“For many years after this shipwreck, a man, of a very singular and frightful aspect, used, every spring and autumn, to be seen travelling on the Cape, who was supposed to have been one of Bellamy’s crew.” —B.A. Botkin, A Treasury of New England Folklore; Stories, Ballads, and Traditions of Yankee Folk
In April of 1717, the fleet of famed Golden Age pirate Samuel Bellamy was caught in a violent nor’easter off the coast of Cape Cod. Down went the fleet and its flagship, the Whydah Gally, into the depths of the Atlantic, along with its vast hoard of treasure, its captain, and all but a few surviving crew members. Though this intense pirate shipwreck is well documented in primary records, most notably by Cotton Mather, the sensational nature of the story of pirate captain Samuel Bellamy and the Whydah Gally eventually caused it to sink from reality into the realm of legend.
Pirate stories capture the imaginations of children and adults alike. These tales of swashbucklers, buried treasure, violence, and adventure on the open ocean are told and retold time and time again—so much so that they often exist on the margins of fact and fiction. The story of the Whydah Gally and Samuel Bellamy is no exception. In the three centuries since, folktales and ghost stories of the shipwreck have sprung up all along the New England coast. In some, the story is framed as a tragic romance—in others, a tale of revenge. Many of these stories feature a wandering ghost searching the shoreline.
Primarily passed down orally, these tales have been collected in numerous volumes of folklore over time. One such example is within B.A. Botkin’s A Treasury of New England Folklore; Stories, Ballads, and Traditions of Yankee Folk. In Botkin’s introductory to the story, the author states, “No shipwreck is more remarkable than that of the notable pirate Bellamy.”
Botkin’s 20th-century telling is surprisingly close to what can be found in primary records, with embellishments mainly of the supernatural variety.
While contemporary records documenting the sinking of Bellamy’s fleet do exist, as well as artifacts from the wreckage, little else is known for certain about Bellamy’s life and motivations. From these gaps in the historical narrative, folklore is born. In order to humanize the mysterious pirate captain who went down with his fleet off the coast of Cape Cod, the stories try to fill in gaps that have not yet been answered elsewhere. One such example is the romance which, as the legend goes, started it all.
Many versions of this story begin with an optimistic young man named Samuel Bellamy, who fell in love with a Cape Cod woman named Maria Hallet. Hallet’s parents were opposed to the match, so Bellamy set off to find his fortune and earn their approval. Bellamy started out as a privateer, as was the career trajectory for many pirates—and indeed, he turned to piracy soon after. His quest for fortune paid off, as Bellamy is considered to be the wealthiest pirate from the Golden Age of Piracy, capturing at least 53 ships between 1716 and 1717. According to local legend, Bellamy tragically lost his life and his fleet off the coast of Cape Cod while on the way to reunite with and marry Maria Hallet.
If Bellamy’s story seems a bit hazy at times, Maria Hallet’s is even hazier. She is a prominent folkloric figure in Cape Cod’s legends, but her existence is questionable. Her name is known as the identity not only of a pirate captain’s lost love, but also of a figure called the “Witch of Wellfleet.” She is the subject of many ghost stories. There are far too many variations of these tales to go over here, but it is important to note that, despite Maria Hallet’s well-known place in Cape Cod’s storied past, her identity has yet to be fully authenticated using primary documents. Unfortunately, this happens often when researching the lives of women throughout history. Something wonderful about folklore is that, even when primary evidence is unavailable, we can still learn something from the stories that have been passed down through generations.
After centuries of legends, the wreckage of the Whydah Gally was finally discovered and authenticated in 1984 off the coast of Cape Cod, just as the stories suggested.
Built in London in 1715 as a transport ship for enslaved Africans, the Whydah Gally was only on its second voyage when it was captured by Captain Samuel Bellamy and his crew in early 1717. Due to its vast size, Bellamy decided to convert the Whydah Gally into the flagship for his fleet. Known as “Black Sam” Bellamy due to his jet-black hair, Bellamy had also gained a reputation as a Robin Hood-like figure. As legend goes, when Bellamy captured a ship carrying enslaved humans, we would either offer a spot on his crew or send them freely on their way with a spare ship from his fleet. Bellamy’s crew was diverse, with men—and even one young boy around the age of eleven—from a variety of backgrounds and racial ethnicities, including those who had been formerly enslaved. Bellamy retained control of the Whydah Gally until it sank during that violent storm in April of 1717, drowning nearly everyone on board. With them sank treasure from more than fifty plundered vessels, some of which has been recovered via extensive and ongoing archaeological work. Recovered artifacts from the Whydah Gally can be viewed both on Cape Cod at the Whydah Pirate Museum, and in Salem at Real Pirates.
The analysis of the shipwreck and its plethora of artifacts, alongside primary documents of the era, offer a glimpse into the reality behind the legends. When studying history, there is always something new to be discovered. Stories from legend and lore can seem fantastical upon first inspection, but they often carry a grain of truth.
Botkin, Benjamin Albert. “Black Sam Bellamy’s Shipwreck.” A Treasury of New England Folklore; Stories, Ballads, and Traditions of Yankee Folk, Crown Publishers, 1947, pp. 323–324.
Mather, Cotton. Instructions to the living, from the condition of the dead : A brief relation of remarkables in the shipwreck of above one hundred pirates, who were cast away in the ship Whido, on the coast of New-England, April 26. 1717 : and in the death of six, who after a fair trial at Boston, were convicted & condemned, Octob. 22. And executed, Novemb. 15. 1717 : with some account of the discourse had with them on the way to their execution : and a sermon preached on their occasion. Boston : Printed by J. Allen, for N. Boone, 1717. ABIGAIL, the Library Catalog of the Massachusetts Historical Society (masshist.org)
Morris, Brian. “New Artifacts Brought up from Pirate Shipwreck.” NPR , 8 Aug. 2007, www.npr.org/2007/08/08/12589312/new-artifacts-brought-up-from-pirate-shipwreck.
“Whydah Galley History & Our Mission: Whydah Pirate Museum, MA.” Whydah Pirate Museum, www.discoverpirates.com/whydah-gally-history/.