “John Tew of Towcester County of Northampton, doctor of physick.”  To date, I am unaware of any other reliable reference to another brother of Richard Tew, let alone one named Thomas.


John D. Tew was born in Providence, Rhode Island and at various times has lived in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.  He is a New Englander at heart even though he currently resides in Loudoun County, Virginia. He has been researching his family history off and on over the last several decades as his education and work pursuits would allow. His principal lines of interest are currently Tew, Carpenter, Cooke, Shearman,Freeman and Hasselbaum -- all of Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

I invited John to write a guest post for my blog as a response to his comments and our on-going email discussions on the post I did last year on Thomas Tew the pirate at this link:


Copyright 2012, Heather Wilkinson Rojo and John Tew


  1. 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/

    1. Marc:

      Sorry this reply has taken so long, but I was not aware of your comment here until a day or two ago. I would be VERY interested in finding out what the source or sources are for your being told your ancestor was a crew member of Thomas Tew's ship, the Amity. Please see my blog as mentioned in Heather's most recent post under the topic Tew. The blog info is there and you can get my email address at the blog.

  2. I am also a descendant of Mary Clark & Richard Tew! Hi, cousin!

  3. Hi, also a the grace of a geneology researcher, putting his wife's (a Tew) geneology - I can't seem to dig up a link to who they were at the moment - online and I stumbled across it 20 years ago. My grandfather is Lou Tew from North Carolina - a career navy man. I was able to see the direct link back through 7 generations to Richard. My grandfather, Lou of course ended up back in NE, sailing the Block Island ferry out of New London, CT for 30 years. Here's the (unauthorized) version of his biography: